Portable Theatre

I’ve recently been working in the V&A Archives to complete a critical history of Portable Theatre – the short-lived, controversial and influential theatre company founded by David Hare and Tony Bicât in 1968. My research on the company has now been published in a fascinating new book on British theatre of the 1960s and 70s, British Theatre Companies 1965-1979, edited by John Bull (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016).


This volume emerges from a joint research project conducted by the V&A and the University of Reading called ‘“Giving Voice to the Nation”: The Arts Council of Great Britain and the Development of Theatre and Performance in Britain 1945-1995’, which considers the impact of the Arts Council on British theatre in the post-war period. This five-year project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), was led by John Bull, who is Emeritus Professor of Film and Drama at Reading University, Dr Kate Dorney, and Professor Graham Saunders. You can listen to their interesting podcast on the project, in a conversation with Aleks Sierz, here.

Sabrina Offord, the Archivist and Conservation Manager in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Department, invited me to write a guest blog about my experience of researching Portable Theatre using the labyrinthine Arts Council Archives – a memorable experience! You can read the post here if you’re interested.


Posted in News, Theatre

Bradford Alhambra: ‘archive of our affections’

Bradford Alhambra - insideLike many people, my first experience of attending theatre was the school play, the occasional musical and, in particular, the annual Christmas pantomime. The venue for the latter was the Bradford Alhambra in my home county of West Yorkshire. Built in 1913 and opened the following year, the Alhambra took its name from the famous palace in Granada although, with its impressive dome perched atop steep Corinthian pillars, the Bradford version looks nothing like its sprawling Andalusian namesake. In the nineteenth century, the city of Bradford was the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, famous around the world for its wool and textile manufacture. The stately design of the Alhambra captures a sense of Edwardian economic confidence mixed with a heady dose of imperial exoticism. Today, more than one hundred years after its construction, the theatre is the instantly-recognisable landmark in one of Britain’s most vibrant multicultural cities.

My grandmother (on my father’s side) was born two years after the Alhambra opened. She spent her working life, from the 1930s onwards, as a weaver in the textile mills at nearby Low Moor. She had retired by the time I became interested in drama as a teenager in the 1980s and I remember, around this time, she told me that she had taken elocution lessons as a girl. She had always guarded this fact quite closely, fearing that others would interpret elocution as snobbish disdain for her Yorkshire roots, but she nonetheless took pride in it. For many working-class families of her generation, elocution was the performance of the aspiration for social mobility but my grandmother was much more invested in elocution as a kind of rudimentary acting, one that enabled her to role-play the polished vowels of Hollywood cinema.

For a number of years, at the turn of the 1980s, our shared interest in theatre gathered momentum as the two of us (she in her mid-sixties, me around ten years old) went to see the annual pantomime at the Alhambra. Pantos have been staged at the theatre since the late 1920s and remain part of its DNA. By the early 1980s, the leading players at the Christmas panto tended to be comedians imported from ITV’s Saturday evening schedules and they included high-profile double acts like Cannon and Ball, and my grandmother’s erstwhile favourite Russ Abbot. These stars of ‘Light Entertainment’ were then at the height of their popularity: they had their own TV series and attracted millions of viewers each week. They were also, of course, direct descendants of the Variety performers of the Edwardian era for whom the Alhambra was first built as a ‘Palace of Varieties’ in 1913. Many of the working-class northern comics who appeared in the Bradford pantos started their careers touring clubs and pubs (Cannon and Ball first met as welders in Lancashire) and, on the back of this experience, were able to command the large Alhambra stage.

What do I remember of the shows? The bright colours, the immensity of the proscenium arch, bits of physical comedy and sing-along, the inevitable frisson of seeing television ‘personalities’ live on stage. I have a dusty recollection of an impressive beanstalk escalating from centre-stage. My memories of the audience are much more vivid: the giddy terror induced by our proximity to the performers (would we be called onstage?), the red velvet seats in the stalls and the deafening shouts of spectators. The interior décor of the Alhambra was modelled on Louis XVI, no less, and the high-decibel noise seemed to me wonderfully subversive, like yodelling in Buckingham Palace.

Above all, however, a single image comes to mind when I think of the pantos: my grandmother and I are sitting next to each other in the auditorium, the performance is taking place in front of us on the stage, and we’re glancing at each other and smiling. When I recall this image, I see the two of us together but from the perspective of an external observer, an outside eye, so this visual fragment cannot feasibly ‘reproduce’ a moment that actually happened – but yet this image always pops up when I recall my time at the Alhambra. I’m reminded of a comment made by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman in his book, Re-Visioning Psychology. Hillman argues that the study of human consciousness needs to be ‘based in a psychology of image […] a poetic basis of mind […] that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of imagination.’ For Hillman, the mind, like the theatre, is fundamentally concerned with the production of images and these images, whether in dreams or memories, carry symbolic or ‘poetic’ properties when recollected. The impossible image-memory I have retained – of my grandmother watching me, watching her, both of us smiling – is in this sense a distillation, an emblem (or what Hillman calls a ‘fantasy-image’), of this early memory of theatre, which also happens to be a formative experience of spectatorship. And the pleasure I gain from its recollection today, some years after my grandmother’s death, affirms that other people’s (as well as our own) response to theatrical performance is intrinsic to the operation of memory in spectatorship. Theatre is a practice that engages audiences in ‘processes of imagination’ and part of its value accrues from the experience of attending with others, from the mutual participation in a shared imaginary, and from the intensification of a social, in this case family, relationship. Peter Conrad conveys this point in his review of the director Michael Blakemore’s recent memoir, Stage Blood: ‘Theatre is evanescent, yet it can provide us with experiences so intense that we gratefully retain them for the rest of our lives […] it is the impregnable archive of our affections.’

This notion of spectatorship as an evolving ‘archive’ of affective intensities chimes with my own recollection of visiting the Alhambra as a child with my grandmother.

[A version of this piece was written for the AHRC-funded ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ project, run by the British Theatre Consortium in 2014.]

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‘The Actuality of the Theologico-Political’: Conference Report


Not, perhaps, the catchiest title but ‘The Actuality of the Theologico-Political’ conference in London (23-24 May), organised by Birkbeck Institute of Humanities, was a good opportunity to prise open the ‘theological turn’ in critical theory and survey its inflections across literature, law, philosophy, psychoanalysis and, of course, politics. The event was hosted by Slavoj Žižek and speakers included the philosopher Eric Santner and Professor of Law and director of the Institute, Costas Douzinas. It’s not possible to reference every paper in this brief account but I wanted to trace some of the insights that have stayed with me in the week or so following the conference.

I’m a great fan of Santner’s writing and his paper, ‘The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy’, was a highlight of the conference. He argued that any theory of revolution must take into account the spectral dimension of the commodity: or, to put it another way, revolution must always strike at something more than what is there. This ‘something more’ can only be apprehended when the doxological-liturgical aspects of social life are taken into account – in particular, the ways we are ‘called out’ by capital (in the manner of psychoanalytic excitation) and subjected to its reifications. For Santner, work is a liturgical way of sustaining the ‘glory’ and acclamations of capital but it’s no good, in critical practice as in life, to merely replace one object of glorification with another. Much of his paper elaborated the rationale and premises of what he called a paradoxological critique: that is, a critique that makes doxology the object of (sometimes playful) scrutiny in the lived experience of social reality. He used Kafka as an example: Kafka’s writing is wonderfully paradoxological because it unmasks the ‘busybodyness’, the excess of activity, that drives the bureaucracies and alienations of capitalism.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, began his discussion with a critique of the philosopher Simon Critchley’s stance on political representation. Representation is a transfer  of interest from one holder to another but it’s rather limiting, he argued, to claim that representation is always an alienation of interest. Any concept of the political should uphold defences against majoritarianism in order to protect the interests of minorities, some of whom have no political subjecthood at all; most important is what Williams described as the metaphysic of his argument – that practices of representation should ‘augment’ not diminish the citizen. The problem with current politics is that they only address what is known – how do we ‘represent’ what we cannot know of ourselves (Santner’s ‘more than what is there’), such as the future? The measure of a good political system lies in its endeavour to not only encompass but exceed the expedients of the electoral cycle and to move beyond present-ism.

Douzinas’ paper, ‘The Eternal Return of the Theologico-Political’, suggested that the persistence of the theologico-political is a specific legacy of Christianity. Politics has always borrowed from religion mainly for instrumental purposes, often to inject support for politics after the historical exit of Christianity. In this respect, ‘we cannot be postsecular because we have never been fully secular.’ There has been a sacralisation and transcendalisation of concepts such as race, nation, class and the state, and, in contemporary times, Human Rights function like sacraments: they are performative speech acts that inaugurate sacredness in the letter of the law. Douzinas talked more widely of religion and politics as two reactions to humanity’s originating separation from itself. If, following Heidegger, transcendence has passed away under the onslaught of modernity then the ‘otherness’ of life has been absorbed in self and society: he described a process of re-subjectification under capitalism, a kind of transubstantiation at an individual and collective level through which ‘the stranger within me emerges’.

Žižek’s wide-ranging presentation, focused on the theological trope of breakage, referenced Walter Benjamin, Søren Kierkegaard, the renowned Kaballah myth of the broken vessel (which accounts for the diversity of creation) and the ubiquitous discourse of original/copy. In the Kabbalah myth, both the original and copy are posited as belonging together as parts of the same field: the original is thus a broken vessel because it is always incomplete. In literature, a good translation destroys the myth of the original – that is, the myth of the original as replete unto itself. What the translator translates is therefore already a broken fragment in need of supplementation: ‘breaking the vessel’ is a moment of shattering creation. Central to Žižek’s preoccupation is his comment that ‘you only become who you are through the other’: without a field of alienation, we lose the field of intimacy. Falling in love, in this respect, is not harmonious but the most radical act of breaking. For Žižek, rupture is at the centre of love and faith, and it is the ‘instinct’ of Christianity to be glad of the separation, inconstancy and fragmentation in the universe. This is because God is a broken divinity by necessity: Jesus’ words on the cross – ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ – describe God’s moment of abandonment, the moment when Jesus’ faith is broken. The meaning of the Crucifixion is that ‘no one will help you’ yet, in Christian symbology, Christ is also the dimension which makes love absolute. Luther puts this more prosaically, ‘we live in hell but, from time to time, miracles happen’.

This was an intense event and, with three-hour panels, it also proved to be something of a marathon across the two days; there was also a regrettable lack of women panellists. Yet the quality of discussion and range of citations was compelling – from Freud to Foucault, Badieu to Bartleby (Herman Melville’s Bartleby is renowned for his repeated act of rhetorical breakage: ‘I would prefer not to’), demonic theology (as theorised ingeniously by Adam Kotsko) to It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s led me to think afresh about the viability of theologico-political critique in my own discipline given the special capacity of theatrical performance to evoke ‘more than what is there’.


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Pinter’s Memory Plays

Theatre of Harold Pinter

A month or two ago, Mark Taylor-Batty (Leeds University) published his new book The Theatre of Harold Pinter. It’s a terrific piece of work that examines the full range of Pinter’s playwriting and does justice to his implacable imagination: chapters focus on issues such as invasion, family and citizenship, and the analysis builds an appreciation of the extraordinary features of his dramaturgy.

Mark’s book also includes essays from four contributors, and I’m one of them. My essay looks at Pinter’s memory plays of the 1970s: Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978). I wanted in particular to look at the world-creating properties of memory in these plays, and the questions they raise about identity and power. Over the past couple of years, I’ve completed quite a bit of research on the 1970s as part of my investigation of the theatre of that decade. It struck me that, during the seventies, the word ‘identity’ was charged with specific kinds of political resonance due, principally, to the impact of ‘second wave’ feminism, the nascent campaign for lesbian and gay liberation, the anti-colonial movements, and the intensification of class and student-based activism. At a time when personal identity was being increasingly figured as a locus for class and sexual politics (‘the personal is political!’), Pinter’s writing for theatre unsettles any notion of a stable, continuous or essentialized self. In all of Pinter’s plays, but perhaps especially in these, identity is not the aggregation of various social or biological determinants or traceable causalities, nor is it the imprimatur of an ‘authentic’ self struggling into public visibility. Rather, personal identity takes shape within a shadowy dynamic of interlocution and memory exchange; what is more, memory in Pinter is weaponized: to share remembrances or recollections is to engage in a complex mode of self-presentation where emotions and expedients intersect, moment by moment, to exert control of the present. In their unsettled calibrations of memory and identity, I think Pinter’s memory plays also have subversive purchase on the identity politics of the time.

It’s been great to be a part of Mark’s project and, if you enjoy Pinter’s work, do read his book!


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Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution


Over the past few months I’ve been involved in a funded project called ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’. It’s a research study looking at how theatre audiences value the experience of attending performances. The focus is on the self-reported description of experiences of individuals who attend the theatre, which have been gathered mainly through online questionnaires, interviews, and creative workshops. We’ve also explored memory by asking some subjects about a performance they saw one year ago.

The project is led by the University of Warwick, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and is carried out in collaboration with Royal Holloway University of London, Manchester Metropolitan University, and The British Theatre Consortium (BTC), a small think-tank of academics and artists. Janelle Reinelt (Warwick) is the principal investigator; Dan Rebellato (Royal Holloway), Julie Wilkinson (Manchester Metropolitan) and me are co-investigators. The playwright David Edgar is consultant to the project and Jane Woddis is Project Manager – we are all members of the BTC. In addition, the project has three theatre partners: the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Drum Theatre in Plymouth, who are facilitating this research.

This month (May) we’ve been holding several public events to report on our findings and there’s a conference, called ‘Roar of the Crowd’, taking place on 31 May at Senate House. If you’d like more information (and to make your own comments), you can visit the British Theatre Consortium website (the final report will be published here in June 2014).

Posted in News, Research, Spectatorship, Theatre | Tagged | 1 Comment

‘Not I’ – a visionary rumour

Not I - Sky Arts

[Lisa Dwan, Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Photo: Allan Titmuss.]

‘Something is seen, but one doesn’t know what.’ Carl Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958).

I have a strong memory from childhood of wandering outside in the evening, with my sister and some friends, searching the Yorkshire sky for – wait for it – UFOs. Looking back, it’s difficult to convey the sense of mystery and excitement when we spotted, now and again, blips of reddish light moving slowly across the heavens. Were they satellites, distant planes, meteors or something, well, intergalactic? We couldn’t be exactly sure and that small frisson of uncertainty – especially around the time of Close Encounters – was enough to fire the imagination. So, up and down the street we trotted, scoping the universe (until we got bored).

I’ve had cause to recall this memory for two reasons. First, I’ve been reading a famous work by Carl Jung on the psychology of UFOs; second, I saw Lisa Dwan’s performance of Mouth in the landmark production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at the Duchess theatre. I found the latter such a viscerally arresting experience in part because it resonated with my childhood memory and current reading.

Before turning to the production, it’s worth glossing some of the key observations in Jung’s book. In 1958, around the time when reports of UFO sightings were at an apparently unprecedented high, Jung published Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. This work addresses the phenomenon of UFOs by seeking to account for their cultural and symbolic meaning at this historical juncture. His primary concern is to identify what the UFO-fever of the 1940s and 50s reveals about the collective psychology of western societies, particularly in the context of scientific and technological advancement, the intensifying threat of the nuclear arms race, and apocalyptic Cold War anxieties. He argues that flying saucers might best be described as ‘visionary rumours’:

The first requisite for a visionary rumour, as distinct from an ordinary rumour, for whose dissemination nothing more is needed than popular curiosity and sensation-mongering, is always an unusual emotion. Its intensification into a vision and delusion of the senses, however, springs from a stronger excitation and therefore from a deeper source. (315)

Rumours are usually defined as unverified verbal formulations, a kind of spoken contagion that’s dependent on the presence of a group and surfaces/spreads within its interstices. In Jung’s account, rumours manifest visually when the emotions underlying them reach a certain pitch of intensity. The ‘deeper [emotional] source’ of such phenomena leads Jung to conclude that UFOs represent externalized symbolic projections of a psychological disturbance in the collective unconscious; and, as he proceeds rather ingeniously to argue, they therefore fulfill the same psychic function as ancient mandalas – that is, they are symbols of ‘psychological totality’ (326) which means, basically, that they integrate and express both conscious and unconscious contents. In this respect, flying saucers are the latest in a long line of archetypal circular symbols arising in human culture: the UFO is a latter-day mandala (the word is Sanskrit for ‘circle’) dressed up in the garb of technological modernity. The UFO, he concludes, is ‘a living myth‘ (322) – an involuntary, symbolic and projected indice of the point of encounter between the conscious and unconscious in the collective imaginary.

So, how does theatre fit into all of this? I saw the triptych of plays by Beckett – Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, all performed by Lisa Dwan and directed by Walter Aasmus – at the Duchess a couple of weeks ago (after its transfer from the Royal Court). All three were outstanding productions but Not I left the deepest imprint. It consists of a fragmented speech delivered at roller-coaster speed by a single performer (‘Mouth’ in the text) whose mouth is elevated on the stage and lit, close-up, from below – the body of the performer, the rest of her face, and the performance space itself are engulfed in darkness. At the Duchess, the whole auditorium was in total blackout with even the exit signs switched off.

There’s no gentle perambulation into this piece, no time for settling in. The frenzy of speech is already underway before Mouth is illuminated and her talking, that relentless excess of talking, is sustained even beyond the final dimming of the lights. The performance, in fact, hits you like a seizure or physical arraignment: it’s intended to flay the nerves not massage the intellect (I have very little recollection of the content of the speech at all). Not I is demanding, austere, torrential. And the darkness of the auditorium magnifies the edgy self-consciousness of the audience to the point that every gulp, cough, rustle, shift and whisper becomes cacophonous.

From the back row of the stalls where I sat, Mouth appears as a reddish dot in the blackness. And then there’s an almost imperceptible movement as the gabbling lips migrate slowly from one side of the space to the other, traversing the void like one of those unknowable (unidentified, flying) objects in the night sky of my youth.* The elastic and ceaseless choreography of Mouth: it’s at once an image of perseverance and fragility, of the madness that inheres in or shadows the monologue form, of inextinguishable life and semantic calamity, of language damned and undammed.

Lisa Dwan’s performance of Mouth, brilliant and compelling, suggests theatre as a site of ‘living myth’, a space for the collective encounter with symbols that are finally irreducible. And Beckett’s Not I, with its multiple psychological and archetypal valences, carries the emotional velocity of ‘visionary rumour’.


Jung, Carl Gustav. ‘Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies’ in The Collected Works of Carl Jung: Civilization in Transition. Volume 10. Trans. R. C. F. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970. 314-433. Page references in parentheses are from this source.

* UPDATE, MAY 2014: A couple of months after posting this piece, the photographer of the production, Allan Titmuss, sent me an email with a comment that made my jaw drop: ‘Lisa’s mouth didn’t move by even one millimeter in any direction throughout the whole piece – though a great many people who saw Not I share your belief that it did’. I was utterly convinced that Mouth had moved from one side of the stage to the other (in fact, during the performance, I recall thinking: ‘how are they doing that? how are they moving her around so quietly and so high up?!’). But, no – it seems that Dwan was completely static. The semblance of movement may have been an optical illusion produced by the total blackout and my distance from the stage; yet the experience also testifies to the hallucinatory power of Beckett’s piece, reinforcing Jung’s point about ‘delusion of the senses’ – that what (we think) we see carries the force of our own projections.

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‘After this I shall regard Gomorrah as a spa resort’: Edward Bond’s ‘The Sea’

the-sea-page[This piece appears in the programme for the upcoming production of The Sea at the Court House Theatre, as part of the Shaw Festival, Ontario. Details here.]

The Sea is a windswept and atmospheric play about the impact on a community of the recovery of a body from the ocean. It was originally staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1973, directed by William Gaskill (one of Bond’s early collaborators) with Ian Holm as the demented draper Hatch and Coral Browne as his bête noire, the indomitable Louise Rafi. The Sea is part of a constellation of major works written by Bond in that decade including Lear (1971), Bingo (1973), The Bundle (1978) and his adaptations of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1974) and Webster’s The White Devil (1976).

Bond’s emergence as a playwright in the early 1960s followed on the heels of the British dramatists who rose to prominence, at the Royal Court and elsewhere, as part of the so-called ‘New Wave’ from the mid-1950s. His early plays were produced at the Court, most of them directed by Gaskill who replaced George Devine as artistic director of the theatre in 1965. In that year, the production of Bond’s second major play, Saved, triggered one of the biggest scandals in post-war theatre history: Saved includes a scene set in a London park in which a group of disaffected young men stone to death a baby in a pram. The play was refused a licence for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, the royal appointee who was at that time responsible for vetting all scripts intended for public theatrical performance. The English Stage Society (the name of the resident company at the Court) gave the play a private or ‘club’ performance in restricted conditions but was subsequently prosecuted and found guilty of breaching the licensing laws. The legal case triggered a wave of protest that contributed to the abolition of stage censorship in 1968.  Bond’s next play Early Morning (1968) is an extraordinary and surreal text that escalates its author’s disregard for conventional stage propriety: the critique of the ruling class is articulated through scenes of cannibalism, Queen Victoria strangles Prince Albert with a garter sash, and amongst the cast of characters is none other than an unsavoury Lord Chamberlain (‘I’m as modern as anyone,’ he exclaims, ‘but I’m all for holding trials in secret and executions in public’). By the turn of the 1970s, Bond’s playwriting was renowned for its innovative and precise theatrical economy, rejection of realism and engagement with violence as a symptom of class society. The Sea is more straightforwardly plotted than these earlier works but it extends some of Bond’s preoccupations: namely, the brutality of capitalism and the existential crises, even madness, which it induces in the individual.

The play is set in a small community on the east coast of England in 1907, the zenith of the Edwardian period. Remarkably, exactly half of the play takes place on a beach. Bond exploits the archetypal resonance of the sea and its marginal spaces of shore-line and cliff-top to unleash certain intensities of feeling that cannot be expressed in the ordered society of the town. In particular, across the eight scenes of the play, feelings of despair and entrapment are counterpointed with their opposite: hope and the longing for escape. The eponymous ocean is at once part of the physical landscape that the characters inhabit and the ambiguous motif at the centre of the play’s image structure.

Madness is constitutive of Bond’s dramatic world.  Willy Carson, the shipwreck survivor, is convinced that the townspeople are mad while Hatch believes that an alien invasion is underway and that stricken ships are a cover for the landings of spacecraft: ‘They come from space. Beyond our world. Their world’s threatened by disaster. If they think we’re a crowd of weak fools they’ll all come here. By the million. They’ll take our jobs and homes. Everything’. Hatch’s paranoia and conspiracy-theorising are comical but belie a dread of external invasion that finds an echo in contemporary hysteria over immigration.

Capitalism is cause and context for this madness. A failed business transaction pitches the drapery shop into financial ruin and Hatch into raving lunacy. Mrs Rafi, who glides through the play like a renegade from an Oscar Wilde comedy, persecutes Hatch by refusing to pay for what she owes. The argument and indeed violence that ensue provoke the immortal response from Rafi’s long-suffering acolyte, Jessica Tilehouse: ‘After this I shall regard Gomorrah as a spa resort’.

The comedy of The Sea blends farce with flashes of the surreal. In the first half of the play, there’s a hilarious rehearsal for Mrs Rafi’s performance of Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld in aid of the coastguard fund; in the second, a disastrous cliff-top funeral takes place that veers from histrionic oration to increasingly competitive hymn-singing. Elsewhere, Bond’s writing excavates the human heart with almost overwhelming poignancy. The scene in which the grieving Willy and Rose discuss the dead Colin (Scene Six) is beautiful and understated and shattering. And in one of the play’s extraordinary speeches, Mrs Rafi confides that her eccentricity is an antidote to the mediocrity that threatens to engulf her. The drunk and itinerant Evens is another of Bond’s outsiders: listen out for his astonishing ‘rat-catcher’ speech in the final scene where he elaborates his theory of cosmic evolution. There are images of desolation – a body on the beach, a covered piano and empty chair on a cliff-top – but there are also glimpses of different futures and arias of self-reflection. Amidst all of this, an important question returns: given the omnipresence of suffering and violence, what are the grounds for optimism and perseverance?

It is fitting and timely that the Shaw Festival has selected The Sea as its first production of a Bond play, particularly in this year of the centennial anniversary of the First World War. One of Bond’s targets in The Sea is small-town English parochialism but his broader canvas is modernity and its addiction to capitalism and war (the guns fired by the military battery are a recurring feature of the play’s soundscape). There are ominous references to unrest on the continent and Evens, from the perspective of 1907, intuits that calamity is on its way: in the final scene, Willy expresses hope for ‘a better world’ prompting Evens’ reply, ‘Then why will they fill it with bombs and germs and gas? You’ll live in a time when that happens and people will do nothing’. Thus, irrespective of its subtitle (‘A Comedy’), there can be no trite happy ending to conclude The Sea. Instead, we are left with something striking and unusual: a gesture of tentative optimism, an intimation of possibility, the beginnings of an action-in-motion, before the tide turns.

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