On Tuesday, thanks to Susan Kaup of ExploitBoston and the American Repertory Theater, I was introduced to Edward Bond, a playwright considered by many to be "the greatest British dramatist since the war." I went with Susan, Josh Ain and Rachelle Hassan to see Bond's Olly's Prison at ART's new Zero Arrow Theater. The four of us were to blog our thoughts about it.
I went into the play cold. I had never heard of Edward Bond, but then my familiarity with theater is meager. His work hasn't made it to American stages much, which doesn't surprise me after seeing the play and reading about him. While his plays are appreciated in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, most Britons apparently find them inaccessible. Still, he and his plays were among those that got the most votes in a 1998 survey, conducted by the Royal National Theatre in London, that asked playwrights, actors, directors, journalists and other theater professionals to nominate ten English language, twentieth century plays that they considered "significant." This disconnect was evident in the March 2005 critics' discussion (four parts, Flash audio) of Bond's work. One opinion was that Bond requires a degree of creativity from the audience that today's adults, who are accustomed to the low imaginative threshold of box-office driven productions (I'm paraphrasing), don't bring to the theater. When asked why other creatively challenging playwrights are better received, the answer was somewhat unconvincing - that Bond is ahead of his time (again, paraphrasing) and that he himself is still figuring out how the dramatic structure should change in order to better engage today's audiences.
As you enter the theater of Olly's Prison, you're visually jolted by the brightness of the rectangular, white-walled space, bleakly lit with parallel, vertical fluorescent tubes all along the side walls forming the length of the room. You adjust to the glare and find your way to your seat, and, at some point along the way, you notice that nothing separates you from the stage, which is wide open, with just enough props to suggest that it's a living and dining room that no one attempted to decorate. At one end of the dining table is a young woman, seated motionless. You can't help but wonder about the woman. It wasn't until I thought about the play as I read about Bond that I realized that that's when he first engaged me. Kudos to set and costume designer David Zinn, and, of course, director Robert Woodruff.
The young woman is Shiela (Zofia Goszczynska), who we learn has returned home late. Her father, Mike (Bill Camp), makes her a cup of tea. There is no escaping Mike's life now. Camp takes Mike from caring to desperate, from angry to tender, from grieving to surly, from abusive to pleading, and back. Like Mike, all you want is for Shiela to drink the tea that he has made for her, and by so doing offer him the hope that his good intentions can make up for his broken spirit. When his rage actually lands him in prison later, it is just the adjustment of his physical environment to the reality of his life.
In jail, he shares a cell with Barry (Thomas Derrah), whose desire for cigarettes is greater than his humanity. By the end of the first act, Mike's most desperate attempt to escape has not only failed, but sealed his fate. Or so I thought, which is why, I'm almost embarrassed to say, I figured that the play was over - incidentally, I wasn't the only one to think this. I didn't catch Mike's name if it was uttered in the first act, I was convinced that he was Olly, the title character, whose prison the play was about.
The second act begins with the end of Mike's jail sentence, and it's now Vera (Angela Reed) who is desperately reaching out to him. While Vera is more dogged about her desires than Mike, her hopes are pinned on the delusion of happiness in a life with Mike, who has never reciprocated her feelings for him. Reed plays her with a nervous peppiness, and her eventual breakdown is like that of a child whose dollhouse has just been destroyed. This is exactly how I'd expect someone to react to having to face the void that they had tastefully covered up with decor.
Mike is out of jail but still imprisoned, the years behind bars have quelled his rage, however. He is now looking to make sense of the things that have happened to him, and of what he has done. This is what leads him to Ellen (Karen MacDonald), Smiler's mother. Smiler (Peter Dylan Richards), now dead, was in jail with Mike; he was the one who inadvertently foiled Mike's attempt to escape. At Ellen's place, he meets Olly (Mickey Solis).
This sounds a lot like Mike of Olly's Prison, except Mike is not trying to pacify his environment. He is trying to be good, despite his flaws, in an environment that is incompatible with goodness. The aim of the play, says Bond -
This, I presume, is the destructive violence that follows after Olly enters the scene. It is perpetrated by Frank (David Wilson Barnes), a police officer, who wants Mike to rot in jail. Its aftermath brings out the tenderness in Mike, but they all remain confined in the prison that the title signifies:
This, I'm afraid, was not compelling to me. Frank comes across as a comic-book evil cop, I couldn't see him representing a system of "ideas" that "secretes violence" into "the ordinary social," if that was the intention. The violence itself appeared contrived, and somewhat comical and indulgent.
Camp and Reed were superb and the rest of the cast was good as well, but the performances seemed encumbered by the accents. Bond did not want any "tinkering" in order to make it accessible to American audiences, which explains why the original cultural ethos had to be maintained.
Woodruff describes Bond's plays as "difficult," which is evident. My critique notwithstanding, his visualization has me looking forward to seeing my second play by Bond.
Edward Bond is a theorist of drama as well. He is passionately socialist -
This goes against the American's grain. "Individual responsibility" is the American's sole remedy of choice to his social ills, and retribution the basis of his criminal justice. Getting the American psyche to try out an alternate perspective is a worthy cause. Even if Bond's polemics seem extreme, the American would do well to find the kernel of truth in them: