At 73 and the author of more than 40 plays, Edward Bond is an unlikely West End debutante. And with its jagged layering of Edwardian-era satire, farce, comedy of manners, tragedy and wide theatrical references, Bond’s 1973 play, “The Sea,” is far from standard commercial fare. This second offering in Jonathan Kent’s three-production Theater Royal Haymarket season of high-end theater is nothing if not challenging, and will doubtless fight for auds during its planned 13-week run. Play and production are sometimes tough going, but the overall effect is memorable if unsettling.
Bond is best known for his run-ins with the British censor in the late ’60s over his plays “Saved” (which features the stoning of an infant in a baby carriage) and “Early Morning” (in which Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale are presented as lovers). Revered in continental Europe, he continues to write prolifically but his works are seldom staged in England, not least because of his preference for directing his new texts himself.
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“The Sea’s” action starts with a strikingly effective simulation of a tragic boat accident on a stormy night, via Sven Ortel’s projections, Paul Groothius’ sound score and actors playing out the panic of a man drowning behind a scrim.
The tone and style then switch abruptly to Wilde-ian social satire in a lengthy scene set in a clothing shop in a tiny seaside town circa 1907, with Eileen Atkins offering up vintage archness as posh battleaxe Mrs. Rafi.
Bizarre intrigue is established when the clothier, Mr. Hatch (the superbly overwrought David Haig), reveals his belief that the handsome young survivor of the wreck, Willy Carson (Harry Lloyd), is the leader of an alien invasion. Carson is in cahoots, Hatch believes, with local outcast Evens (David Burke), an old sage who lives by the sea and holds forth (in what feels clearly like Bond’s own voice) about humanity’s foibles and the dangers of environmental destruction.
Bond’s ambitious and often lateral connection of ideas is engaging, but Kent’s production never quite finds its proper rhythm in the first act. A scene of an amateur dramatics rehearsal drags on interminably and remains at the level of not-particularly-funny satire, so that thematic connections about death and loss (the play being rehearsed is “Orpheus and Eurydice”) don’t really connect.
Play and production achieve the required comic-tragic-pathetic grandeur in the second-act funeral scene. Attempts to give the drowned man a dignified sendoff are undermined by Hatch’s mad lungings, cannon volleys from the nearby military base and Mrs. Rafi and her sidekick, Mrs. Tilehouse (Marcia Warren), battling out their domestic differences via competitive hymn singing.
The barren, stormy waterside setting, well-evoked by Paul Brown’s design of slate slabs, recalls “King Lear” — which Bond had rewritten two years before this play was first staged — and many a Beckettian landscape, providing a jarring but effective tonal contrast to the scene’s arch sendup of Englishness.
Bond then rewards actress and audience with a magnificent speech of introspective self-revelation from Mrs. Rafi (played to moving perfection by Atkins), in which she reveals that she plays the shrew because “people expect my class to shout at them. Bully them. They’re disappointed if you don’t.”
This Marxist commentary seems to be bringing the play to an elegant close, but Bond then appends yet another lengthy monologue from Evens.
Bond is clearly no fan of the red pen, and the play suffers for it. But there is exhilaration in the breadth of his reference, social conscience and theatrical imagination — and in being introduced to a flawed but intriguing modern play of a scale seldom seen in the contemporary commercial arena.