Edward Bond is notoriously dismissive of critics, which makes it tough to review his plays – particularly his later, trickier works. I can almost hear him hissing in my ear, as I write: ‘Philistine! Ingrate! Fool!’ The Chair Plays, never performed in England until now, feel like a critical challenge. Bond has reduced his writing to its starkest elements and it’s as if he’s waiting, hoping for us to call his bluff and declare his words, naked and bare. Well, I accept your challenge, Mr Bond: The Chair Plays, as ambitious as they might, left me shaken but not stirred.
The main billing – ‘Chair’ – is yet to come. That’s fortunate, since ‘For Have I None’ and ‘The Under Room’ run at three hours as it is. Both are set in the future; a time when the streets stream with blood, mass suicides run riot and officials rule the roost. All this ugly chaos unfurls outside the houses, in which these two plays are set. Inside, all is tense, still - and heaving with symbolism.
‘For Have I None’ kicks off with a petrified lady, Sara, flinching with each knock at the door. Each time she opens the door, she is presented with endless black. Her husband, Jams, arrives home and he cannot hear these haunting knocks. The Biblical overtones simmer sinisterly: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.’ But this is a godless world that Sara and Jams inhabit and, instead of welcoming in Jesus, they eventually let in a young chap who has fled a massive suicide. He claims to be Sara’s brother but sibling ties don’t exist in this black, rootless landscape and Sara is unconvinced.
The opening scenes, directed with a thankful lack of ceremony by Sean Holmes, jangle quite nicely. The stage space becomes filled with weird gaps. It’s a world where the senses have turned senseless; although Sara and Jams talk, jaggedly, they do not connect and although there’s a hellish meltdown raging outside, life inside screeches on like normal. .
But one yearns for the play to open out and for Bond to grant us access to that shadowy, hollow landscape outside. Instead, Bond devotes much of his play to simple, marital squabbling. Sure, the nature of the argument may be pointed and bizarre – the husband and wife fight fiercely about who sits in which chair – but the dynamic remains familiar. Despite all the hazy danger that seeps under the door, inside feels safe and even a touch predictable.
Aidan Kelly’s character – the ruthless officer – is the only one connected to the rotten heart of this play and his performance is the most intense. It’s frightening to watch him chomp on mashed potatoes, as he describes a whole town marching towards death. Naomi Frederick’s role is much trickier and she struggles. All the heavy symbolism lurking in this play is laid at her feet. As she repeatedly jolts at those phantom knocks, her character start to feel like an exercise.
There is a baffling scene, deep into the play, when Sara (Frederick) enters the room, decked in a sky-blue cloak, covered in spoons. Frankly, she looks absurd. She also sounds ridiculous, as spoons jangle with her every step. Sara later turns her coat inside out, to reveal a tapestry of bones. It’s such a forced, false and wasted moment. There’s still a dangerous, glittering energy to this play – it’s a world, which could see any manner of horrors crawl through that door and tear up the stage. The fact the door reveals a girl decked in spoons is hard to stomach.
‘The Under Room’ is even more pared down and is directed by Bond himself at a grating, glacial pace. It takes place in a cellar, where an illegal immigrant is taking refuge from the police, swarming outside. With his entry, the immigrant (Felix Scott) picks up a white dummy and places it on a chair. For almost the entire play, the other actors talk to this dummy, whilst Scott speaks out to the audience. The symbolism feels so pointed that it actually blunts itself. Yes, we get that this immigrant has lost his identity. We understand that he now functions in a world that does not understand him and can barely even see him. But is that enough to hang a whole play on?
It all feels frustratingly and wilfully dry. Bond’s desire to write a highly stylised and starkly symbolic piece has ripped the guts out of his writing. ‘The Under Room’ never throbs with the kind of thick danger that wraps its way around his other, better and meatier plays. Instead, this feels like a skeletal piece, the characters as wispy and blank as the dummy that sits amidst them.
There are still some incredible moments of icy lyricism, when Bond forgets to restrain himself and lets his writing free. There is a brilliant monologue, in which the immigrant recalls the murder of his parents. ‘I vomit my laughter’, he says, as he describes a blade sliding into his mother or father: ‘The knife throb because the heart is beating’. This is what Bond does so bloody well: that ugly, mesmerising combination of love and destruction, which slices right through you and leaves you gasping for air.