“Has anything been worthwhile?” asks Eileen Atkins as Mrs Rafi towards the end of this over-complicated revival of Edward Bond’s The Sea. The question comes in the course of a great melancholic speech, and Dame Eileen delivers it magnificently, her face etched in fear and sorrow; but it hardly pays its way from the play that precedes it.
Bond’s 1973 play – which I first saw at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs on the same fateful night as the midnight premiere of The Rocky Horror Show in the Theatre Upstairs – is a superb set of scenes of Edwardian anxieties in a small East Anglian coastal village, combining epic scale, farce and high comedy. But there is not much story. A boy has been drowned. His fiancée Rose Jones (Mariah Gale) comes to an agreement with his best friend Willy Carson (Harry Lloyd).
An optimistic conclusion is still clouded by premonitions of disaster. The nearby army guns boom out at unexpected moments. Down by the shore, an old sea dog Evens (David Burke) is full of bad news. And the play’s most prominent characters – Mrs Rafi and the mad draper Hatch (David Haig) – are vying for social supremacy in her case and economic survival in his. The community is pliable, and gullible.
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.