It can absolutely be said Edward Bond was a revolutionary of 1960s British theatre with his seminal play, Saved, that was a pivotal role in abolishing censorship. It can also not be doubted that he endured unspeakable horror as a child in WWII London. Still yet, it can be said that Bond’s work, that used to shock and appal, is now trite and bland despite his latest play’s copious obscene acts that are tenuously based on Medea. This production, bizarrely premiering at a theatre in Sutton, manages to be extremely violent and epic, whilst simultaneously terribly boring and pedestrian. Dea is also directed by Bond and, clocking in at over three hours with two intervals, is a self-indulgent, laughable affair desperately in need of an outside eye and feels more like three days. Though commendably anti-war and with some solid performances, Dea’s downfall is Bond’s dated aesthetic, self-importance, and lengthy, rambling scenes that are full of sound and fury, but say very little.
Five minutes into the first act, Dea (Helen Bang) commits a senseless act of infanticide that leads to her banishment, dooming her to wander the earth for the rest of the play. Though presumably aimed at her self-absorbed, army officer husband, her actions are entirely unjustified. Bringing destruction wherever she goes, Dea lacks the abilities to empathise or emotionally connect with others. Her husband (Edward Avison-Scott) is of similar ilk, though at least he manages to react to his children’s murder and send Dea away. Otherwise, this first scene is made rather uninteresting by flat, stilted dialogue. Neither character listens to the other, and the babies’ (cheap looking dolls) murder is badly staged. The rest of the act is about 16 years later and crowbars in incest, fellatio, rape and murder. Again, these are without justification, and again, the script lacks life. Bond seems to use his dialogue to frame the violence rather than communicating anything of any depth.
The subsequent acts are in the Middle East at a British army camp with less of a focus on Dea and more on the horrors of war. Bond chucks in necrophilia, more rape, a suicide bombing and cocks-out masturbation to pad Dea’s nonsensical quest to find a lost family member. With what’s on the news and the Internet these days, none of it shocks. Bond’s naivety in thinking it does is rather sweet.
Bond’s ideas about the state of modern theatre are less sweet though. In fact, they’re blatantly offensive. He yearns for the good old days when people went to the theatre to be enlightened and educated, and theatre had something to say about the world. The programme notes laughably state, “I write of the rape of a corpse with a beer bottle to bring back some dignity to our theatre.” If Bond thinks our theatre lacks dignity and important messages, then he is out of touch with contemporary theatre, especially small scale and fringe work. This detachment from the real world is evident in Dea, what with the length and gratuitous violence that has absolutely no point.
Helen Bang does some great work at sustaining Dea’s fierce coldness, and her gradually loosening grip on reality is meticulously crafted. Despite awkward dialogue and some moments of unnatural delivery, she has a powerful presence and dominates the stage. Avison-Scott pales in comparison, though Joylon Price as her son Oliver isn’t far off measuring up to her. Oliver is the best written and most interesting character in the play, though is disposed of entirely too soon. The soldiers in the second act are mostly generic, though David Clayton as the PTSD-suffering Cliff in the final act does his best to make the character more well-rounded. Bond misses an opportunity to give the soldiers on the front line of modern desert warfare the depth that could move the audience to rage about their treatment and behaviour.
Basically, Dea is a sad mess that thinks it’s radical and edgy but in trying so hard to shock, it comes across as absurd and pathetically out of touch. Bond thinks theatre lacks dignity? He needs to open his eyes to the vapid, grovelling dreck that he created.
Dea runs through 11 June.
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