Dea is as about as uncomfortable an evening at the theatre as could be imagined, but the play undoubtedly provides many opportunities for reflection on what theatre should be for, as well as a middle section that offers one of the best confrontations with the dilemmas of modern warfare that has been put on stage in recent years
Dea is the first new play by Edward Bond to be presented in England for many years. Since his hey-day in the 1960s his work has found higher esteem in Europe than at home and after a series of high profile disputes directors here seem chary of taking on either his fresh output or his extensive back catalogue.
While every new play deserves to be judged on its own terms, this context of the ‘prophet not without honour except in his own country’ is important for understanding the tone and intention of this particular new work.
This is without doubt one of the most unpleasant nights I have spent in a theatre in recent years.
There are several rapes (including an incident of necrophilia), incest, murders of children, bomb detonations, and the fetishizing of a head of one of the victims for the rest of the action. Other horrors and breaking of taboos are as tiresome to repeat, as they must be wearisome and draining for the actors to rehearse and perform.
The key question though is always what use is made of extreme violence and excess. Is it harnessed to successful dramatic purpose, or not? If the former, then any reviewer must acknowledge the fact willingly despite the discomfort; but if it is gratuitous in effect, even if not in intention, then that point needs to be made without fear or favour.
For the greater part the evening is – sadly- an accumulation of horrors that enervates and numbs response, rather in the same way that reading the Marquis de Sade saps and extinguishes all desire, the very opposite of the intention to which the author aspires.
Bond has steeped himself in the tropes and archetypes of both Greek tragedy and Jacobean Revenge drama in preparing this play. There is no faulting his sense of tradition – indeed the title role and main character is a variation on Medea, and you can tick off a whole list of classic plays and scenarios that are referenced along the way.
The problem lies with the lifeless drama of surface shocks that predominate.
Dea is self-consciously disruptive and ideological, and of course there is nothing at all wrong with that so long as the case is dramatically grounded and earned.
In his angry preface Bond states his case that the modern British theatre is purely escapist, in pursuit of trashy values and in hock to market forces that have dominated since the Thatcher years. Instead, ‘drama’s function is to push the present to extremes so that we may see what we are doing and where we are going.’
Even if one accepts this partisan, purely asserted view, it is very unclear what positive message we are meant to take away from this play or what can justify its long list of confrontations to the audience. One cannot help thinking that his own neglect at home is part of the explanation for this undiscriminating rejection of the present.
Part One opens in a domestic setting in the inter-war period where Johnson (Edward Aviso-Scott), an army officer with a promising career, is about to set off with his wife to a dinner party. However, his wife Dea (Helen Bang) murders their two infants, prompting him to rape her and thus initiate a sequence of consequences that make the House of Atreus seem like a model family.
A second scene returns to the same location but now set during World War Two, where Dea encounters Oliver (Jolyon Price) one of the two sons that were engendered by the rape. The characters in Part One seem to have escaped from a painting by Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon. Flesh, lust and violence abound, but do we see a glimmer of an inner felt life? Any psychological layering to explain the apparently random actions depicted? Not that I could see.
The second part, however, is a different matter altogether. Here we find ourselves in a British Army camp, perhaps in Afghanistan. A hooded female prisoner, a captured suicide bomber, is under interrogation as a mysterious attack on the camp, fronted by children, begins. Do the soldiers torture and rape the prisoner to extract the information they need to save themselves? Do they fire on the children or fire to miss?
This time the extreme nature of the actions emerge more plausibly out of the situation and the interplay of characters. There is a natural flow to it, and there is a compelling match between the dramatic scenario and the dialogue. The mythological archetype snaps tightly into place like a mantrap on the leg of the audience as the scene progresses.
I’ve long thought that the wars of the last decade would gain from the perspective and framing that dramatic history, and especially Greek archetypes, could confer, and here, in a gripping half hour stretch, Bond shows what can be done when extreme situations in contemporary life are refracted through ancient models.
A revealing stage direction in the text of the play suggests that much of the dialogue was developed in rehearsal, and that perhaps helps to explain how the successful match of style and subject is achieved here, when it is absent elsewhere.
However, in Part Three, we are back to the dramatically unconvincing territory of the first part. Here Dea inhabits a forest clearing with a battered old caravan and miscellaneous debris. It is a landscape through which war has passed and soon she is joined by one of the soldiers from Part Two.
These are scenes that evoke the final reckoning of Mother Courage and the world of Samuel Beckett, but the text meanders around the themes of the many outrageous incidents we have witnessed, and overstays its welcome because we are not encouraged to feel anything for Dea or her companion. Whether intended or not there is a ‘distancing effect’ which descends like a scrim between the players and the emotions of the audience.
This is a large cast – some sixteen players – and with a few exceptions, the standard of acting is very high. Helen Bang in the title role never flags in commitment throughout despite the huge demands made on her, and the same goes for Avison-Scott and Price in the first part and Christopher Birks, as the commanding officer in Part Two. There was a brittle intensity and alarming hysteria about his contribution in particular that compelled attention from the outset.
Among the smaller parts, the platoon of soldiers were well differentiated by the actors, who played off one another very impressively, and found some welcome moments of humour too, in a play that for the most part avoids it.
While slow scene changes were a problem at times, the detailed sets by Maira Vazeou added measurably to the impact of the later sections. Bond himself directed. A different perspective from the author’s would have perhaps created a more fluid movement to Part One, where the blocking often seemed awkward, but Part Two had clearly benefited from the workshop environment encouraged in the rehearsals.
At the end of this long and ultimately dispiriting evening the thought that remained was that the debate at its heart is one that has long been with us and in more compelling and convincing forms. In 1758, the French philosophers Rousseau and D’Alembert debated the purposes of the theatre in a series of essays – with D’Alembert taking the line that theatre must entertain first of all before it attempts moral improvement, and Rousseau that theatre to be of value must confront society with its ills and remind citizens of their community ideals and patriotic objectives.
Bond is of the party of Rousseau without a doubt, but to succeed here he would need a more nuanced sense of the ills of the modern theatre, and a willingness to allow his characters an independent dramatic life as opposed to moving them around like chess pieces on a black and white board of morality that admits no shades of grey. We get more than a glimpse of what this approach could yield in Part Two, but this is not enough to save the whole.
This is as about as uncomfortable an evening at the theatre as could be imagined, but the playundoubtedly provides many opportunities for reflection on what theatre should be for, as well as a middle section that offers one of the best confrontations with the dilemmas of modern warfare that has been put on stage in recent years.