June 19, 2008

CONFRONTING OUR HUMANESS – an Interview with Edward Bond, by Kassie McLuskie 

Banned from the English stage by the Lord Chamberlain after its production by the Royal Court Theatre in 1965, Edward Bond’s play Saved has since become widely performed in Britain and Europe, where it is even performed and studied in secondary schools. The uproar over its prohibition contributed greatly to the end of theatre censorship in England in 1968.

What most theatre-going audiences since then might not be aware of, is that Edward Bond’s work consists not only of a large body of plays, but also poetry, articles and papers, all of which have resulted in Bond being called the most significant contemporary playwright of our times.

Wellington audiences will have the chance to judge for themselves when one of Bond’s more recent plays, Chair, is performed for the first time in New Zealand by Toi Whakaari/New Zealand Drama School for their After Democracy season at Te Whaea Theatre from the 20 to the 25 of June.

I was fortunate enough to have a rare glimpse of this great playwright when I interviewed him at his home in Cambridgeshire, England, where he lives with his wife of nearly 40 years, Elisabeth, herself a theatre critic and translator. Their beautiful home, set in 5 acres of sprawling garden (complete with peacocks), seems at odds with the bleak, almost post-apocalyptic landscapes of many of Bond’s plays. But at the same time, absolutely right because what Bond wants us to see in his drama is the extreme situation.

"The kitchen table to the edge of the universe, you’ve got the be able to have the universe on the kitchen table and the kitchen table at the edge of the universe. Got to be able to use all the universe to understand what it is to be a human being."

Although Bond is now in his 70s, his razor-sharp mind shows no signs of slowing down, indeed he is more active than ever with his writing, including writing a paper for a conference called Edward Bond and the Subject of Happiness. The walls of his house are covered in art from all periods of history, and when I talked with Bond he often referred more to artists than other dramatists as he feels that painters often find the truth of what he is trying to say.

Much of Bond’s prolific playwriting has not been seen in the mainstream theatres of Britain. It is more often played in Europe, particularly with Theatre National de la Colline in Paris and in Theatre in Education Companies in Britain, especially Big Brum in Birmingham who he has been working with for over 10 years. When speaking with Bond about his work with, and the plays written for Theatre in Education Companies, you can see how passionately he feels about this work. It has touched not just his life but the lives of the young people who have been involved either through watching, acting or workshopping.

Bond has discovered that working with TIE has allowed him to get closer to the truth. Young people are much more truthful audiences and in order to perform for them, you must be truthful too. 

Bond has very strong views on what he describes as the difference between theatre and drama and sees them as diametrically opposed to each other. "What theatre seeks is the exclusion of Drama". He decries the situation we are in presently, where our theatre, films and television, while appearing to be dealing with contemporary issues and offering solutions, do this in such a way that it is reductive. "It either says human beings are animals and are prone to violence or it says there aren’t any solutions other than violence. [The entertainment industry seems to believe] there are no solutions from understanding the situations."

Bond sees our so-called entertainment culture as something which is contributing to what he calls the "death culture" in which we currently live. It does this because it stops us using what he calls imagination and reason. These are the ingredients, according to Bond, that will allow us to find solutions to the problem of what it is to be human. Once we have discovered this we can find a way into the future, without the bleak landscapes of many of his plays. "If we avoid [confronting] great horrors we will never get great good."

In other words, what Bond wants us to do is to create a new culture that explains what it is to be human beings. In order to create this new culture we need a new dramatic form. This form is known by many in Europe as Bondian drama. With this new form of theatre we also need to move away from the idea of an acting style, which he says lies, and move towards the idea of enactment, which tells truths.

Chair, which is being staged at Toi Whakaari, is performed in repertory in both the UK and Europe. The play which is set in 2077 looks at how an ordinary society, typically totalitarian, would be run if the Government took complete control. Many of Bond’s characters display the qualities of humanness that we seek out and this is shown strongly in the ways he juxtaposes the ordinary and every day – chocolate digestives and a cup of tea – with the extraordinary: a solider waiting for a bus with a prisoner who can no longer talk.

There are strong similarities to some of his other plays, particularly Have I none, where the past has been destroyed, no records are kept and everyone must live in the present. What Bond is saying here is that if there is no cultural history, and if human behavior is largely based on culture – if you destroy the past you destroy the culture – there is no tomorrow.

The consequences that Bond sees if we continue on the path we are on is the world portrayed in Chair; a world where all so called deviant behavior is treated suspiciously, people have no past they are allowed to relate to, and the simplest acts of human kindness are no longer possible. If we feel that this is an impossibility in 50 or 60 years time, all Bond will tell you to do is look to Auschwitz. "Go back to the year 1900 and no one would have believed Auschwitz or the atomic bomb were possible."

If we think that Bonds plays are far fetched and not possible futures, think back to when Saved was banned. Audiences were appalled at the stoning to death of a baby in a pram. Now we live in a society where such things happen on a not infrequent basis. "All you now do is pursue your private objectives within society. Instead of us being a community, everybody is asked to seek their own personal ends. It’s called competition. And competition is antagonism."

Bond’s plays are not always easy; they force you into places that you would rather not go to confront your own humanness. Unlike Brecht, Bond does not give a ‘lesson’ but rather wants to involve the audience’s imagination and reason, thus opening up the possibilities of what it is to be a human in the world we live in. He makes demands on his audience. "The drama audience must give meaning to what it sees. It is important [for the audience] to understand why."

Ultimately the audience will have a far more enriching and rewarding experience with a Bond play. If truth is hope, then Bond gives us this and with that hope comes great knowledge – the ability to change our future. For Bond, "drama creates when the audience creates."  For these reasons, going to see Toi Whakaari’s production of Chair will be an unforgettable and worthwhile experience. But, on the way out, ask yourself, how far away from 2077 are we? 

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