THEATRE In the Company of Men RSC, The Pit

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The Independent Culture
"Women making bombs," declares one of the characters in In the Company of Men. "If you gave them a bonus, they'd make them in their wombs." This repulsive image - of a Pavlovianly cash-stimulated surrogacy of death - draws together several of the strands in Edward Bond's new play about the business ethics and boardroom power games of the rival factions bidding for control of an armaments firm.

There's the idea, for instance, that every man and woman has his or her price, not absolutely, maybe, but certainly in the society we have created. Then again, the statement exemplifies the kind of Shavian inversion via which the play exposes the cockeyed values of that society.

The notion of self-respect, for example, is sent through a somersault towards the end of Bond's play when a suicidal, noosed-up Leonard (John Light), putative heir to the armaments firm, tries to hire his father's financially destitute former manservant (George Anton) to kick the chair from under his feet. Fifty thousand pounds will then be his. "Don't rob. Earn," says Leonard. "I'll rob - an' keep my self-respect," comes the reply. (He, of course, doesn't quite.)

The surrogate motherhood aspect of that bombs-in-wombs image also finds its counterpart in a plot and a thematic design that depends very much on Leonard being the adoptive rather than the natural son of the elderly Oldfield (Karl Johnson). "Natural sons have rifts with their father - we should be spared that," declares Oldfield who understands the nature of contracts rather better than he understands natural ties. For Bond, it seems, this breathing space between the pair that adoption has created can be turned to good or bad ends. A complicated plot takes Leonard through a cock-up that can only be silenced if he consents to being blackmailed by a rival through an attempt to break free of the consequent trap by parricide (foiled at the last moment) and by provoking his own disinheritance. The final convolutedly metaphysical stage is Leonard's idea that in killing his father in spirit if not in fact, he not only proves himself as the rightful, ruthless heir but becomes, in effect, the father of the man he allows to survive.

Unfortunately, like much of the rest of this interminable play, the scene in which Oldfield inconsiderately dies while being told all this, leaving behind a frantic farce over his will, comes across like an episode of The Brothers as reconceived by Ray Cooney with a script by Brecht and additional material by Wittgenstein. Bond does not seem to have acquired the ability to distinguish between the genuine moments of surreal comedy in the script and the parts where it is straight-facedly unaware of its side-splitting potential. I ended up hooting with somewhat hysterical laughter. It's an indictment of something (the English institutions that now turn down Bond's scripts or the scripts themselves for being - for all one knows - so turndownable) that a dramatist of his penetration should have lost contact with an English audience's psychology to this degree.

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