September 01, 1980

Black Pastoral

by Edward Bond
State Theatre Company
Playhouse, August, 1990.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

“I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society.” Edward Bond’s plays have reiterated this theme from the first. But for him violence is not innate, some kind of blight in the DNA, it is the consequence of social structures and symptomatic of class-based injustice. That is what Saved is about, and his powerful re-telling of Shakespeare’s Lear. It is also the point of Restoration.

Described as a pastoral, Bond’s play wittily echoes the conventions of Restoration and 18th Century comedy and at the same time shrewdly highlights that just as the landed gentry forged an unholy alliance with the merchant class back then, so it continues to do so in the Thatcher decades.

As always with Bond’s theatre, abstractions are given precise dramatic form. Designer Mary Moore’s set in massive basic black uses an arched bridge set high above the large disc that comprises the main acting area. This she selectively inhabits with statuary – curious deer, regal lions, various servile dogs and an ominous carcase. Bond’s text is loaded with beastly images. Treat me like an animal, bellows Frank the tearaway Londoner, and I will behave like one.

Director Simon Phillips has taken the clear lines of Moore’s design and created action to match. Interspersed are fourteen songs (words by E. Bond, music by State’s Richard Piper) performed by the actors with microphones while the five musicians give their view from the bridge. There are echoes of Brecht, The Clash, Pete Townsend and a touch of Steeleye Span. It is a more than workable hybrid.

Restoration is a twisted little parable of the good and the bad servant. Bob Hedges, instead of being rewarded for in turning in his fellow servant Frank caught fingering the silverware, finds himself facing the gallows, blamed for a murder committed by his master, Lord Are. Bob’s resourceful wife Rose, the daughter of a black slave, pleads for a reprieve but when it is issued it is then intercepted by Are who orders Bob’s illiterate mother to burn it. Bond brilliantly inverts the sentimental conventions of the gallows melodrama and in the process creates a memorable character with the vainglorious Lord Are.

Paul Blackwell’s opening speech as Lord Are is both hilarious and chilling. This Man of the Mode is a fop with a mind like a dagger. It is a well-judged performance, a further consolidation after Blackwell’s fine work in The Comedy of Errors. As the reluctant Lady Are, Caroline Mignone matches him with manic comedy particularly in the outrageous death scene at the breakfast table. Richard Piper gives the misguided Bob Hedges dignity even in folly- and sings well too. Syd Brisbane’s Frank is smart and volatile and Bob Hornery, Carmel McGlone and Daphne Gray also turn in strong work. As Rose, Claudia La Rose has tenacity and authority. The play pivots on her performance and she is a match for the task.

After the brilliance of its comedy in Act I the play has its problems in Act II and Phillips and his cast do well to bring it through. It is likely to be as good a production of this work as has been staged anywhere .It seems, however, that Restoration has not done good box office and the word is that the politics and the music got on some people’s wick. Diversity of repertoire is part of the company’s charter and Simon Phillips should stand his ground. Having snarled at productions such as last year’s Ring Around the Moon, I am pleased that State not only chose a play with something to say but made such a good fist of it as well.

“Black Pastoral” The Adelaide Review, No.80, September, 1980, p.27.

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