The Chair Plays are a trilogy of short works by Edward Bond. The first two of which, Have I None and The Under Room, are presented by the Lyric in a double bill while the third play, Chair, will open at the theatre in May. Both plays in this opening double bill are set in a dytopian future and both are, in their way, difficult to watch. This is not because they are particularly disturbing or shocking, but because of the way they constantly refuse meaning.
The shorter first play, Have I None, which is directed by the Lyric’s Artistic Director, Sean Holmes, features two characters, Sara and Jams. He is a member of the security forces and she hears strange knockings at the door. When a man arrives at their home claiming to be her brother events grow violent. Their world is evoked through a series of clues; the stranger presents them with a photo: “not allowed,” he is told. “All personal papers were destroyed when they abolished the past.” There has been an outbreak of mass suicide. While this is beautifully described – “Five or six throw themselves in…their overcoats are blown out on top of the water like bladders or big blisters”- these lyrical passages sit uneasily within the structure of the play.
There is a sense of repetition in the couple’s arguments that is clearly meant to develop into a refrain, but instead of subtext, the words resonate with nothing but their own meaninglessness. In a clearly significant moment, Sara enters wearing a floor-length reversible blue coat – spoons clang on one side and bones clatter on the other – but in its absurdity this crucial scene is awkwardly comic. The characters are not developed to the point where we can engage with them, nor are they given sufficient power to enact poetic or intellectual ideas. The play creates a sense of ailenation but one with little social or political context. That Bond’s twenty-two page foreword to introduce the new playtext reads like Deleuze and Guattari sharing a bong, only adds to the overall sense of pretentiousness.
The second play, The Under Room, directed by Bond himself, suffers from similar problems. An illegal immigrant has broken into Joan’s house and instead of calling the authorities she finds she is driven to help him. As a result she becomes sucked into a murky underworld of which she was previously unaware. Ideas about our response to the ‘Other’ are a major theme, as is the concept of human innocence. While there are exchanges that attempt to address some of these issues, the ideas never fully translate into the drama itself.
A cloth dummy is used to represent the immigrant while an actor, Felix Scott, speaks the character’s words from the side of the stage. The reason for this self consciously theatrical device remains unclear and it eventually becomes annoying. If meant as a play on Brechian alienation, it does indeed prevent emotional engagement, yet the situation depicted is so vague and the play fails to fully engage with the issues it touches upon.
The climax, Joan’s epically under-edited descent into madness, has her tearing apart the dummy and stabbing it repeatedly. For an abusrdly long time she sits and rips apart the yellow crepe paper that forms the dummy’s entrails while ranting and raging but this scene, once again, feels more awkward than anything else.
The Lyric achieved something of a coup with their revival of Bond’s most famous play, Saved. This, his first full length work, was written in 1965, but in the more recent years, Bond has had famously difficult relationships with the British directors and theatres with which he has worked. Apart from the Lyric, the only British company he currently works with is Big Brum, a young people’s theatre company in Castle Vale, Birmingham. Interestingly, in an interview with Fringe Review in 2010 he describes how “The Under Room was written for teens in Birmingham (13-15 year olds). You couldn’t put it on at the RSC or the Court.” With cyphers instead of characters and the constant threat of an ominous ‘they’, one can see how the heavy handed symbolism would appeal to adolescents; it is harder to see what it can offer an audience looking for a more subtle exploration of society.