The Sea - A Comedy at The Shaw Festival
Patrick Galligan as Hatch in The Sea. Photo by David Cooper
is a must-see at Shaw this season! Congratulations to Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell who introduces us to contemporary British playwright
, a champion of social justice, not law and whom she regards as "without doubt one of the most uncompromising, radical writers produced by England in the late twentieth century and, like Shaw, his plays rocked the world when they were first produced. The Sea is one of Bond's most accessible works - combining high comedy with disturbing drama, set in an Edwardian England that we are familiar with here at The Shaw - or are we? I am thrilled to be presenting our first piece by this brilliant playwright."
The play is masterfully staged at tiny The Court House Theatre, thanks to brilliant directing by
Eda Holmes who cleverly employs the scrawny set as a wavy microcosm of the world. She grabs us immediately with a man and a woman - at first, they cautiously enter the minimalist set; then they quickly vie for sound effects equipment. The male seizes the more coveted wind-maker, and the woman reluctantly takes the remaining metal thunder-maker. And as he wails away, she emits a few half-hearted bursts then quickly warms to the task, and thanks to
Kevin Lamotte (Lighting) and
John Gzowski (Original Music & Sound Design) we soon have a mighty storm worthy of Shakespeare's
Tempest ; however, this shipwreck results in a drowning which, like the tide, is a constant undercurrent for the entire play.
The survivor, Willy
(Wade Bogert-O'Brien) , finds himself washed up on the shore of his drowned comrade's small English hometown, and as he grieves amidst this bizarre community, he slowly comes to realize he's in a very strange place, dominated by an old lady with little patience and lots of opinions, totally in charge based upon class and money. Mrs. Rafi
(Fiona Reid) in vintage Dame Maggie Smith mode (think Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey), holds the town under her thumb. She has the final word, whether it's in regards to what's in style or who will play the dog in the community theatre production, of which she is both the star and director. "The town's full of her cripples. They're the ones she's nicest to." Mrs. Rafi's frivolous purchasing power drives the town's slightly lunatic draper, Hatch
(Patrick Galligan) completely over the edge. He convinces others that Willy is one of many aliens from outer space that are planning a major attack on the town.
Shaw's talented female ensemble is often lauded as befits their consummate skill, but here, Patrick Galligan is served a solid male role that he perfects much like
Peter Krantz achieved a breakthrough as Teddy in Faith Healer (2013) and
Ric Reid accomplished as Doc in Come Back Little Sheba (2012). Galligan is simply terrific throughout, assuming Asian, bent-over, servile body language in his shop with the imperious Mrs. Rafi and rapaciously employing sharp scissors on both her rejected blue drapery material and a limp, dead body. "If they think we're a crowd of weak fools, they'll all come here. By the million. They'll take our job and our homes. Everything. We'll be slaves working all our lives to make goods for sale on other planets." Does this remind you of War of the Worlds or perhaps certain U.S. Congressmen?
Holmes and Bond ask us to fill in the appropriate "alien" - Al Qaeda, Mexicans, Muslims, Palestinians, Indigenous People (in perverse fashion), the poor and disposed - you choose.
Like Galligan, Reid seizes her prime role with great relish, patronising, bullying and terrorising everyone within her sphere, yet almost squeezing some pity from us with her bleak, near-soliloquy at the end when she matter-of-factly outlines how she will be treated when she is confined to a wheel chair. Someone had to stay in this village and lord it over these people, and she has no ultimate regrets, but surprisingly, tries to free Rose
(Julia Course) who is wonderful in her role and along with Bogert-O'Brien, who both do give us affirmation at the end. Ultimately, Bond asks one to look hard at human foibles and contradictions, but he offers us hope.
Employing the suggestive sub-title (A Comedy), The Sea explores difficult themes (mob mentality, leadership, fear of the outsider), yet it literally swells with dark humour and light farce, particularly in the play-within-the-play rehearsal scene (the town's production of Orpheus and Eurydice in which Mrs. Rafi insists on singing "There's No Place Like Home.") and in the funeral scene high atop a cliff where the women engage in a hilarious hymn-singing soprano duel, fling ashes through the air and leave white streaks upon their dark Victorian sensibilities.
Patty Jamieson (Jessica Tilehouse),
Catherine McGregor (Jilly),
Jennifer Dzialoszynski (Davis),
Jacqueline Thair (Rachel),
Jenny L. Wright (Mafanwy Price) are all splendid.
Peter Millard (Evens) superbly plays the hermetic wise fool, living in a desolate shack by the shore, a man who can expertly predict precisely where currents will deposit a body on shore and when it's time to leave town, in-between swills from his ever-handy flask. "In the end, life laughs at death," he bravely contends.
Ben Sanders (Hollarcut),
Billy Lake (Carter),
Neil Barclay (Vicar) and
Kelly Wong (Thompson) fill out the remainder of this equally strong male cast.
Camellia Koo's set design is suitably sparse, and her collaboration with Holmes on the depiction of the sea through billowing drapes and dance is quite clever, actors literally spinning in and out of the imagined water.
The Sea by Edward Bond plays at the Court House Theatre until October 12. The running time is approximately 2.5 hours including one intermission.
As always, the Shaw's program is replete with enriching material. Here are the Director's Notes and a review by Chris Megson.
Director's Notes by Eda Holmes
"I meant the image of the sea to suggest the infinite capacity of human beings to adapt and survive." - Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a playwright who has fascinated me since theatre school. His plays combine a sharp critique of social structures with a rich sense of theatricality. His aim is to reveal our humanness in all its paradoxical splendour. His plays defy classification as either drama or comedy and yet they have a clarity of spirit that is inspiring. He believes that theatre truly matters to society as a whole and that it has a responsibility to challenge
us to look more deeply into our world, and to find the means by which to make it better.
There are a few things that I would like to tell you that I think will enhance your enjoyment of this production:
Although Bond set the play in 1907, he wrote it from the vantage point of Britain in 1973.
Margaret Thatcher was the Secretary of State for Education and Science in a Conservative parliament, government workers and coal miners alike were on strike, the oil crisis had plunged the country into double-digit inflation and the
IRA were bombing public places. At the same time,
Pink Floyd released their iconic album
The Dark Side of the Moon , and television's
Monty Python's Flying Circus was at the height of its comic achievement.
I have a background in dance.
At its core, The Sea is about community, about how the hierarchies of community drive us to be both our best and our worst selves. But Bond is not didactic - he gives each character more than one chance in the course of the play to make a better or more moral choice than the last choice they made. At heart he is an optimist - despite all the evidence to the contrary. He believes in the capacity for humanity to evolve for the better. I do too.
"After this I shall regard Gomorrah as a spa resort": Edward Bond's The Sea
By Chris Megson
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)...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 We de kind'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-theorizing 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.
Chris Megson is senior lecturer in drama and theatre at Royal Holloway College, University of London. His publications include Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past And Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), the Methuen drama book of naturalist plays (Methuen, 2010) and Decades Of Modern British Playwriting: The 1970s (Methuen, 2012).
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