The second production in the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s inaugural in-house season under the artistic direction of Jonathan Kent, a revival of Edward Bond’s 1973 black comedy The Sea starring Eileen Atkins and David Haig, opened last night (23 January 2008, previews from 17 January) for a limited season to 19 April (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).
Off the coast near a village in East Anglia, a young man drowns in a wild storm, sparking off a series of events that changes the lives of the village’s residents, including the bullying aristocrat Mrs Rafi (Atkins) and the desperate draper Mr Hatch (Haig). The 14-strong cast also features Marcia Warren, Mariah Gale, Russell Tovey, David Burke and Harry Lloyd. The production is designed by Paul Brown, with lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.
Edward Bond has written over 40 plays, including Saved, which premiered at the Royal Court in 1965 and famously hastened the end of theatre censorship in this country. While Bond continues to write, however, disagreements with the Court as well as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have meant that his work has been largely absent from British stages since the mid-Eighties. This production marks the playwright’s West End debut.
First night critics had mixed reactions to Kent’s dusting off of Bond’s “strange East Anglian fable”. While some applauded the “abrupt oscillations between farce, comedy and despair”, others felt this production “swamped the play without trusting it to speak for itself”. Haig and Atkins were generally thought to provide “evidence of two major actors at work”, although there was some suspicion that they “should have been better than they are”. Many critics noted that staging the “in-yer-face” Bond at such a genteel address as the Haymarket felt incongruous and brought “images of square pegs and round holes” to mind.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “Jonathan Kent’s production, the second in the inaugural season of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, opens with a storm that renders the first scene incomprehensible, as in a bad production of The Tempest. Immediately you realise there is too much noise, too much design (by the extravagant Paul Brown), too much video projection of boiling waves. The evening never recovers from this, and I’m afraid that Mark Henderson’s lighting for once confuses chiaroscuro effect with patchiness. The big ensemble set pieces, too, seem drained of rhythm and are singularly unfunny. Hatch sees men from outer space filching men’s brains and finally flips with his scissors and the expensive curtain material ordered for Mrs Rafi, but the more David Haig rants and raves, the less funny, or indeed tragic, he becomes. The amateur dramatic scene, with Dame Eileen lording it over her bunch of submissive women as a laurel-garlanded Orpheus, falls just as flat. Minor compensations such as Marcia Warren’s incisively scatty Jessica Tilehouse (descanting operatically in the funeral on the cliffs) or Selina Griffiths’ doggedly piano-playing Mafanwy Price cannot fill the yawning gaps. That first production had sensational performances from Coral Browne and Ian Holm; in 1991, Sam Mendes’ revival at the National, not a success, starred Judi Dench and Ken Stott. Here, in what marks Bond’s long-overdue West End debut, Eileen Atkins and David Haig should have been better than they are, but they’re embroiled in a production that has swamped the play without trusting it to speak for itself. The Sea may sound Wildean, but the best approach would be (was originally) Brechtian.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Edward Bond at the Haymarket? Images of square pegs and round holes come to mind. And, although Jonathan Kent's superbly-acted production is far superior to The Country Wife which opened the current season, there is something faintly anachronistic about Bond's strange East Anglian fable in this sumptuous playhouse … Kent's production, excellently designed by Paul Brown, is worth catching, however, for the acting. Eileen Atkins is magnificent as Mrs Rafi suggesting a domineering Bloomsbury hostess descending on darkest Suffolk. Organising her acolytes in an amateur staging of the Orpheus myth, she exudes the disdain of an art-worshipper surrounded by philistines. And she beautifully captures the desolation of even the socially dominant in her final speech, when she concludes ‘I've thrown my life away’. Atkins's rueful poetry is perfectly matched by the mania of David Haig's Hatch who, when Mrs Rafi rejects two rolls of velvet, is brilliantly torn between grovelling subservience and murderous hatred. David Burke as a drunken wiseacre, with echoes of Captain Shotover, and Marcia Warren as Mrs Rafi's timorous companion are also first-rate. This is acting of the highest order in a play that, deriving from the Royal Court in 1973, struggles to achieve the global significance to which it aspires.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theatre, Bond is back, Edward Bond, that sinister master of ingenious theatrical sadism and hard-line revolutionary socialism. He's long struck me as the Blofeld of British theatre, a man who arouses feelings of fear and loathing. With his cruel glasses and knack for such theatrical horrors as eyeball-gouging machines and a baby being stoned in its pram, he is the granddaddy of so-called in-yer-face theatre ... There is something about the startling oddness of the piece that puts me in mind of the paintings of Stanley Spencer. The familiar English scene is transformed into something weird and rather wonderful. Kent directs with zest, evoking the ever-present sea with the help of fine designs by Paul Brown and some sensational sound, lighting and projection effects. On the first night Eileen Atkins sometimes seemed unexpectedly hesitant as the preposterous lady of the manor, Mrs Rafi, but there are already blissful moments of high English comedy as she patronises, bullies and terrorises everyone within her orbit. Her scenes with David Haig's hilariously subservient draper, who by the end of the play has been reduced to raving lunacy are especially fine, and among the support there's lovely comic work from Marcia Warren as Mrs Rafi's mutinous lady's companion, Russell Tovey as the village idiot, and William Chubb as a cherishable silly-ass vicar. I certainly don't want to encourage an Edward Bond revival, but this classic piece of English eccentricity is worth the detour.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Usually regarded as a rest home for elderly plays of the derriere-garde persuasion, the Haymarket is being buffeted by winds of change under Jonathan Kent's year-long artistic directorship. Edward Bond … sounds an unlikely attraction for West End audiences. Yet Kent's revival of this absurd black comedy, with its abrupt oscillations between farce, comedy and despair in an Edwardian East Coast village, ought to prove a comic and poignant attraction. Old-fashioned Haymarket habitués will be reassured by the sighting of Dame Eileen Atkins, adorned in a purple feather atop a fur hat and a costume of mauve sobriety. Decked out as some rural Lady Bracknell, Dame Eileen's grand lady of the manor - Mrs Rafi - rains down a little light contempt upon inferior materials unveiled for her condescending gaze by David Haig's subservient Hatch, the draper … The delectable Dame Eileen wears a withering glare and assumes the voice of brisk authority to the comic manner born, even if she misses Mrs Rafi's rueful sense of personal isolation. The hilarious Marcia Warren as her put-upon companion strikes self-pitying notes. This, though, being Edward Bond terrain, an angrier critique of society is fashioned than ever found in Wilde's drama. Paul Brown's design, with views of bleak coastland and Edwardian interiors, sets in context disturbing visions of a coastal community in 1907 - Liberal Britain in brief flowering mode. It's a world beset by grief, anxiety and madness.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Bond called The Sea a ‘comedy’, a relative term which means that no babies are stoned to death, no eyes get gouged out and, as when Warren’s dim Jessica sings descants at the hymns at the drowned boy’s cliff-top funeral, the piece can be quite funny. But the author’s trademark indignation shows through too. It’s unbearable to look closely at life, declares Harry Lloyd’s Carson, who is the survivor of the wreck and decent, strong and realistic enough to bring a little optimism to the play, ‘but you should never turn away. If you do you lose everything. Turn back and look into the fire. Listen to the howl of the flames.’ That sounds very much like the credo of the unflinching author of Saved and Lear, but here it seems over the top … The parish-pump conflict of Rafi and Hatch hardly amounts to ‘howling flames’. Yet Bond implies that both characters are the victims of the unjust world he’s spent his career exposing, not least in last night’s finest scene. Atkins stands there, the stony grandee to the last, while Haig squirms, wrings his hands, bends ingratiatingly double and then, when she won’t pay for the expensive cloth she’s ordered, can’t stem his fury: babbling, sweating, raving and, in his desperation, cutting up the cloth and hurling it at her. Proof that society needs changing? Well, if not, certainly evidence of two major actors at work.”
- by Kate Jackson