The Chair Plays
Hammersmith Lyric Studios, until the 05 May 2012
Edward Bond’s one-act Have I None, first performed in 2009, is a lacerating fifty-five minute portrayal of humanity surviving in a post-consumerist world. It hinges on Bond’s neat take on the dystopian vision; usually we are provided with one of two choices, either a world that initially appears to have the trapping of a democracy and people seem to have every whim catered before it becomes obvious that it is sustained by the brutal repression of the masses, Hunger Games being the $£750 million example of this. The alternative is a society controlled by a militaristic bureaucracy where everything seems to exist on a tonal palette running from grey to greyer; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Pinter’s New World Order both seem appropriate here.
In Have I None, Bond has carved his own path. The play considers a world where humanity has seen society destroy itself through its consumerist appetites; a character describes people buying sports car just to crash them into walls. In response people have turned to the state for action, and the Government has acted by creating ‘resettled’ towns where the past has been banned and the only personal possessions allowed are those provided by the state. It is enforced equality in action.
Those towns that have not been resettled are infected by mass suicide outbreaks, which give Bond a chance to turn his often-underutilised poetic skills to the sight of rows and rows of people in overcoats waiting for their turn to leap from a bridge. It is a classic Bond technique; every-day brutality that is captured by a lyricism that suggests a beauty that attracts and alienates in equal measure.
In an intriguing premise, Bond argues strongly that even if people rejected consumerism they would turn their latent self-interest and possessiveness onto the items that remain. As the controlling class strip away the items of value then those that remain take on an innate value of their own despite being identical. Two chairs and a table become a battlefield in itself.
It is a bleak and unflattering look at humanity but one that is convincing in the context of a neo-Marxist critique of post-1945 society. Have we not become a country who looks to satiate its wants above its needs? And if we stripped it away would we really not covet our neighbour’s goods even if they were to all extents and purposes identical to our own? Behavioural economics has consistently demonstrated that people tend to value things more highly when placed in the context of other people.; put simply someone would rather earn £50,000 if his next-door neighbour earned £25,000 than earn £100,000 if his neighbour earned £200,000.
It is this unexpected perspective that elevates Bond’s play above the mundane dystopian pulp novel. It understands the inherent absurdity in valuing something that has no intrinsic value, and it allow Bond to mine the situation for comedic purposes. The play is allowed to take farcical twists as arguments develop over who sat where. As the argument spirals out of control we see the three characters backed against the wall each clinging onto a piece of furniture as it was a priceless Ming vase. In a play that is often weighed down by its overbearing air of menace, these scenes provide welcome relief.
The past is explored with the arrival of a ‘forgotten’ brother and a family photo, long since banned by the state. He is the catalyst that triggers action in the play and awakes the memories of the sister and drives the play towards its conclusion. It is also the weakest segment of the play and there are a number of questions that are glossed over in order to maintain narrative coherence. There is also an enigmatic sequence where, as the brother sleeps, the sister appears in a coat with spoons attached. It remains unclear to me as to the purpose of the spoons in the scene.
It is not a subtle play but one does not turn to Bond for subtlety and, even if this is not one of his greater works, it is good to see the London theatre scene beginning to reinvest in Bond’s career after a prolonged hiatus. He is unlikely to ever write plays that appeal to a mass audience but it is important in these challenging times, where cuts to arts funding are always high on the agenda, that playwrights like Bond are still given a performance space and their voice can be heard.
Note: This play is performed as alongside Edward Bond’s The Under Room as a double bill. Only Have I None is reviewed here.