Grim reality, no salvation
Though beautifully staged and performed, Saved at the Peacock is no easy ride. Review by Colin Murphy
Saved – is the title ironic? (If so, it is a bitter, vicious irony.) Or does Edward Bond hold out the slim possibility of redemption for his terminally disaffected characters? Or is “redemption” too grand a term, and is to be saved simply to have survived, and that a triumph in itself?
Because this is one of the most irredeemably grim vistas seen on the Irish stage – grim, but beautifully crafted, and well staged and performed. It is very good theatre, but perhaps not a date play. (More on that from Bond himself, below.)
It opens in a claustrophobically small room, where a young man and woman are engaged in some vigorous (though fully-clothed) coupling. An elderly man walks in on them, barely bats an eyelid, and walks out again. It is the girl's father.
This sets the tone perfectly: it is funny, with a dash of farce, but it also incredibly bleak. The indifference of the father and daughter to each other's presence – the absence of shame – signals a vacuum at the heart of this family and, more broadly, a breakdown in social morality.
This is just the beginning. The nadir of this breakdown comes with the gang murder of the young woman's baby, which unfolds in a slow, gripping scene where the gang members prod each other into increasingly debased acts of violence. But perhaps more shocking is the lack of any emotional or moral reaction to the baby's death from any of the characters. The young woman and her family continue on as before; the gang members (including the man who is probably the father) suffer no crises of conscience; the one character in the play who appears to retain some virtue and humanity – the young man we previously saw “courting” – is fascinated, not repulsed, by the killing act.
Saved is being followed in the Peacock's “4x4” season (four plays, four weeks each) by a new play by Mark O'Rowe, Terminus. What Bond depicts happening in an impoverished English community in the mid-1960s is what O'Rowe has described in West Dublin today, in Howie the Rookie and Crestfall (though O'Rowe is lyrical and more overtly theatrical, where Bond's style is clipped realism). Both seem to overstate the capacity for violence – taken out of the context of their plays, the violence in them appears cartoonish and, hopefully, fantastical – but their success is in making this violence, and the motivations of those who enact it, appear credible and, even, inevitable. Both make big statements about social deprivation and alienation, but make them with incredible theatrical finesse and without didacticism.
Saved fulfills Bond's own prescription for his work, as stated in an interview with Michael Billington many years ago: “There is a special function to the theatre. It's a community function. And therefore one doesn't go to the theatre to be consoled with what should not be consolable. I mean, I'm a comic writer. I believe the stage should always be entertaining. But it should be the laughter which comes from knowledge, from identifying the fraudulent and the fake. If the laughter is simply sneering at people or the oddity of the world, then I don't see any point in it.”
The sole problem with this production is the ambition of the set, which calls for lengthy set changes that badly undercut the pace. (Though Paul O'Mahoney's claustrophobic interior is itself perfect.) Other than that, it is seamless. Eileen Walsh turns in a bravura performance as the young woman at its heart, and the entire ensemble is excellent. It is not an easy night's theatre. But it is a gripping one.
Saved by Edward Bond is at the Peacock, Dublin until 26 May. www.abbeytheatre.ie. Pictured above: Paul Moriarty, Tom Vaughan Lawlor, Eileen Walsh and Eleanor Methven in the Abbey production of Saved.
Picture by Ros Kavanagh