Edward Bond has been one of the most provocative voices in modern British theatre. Throughout his career, principally as playwright but also as essayist and poet dating back to The Pope’s Wedding (1962), his work has been characterised by a rigorously rational and politically informed view of human nature, society and culture. He is the advocate of a theatre whose central function should be, in his own words, ‘to recreate what it means to be human, to redefine our relationship with the world’. His work has often provoked controversy among critics and audiences, especially with seminal plays such as Saved (1965) in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram in a south London park.
Bond’s output as a dramatist demonstrates a dynamic process of dramatic innovation over a period that exceeds forty years. He is still very active as a dramatist with plays annually commissioned from ‘Big Brum’, the Birminghambased Theatre in Education Company, whilst his new plays for adult audiences are regularly premiered at one of the French National Theatres, the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris. After Molière, he is in the contemporary era the second most produced dramatist in France. In Britain, after an extended absence from the stage, recent years have seen a significant revival of major productions of his work. This began with Jonathan Kent’s acclaimed production of Lear in 2005 at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre with that same director’s West End production of Bond’s biting comedy The Sea starring Eileen Atkins and David Haig (2008). Other revivals of note in this same period have been Rupert Goold’s touring production of Bond’s savage political satire Restoration (2007). Now, in a forthcoming production for the Chichester Festival Theatre about to open in April of this year, there is to be a major new revival of his nineteen seventies play about Shakespeare, Bingo starring Patrick Stewart and directed by Angus Jackson.
The nineteen seventies was a decade of political unrest and activism leading up to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979. Bond’s engagement with some of the major political events of that era may be seen in shorter plays such as Black Mass (1970) and Passion (1971). Interestingly both plays were written for specific organisations, respectively the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
With Bingo (1973) Bond produced one of his landmark achievements as a dramatist and it remains, along with Lear (1971), his radical reworking of Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy of that character, amongst the most important plays by a British dramatist in the post-sixties period.
In Lear the play challenges the central assumption within dramatic tragedy which is that human suffering must and will happen.
In a programme note for a production of Lear at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre in October 1975 Bond wrote:
‘Shakespeare’s Lear is usually seen as an image of high academic culture. The play is seen as a sublime action and the audience are expected to show the depth of their culture by the extent to which they penetrate its mysteries. But the social moral of Shakespeare’s Lear is this: endure till in time the world will be made right. That’s a dangerous moral for us.’
When Bond’s Lear, in the final scene of the play, starts to try and dig away the wall that he had previously ordered to be built for ‘protection’ and ‘defence’, he enacts a major moment in post-war British theatre. Lear is shot and killed by a soldier in the same way that he has had a worker on the wall executed in the opening scene of the play. However, from Bond’s viewpoint Lear’s death is neither poetic nor tragic:
‘My Lear’s gesture mustn’t be seen as final … Lear is very old and has to die anyway. He makes his gesture only to those who are learning how to live.’
Bingo’s subtitle ‘Scenes of Money and Death’ points to the historical context of the play: the emergence of capitalism in an Elizabethan society ruled with brutal authoritarianism. It was a period of economic and military expansionism in both Ireland and the New World. Elizabeth’s late-feudal society faced a time of transition incurring destabilising social and economic change. It wasn’t only ‘foreigners’ and, by direct implication, Catholics who were perceived as a ‘threat’ to social and political order. There were also an increasingly large number of the rootless and wandering poor. Their suffering and plight might be viewed as a direct consequence of the enclosure of Common Land with its eviction of subsistence, tenant farmers. In the play there is organised and violent resistance to enclosure by armed groups of peasants. These are personified by the character of the Son (of Shakespeare’s housekeeper) who leads a religious sect equating social justice with religious fundamentalism.
As Combe, the landowner, cynically observes: ‘Money speaks and everyone listens’.
Bond’s Shakespeare is imagined as a writer and individual caught up in those major social and economic changes. Having made a financially shrewd investment in the popular theatres that produced his work, he has retired as a wealthy citizen with a country house in Stratford upon Avon. He has then agreed with Combe not to oppose the enclosure in return for the protection of his own property investments and continuing prosperity.
In an entry from July 1970, from Volume One of Selections from the Notebooks of Edward Bond (Methuen 2000), Bond made the following acerbic observation:
‘In capitalist society, crime makes an honest man of you.’
In the light of the continuing impact and implications of both the global banking crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandal, Bond’s provocative statement seems even more relevant now than then.
Chichester Festival Theatre clearly anticipates such resonance in making this challenging choice to open their 2010 season. The original production of Bingo at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter cast Bob Peck as Shakespeare whilst, when it opened in London at the Royal Court Theatre, it starred Sir John Gielgud with the inspired casting of Arthur Lowe as a belligerently provocative, drunken Ben Jonson.
In Bingo we have a play which embodies some of the tensions faced in the decade leading up to the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1979 and the election victory of Margaret Thatcher. It also asks fundamental questions about the morality of money and the response of art and the artist to financial and social crisis.
Bond’s Shakespeare agonises over the value and impact of his writing: ‘Was anything done?’ As we await the kind of society and theatre emerging from these troubled times, it is a question that might challenge us all.