Over the past 30 years, few dramatists have influenced
the British theatre more profoundly than Edward Bond,
or been a more persistent thorn in its flesh.
His fierce poetry and brutal images have stretched the
boundaries of stage realism. His uncompromising
pictures of working class life have challenged the easy
chauvinism of other socialist playwrights. He has
overhauled the classics, as in Lear (1972), and
plundered oriental styles of drama.
But while Bond's audacity is widely admired, he has been surrounded by controversy ever since the opening of
Saved in 1965. The play's most famous — or notorious — scene shows a gang of youths stoning to death a baby in
a pram. To avoid making excisions demanded by the Lord Chamberlain, the Royal Court Theatre presented Saved
under club conditions, but found itself prosecuted nevertheless. The ensuing furore propelled the campaign
against stage censorship.
A stream of plays followed at the Royal Court, including Bingo (1974), an irreverent character study of Shakespeare
which starred Sir John Gielgud. By 1978, Bond had graduated to the National Theatre's principal arena, the Olivier,
where he directed his own reworking of Euripides: The Woman. His status seemed secure; his output prolific.
But during the 1980s, Bond's relationship with the citadels of drama soured. He has refused to let the Royal
Shakespeare Company mount In the Company of Men, which he describes as his best work yet. His play about the
Spanish Civil war. Human Cannon, originally intended for the National, was given its premiere by an amateur company
in South Wales. Bond now lives off royalties from foreign productions of his plays. The enfant terrible has become a
demon prince in exile.
His silence is, though, about to be broken, with the arrival in London of Jackets 2. Nick Philippou's production was seen
briefly at Leicester's Haymarket Studio before Christmas, when the reviews were warmer than any the dramatist has
enjoyed in a long time. Bond is back.
'Acting in his plays is like trying to get an iceberg through the eye of a needle'
The charge against him is that He is "difficult" — the most damning adjective in theatrical vocabulary. Unhappy with
other people's productions, he has insisted on taking charge of direction himself, to the distress of performers and
managements. Simon Callow's book Being an Actor, which helped initiate the current actor-power movement,
began life as an anguished letter to Edward Bond, following clashes during rehearsals for Restoration (1981) at the
And Bond's relations with the RSC actors in The War Plays (1985) grew so strained that he quit the show before the
opening. "I didn't realize what I was doing to the performers. It was like tapping a swimmer on the shoulder half-way
across the channel, and saying 'You can't swim*."
In conversation Bond seems far from the martinet of repute, though his manner becomes more stern as he shifts from
anecdotage to philosophy. Much of the tension between him and actors has arisen from conflicting approaches to
character. For most British performers, their work is a subjective process, centring on the question: "What is my
character feeling now?" Bond's preoccupation is the place of the individual in a changing world.
"I say to the actors: 'Forget the Method, forget pumping in emotion. Everything is about the relationship between the
human being and society. Theatre is a user manual for life.'"
Beyond the rehearsal-room friction lies a broader issue. Bond's desire for a social dimension in acting reflects his
quest for a new kind of drama, responsive to "the audiences and problems of our time". There are echoes of
Brechtian theory in his pronouncements, though he distances himself carefully from the German dramatist.
Bond does not pretend to have devised a methodology for his hypothetical theatre yet. "I don't know how to write,"
he mutters. "There should be a way to do it more simply and clearly." But he is ready to attack his contemporaries
for what he regards as a regressive concern with abstractions. "The theatre appears to be discovering evil again.
That's a disastrous retreat. Evil explains nothing. Psychology is not static."
At least Bond has found a director he can trust. Twenty-eight year-old Philippou calls Bond "the greatest dramatist
alive". But he is all too aware of the hurdles Bond presents to conventionally trained actors.
"If you're playing somebody undergoing a massive experience, it's easier if the language is highly stylised. It's
easier still if your character is a king. It's much more difficult if you're playing a working-class person of limited
linguistic ability. Edward tends to write about ordinary people in a realist idiom. Acting in his plays is like trying to
get an iceberg through the eye of a needle."
Philippou admits that rehearsals for Jackets 2 have been punctuated by tears and the odd shouting match. "We've
often spent an hour on the meaning of just one line. There's nothing in his plays but meaning. There are no effects,
"And Edward changes his mind all the time. But then, why shouldn't he? If a painter puts a figure in the wrong place,
he moves it."
Jackets 2 takes place in a riot-torn, near-future metropolis where looting is rife and troops patrol the streets. Seeking
a pretext for mass arrests and internment without trial, the army decide that they need a death among their ranks. A
private is "set up" for a clandestine encounter with a terrorist, who is likely to shoot him. But the unwitting squaddie's
contact turns out to be an old friend.
The play was first performed in a double bill with Bond's version of a kabuki drama, Sugawara. Although the plays
inhabit contrasting worlds, their storylines are similar. Bond says that his aim was to examine how the same problem
would affect people in two very different societies.
"In feudal times, the leaders and the led were held together as children of the same god. After the Industrial Revolution,
that was no longer the case. But in Britain, since the Falklands war, Mrs Thatcher seems to have been telling people to
behave with the stoicism of medieval Japanese."
He acknowledges that many will find his view of army conduct farfetched. "It doesn't matter whether it's literally true.
One of the functions of drama is to make oven what is covert in society. The play tries to put on stage what's not
Jackets 2 seems unlikely to diminish the combative aura that surrounds him. But his return to the London theatre is
surely to be welcomed. However abrasive his character and elusive his vision, Edward Bond's talent is too rare to
be left in the wilderness.