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March 26, 2008

The revival of Edward Bond's 1973 play The Sea makes David Wootton realise that Britain really has become a better place since then: Edward Bond's The Sea at The Haymarket

Posted by David Wootton

Edward Bond's The Sea
directed by Jonathan Kent
The Haymarket, London
17th January - 19th April 2008

This play was first produced in 1973, and is now revived with two superb actors in the lead roles: David Haig and Eileen Atkins. It is playing to half empty houses and seat prices have been reduced, yet the production is excellent, the acting superb, and the cast are putting their hearts into it. The reviews have been good.

So what's the matter? The problem (if there is one, and February - I saw the play on 27th February - is bound to be a slow month in the theatre) lies with the play, not with the production.

Hatch is a draper in a small seaside town. He depends on selling to the lady of the manor, Mrs Rafi. She is bankrupting him because she keeps making him special order expensive consignments and then returns them. He is going mad and believes that people from outer space are invading the earth. He manages to persuade other villagers that he is right, and that shipwrecks are a cover for the invading force.

The play is very, very good in a number of ways. It is very funny. The social observation is very acute, and it is very sharp on questions of class. It is excellent on Hatch's ability to persuade and lead others, to get them to share his madness. It has a wonderful play within a play, in which Selina Griffiths excels in the part of a dog, and Emma Noakes is totally credible as an empty-headed girl. The only weak performance is from Harry Lloyd (who was in the original production of The History Boys).

There's an obvious sense in which the invaders from outer space are metaphorical. Hatch, in the world of the play, which is set in 1907 (Well's War of the Worlds had been published in 1898), is breaking under a terrible strain. But in the world of 1973 the play was presumably about immigration (Enoch Powell's rivers of blood speech had been in 1968).

Revived now, there's the threat of Al Quaeda terrorism, and there are plenty of people (most of them living in America) who really do believe in alien abductions. Fair enough. But what is invading Hatch? What purpose does the metaphor serve in his psychic life? What internal conflict has he chosen to externalise by inventing invaders from outer space? Here the play offers us almost nothing.

We don't know enough about Hatch's inner life to know why space invasion has become real for him. And the result is that the play is empty at the very point where we need it to be full. It is as if Bond can't or won't think about Hatch's inner life.

One is tempted to think that this tells us something about Bond. Just as Hatch externalises his inner demons by imagining little green men, so Bond externalises his inner homicidal maniac by imagining Hatch. He no more knows where Hatch's little green men have come from than he knows where Hatch has come from. And that would be fine if this wasn't a play about someone going mad. Just showing us that he is under pressure isn't enough when we want to understand the form his madness takes. Moreover, Bond used to be shocking. In this play we have Hatch stabbing a dead body. A bit graphic. But if this was once daring, once alarming, once horrifying, it isn't any more.

Why revive an Edward Bond play that can be described, with a straight face, as a "neo-Chekhovian romp" - a description which surely suggests a certain confusion of purpose. I fear the theatre wanted to put on something serious, but funny; something that would be a good vehicle for star actors; and something that resonated with the anxieties of the moment. It's the last bit, I think, that they got wrong.

In 1973 class was a real target, and a play set in 1907 could still be topical. Now class, in the old sense, has nearly disappeared, even if social deprivation and inequality are still very much with us. In 1973 there really was an anxiety about race. Now we really do live in a multicultural world. So the play has simply become dated, and the hole at its centre has become visible for all to see. This is a good thing. The Sea is contemporary with Shaffer's Equus (see my review of the 2007 revival). Back then, Equus passed (I presume) as a subtle and sophisticated exploration of madness and obsession. It doesn't quite any more - but at least it tries, where The Sea really doesn't.

I'm enough of a grumpy old man to find myself constantly thinking that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But when I stop to think about a play like this I realise that there are respects in which things are better than they used to be.

Let's be clear about this. This is a very enjoyable evening out. The actors deserve an audience. Bond knew (or knows) how to write a play. But the play hasn't aged well, and that's that.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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