Since its debut at the Royal Court in 1965, Edward Bond’s Saved has become as notorious for its impact on British theatre as for its bleak depiction of a society in freefall. The Lord Chamberlain’s decision to ban it because of a scene in which a baby is stoned to death led to stage censorship being abolished. And Bond’s 25-year-long refusal to allow the play to be professionally revived, until now, has only contributed to its mystique and air of danger. But shorn of the controversy of its time, does it still have the power to shock?
Gangly, awkward Len is too gentle for the world he lives in. Renting a room in the south London home of his former girlfriend – who has just had another man’s baby – his compulsive need to be useful and to do the right thing (whatever that may be) is ignored or resented. Pam, his ex, blames his continued presence for weasel-faced Fred’s lack of interest in her and their child, which she and her family refer to as “it”; and his carrying of her mother’s shopping contrasts sharply with the lewd comments made by the young men kicking their heels in the streets outside the house. As Len blunders on, unappreciated, an increasingly suffocating atmosphere of frustration settles over all of the characters.
With his furrowed brow and strained voice, Morgan Watkins is achingly sad as Len; embodying the misery of a man who despairs of the course his life has taken, but doesn’t know how to steer it in any other direction. He’s matched by Lia Saville, who plays Pam with self-lacerating cruelty, hardened by her straitened circumstances and lack of prospects.
Perhaps the greatest shock in director Sean Holmes’s reverent production is how defiantly un-dramatic the play is. In spite of shrieks from audience members who had – at least on the night I saw it – clearly come primed to be horrified, what’s most unnerving about Bond’s vision of the consequences of prolonged poverty and social neglect is its numbness. There’s no struggle or crisis; hope has already been lost and ‘society’ has no meaning. Characters wander, dazed, through the wreckage of old ways, mechanically ironing, cooking and mending things while treating each other with casual, unrelenting callousness. Affection and respect are luxuries that can’t be afforded.
The infamous death scene is the culmination of a fraying of family ties we first encounter in a distressingly protracted sequence in which Pam turns the TV up to drown out her child’s off-stage crying, while Mary, her mother, and Len look on. It’s only a small step to the spitting, punching and killing of the same baby – now abandoned in its pram – by its father and his friends, shortly before the interval. The horror of the murder isn’t in what we see (which isn’t much) but in what means. If we completely disenfranchise a section of society, Bond says, we shouldn’t be surprised when this manifests itself as violence inflicted on the weak and even more helpless.
It’s a shame that the brutal intensity of this moment is diffused by the size of the Lyric’s stage. As the actors roam across its expanse to gather stones, we lose some of the momentum necessary to capturing the blood-lust frenzy of liberation from their lives that overtakes the whooping, hollering youths. Pace is a problem throughout the first half, which drags in places. But while the tempo picks up after the interval, some tonal unevenness creeps in – most noticeably in the scene in which a blushing Len finds himself on his knees repairing a petticoat-clad Mary’s tights, but only after she’s put them on.
Playing this sequence predominantly for laughs gives the audience a much-needed break from the grim relentlessness of the rest of the play. But it means that the subsequent fight between Mary and her husband (who walks in on Len with his face buried between his wife’s thighs) seems to come out of nowhere. In spite of this, Susan Brown and Michael Feast are astonishingly good as a couple whose silent avoidance of each other throughout the play erupts into sneering, venomous mutual recrimination for a lifetime of disappointment. The production is at its most visceral and alive in this scene, which makes the return to routine that follows so crushing. In this abandoned world, change simply isn’t possible.
When even the most awful events don’t affect the characters (Pam reacts more angrily to the loss of her copy of the Radio Times than the murder of her son) the play’s unending harshness sometimes works against it. By beginning and ending on the same plateau of misery, where no action has a moral consequence, Bond risks desensitising us to the litany of horrors he puts before us. But, ultimately, there’s enduring power in such bleakness. And this uncluttered production, with its sparse set, successfully releases the play from its period trappings to show that its exploration of the nature and chaotic expression of social discontent and breakdown is unsettling relevant to London today. Times have changed but Saved still has plenty to be angry about.