Friday, May 27, 2016

'Dea' at the Secombe Theatre, 26th May 2016

It's always reassuring when a production feels the need to remind its audience that what they're about to see is fiction. So it is with Edward Bond's incredibly violent and deeply surreal journey through the British psyche, Dea. In the first couple of minutes twin babies are beaten to death with high heels. Soon we're watching a mother giving a blowjob to her adult son ("you knew I was your mother and you came in my mouth!"). Then comes three hours of rape, necrophilia, torture, decapitation and a general carnage.

By the time it wrapped up, Dea was all over the place like a madwoman's shit and pretty much everyone there appeared to hate it.

They are all wrong. 

Dea is great, each scene filled with the precise kind of darkly vicious lyricism and big spurting gouts of misanthropic violence that does it for me. It reminded me of my favourite directors Lars von Triers and Michael Haneke, storytellers who, like Bond, are not constrained by social delicacies, who're willing to lift the rock of society and expose the insects scurrying in the rot.

Structurally the night is a triptych, each portion divided by an interval. The first is a seamy saga of familial self-destruction that spans the interwar period and climaxes in World War II. The second finds the contemporary British military in some anony-desert, losing their marbles and their morality in an orgy of death. Finally we journey to post apocalyptic future Britain, where the insane survivors of some undefined catastrophe try to piece together meaning from the shattered fragments of society.

Though chronologically separated, the play as a whole has a clear narrative and thematic thread. At the core is the eponymous Dea (Helen Bang), a kind of 20th century 'wandering jew' cursed to spend eternity searching for her dead son. A loose analogue of the mythological Medea, Bond's Dea is an eternal victim, bearing the burden of our society's collective guilt on her bony shoulders, as she's molested, shot and beaten by a series of burly men.

Another element common to all three parts is the British military as a vehicle for evil:. They're portrayed here as a vicious gang of sexual sadists who shroud their crimes with the veneer of duty, exposing the lie of 'soldier's honour'. Whether Dea is a depressed housewife, a nomad in the Middle East or a lunatic future hermit, she's the victim of masculine oppression. Eventually we realise that the apparently random double infanticide that starts the play with a bang is a symptom of her realising the horror that her husband represents and resolving that the world does not need more growing up in his image.

But Bond's takedown of the military mindset isn't just a shot in their eye, but of the fabric of British way of life. Our 'green and pleasant land' rests on tissue paper spread over a gaping abyss. Britain's past, present and future is steeped in blood; our clothes, food, gadgets etc constructed by third-world economic slaves in collapse-prone factories where suicide nets festoon the walkways; our economy is reliant in exporting instruments of death for oppressive regimes to use on protesting civilians; and even within our relative paradise we collectively couldn't care less about drowning refugees that would, if circumstances were slightly different, be us.

Meanwhile the British theatre is largely steeped in mindless frivolity and bad metaphors. One of the most dismal things I've seen of late was a production that explored the plight of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean via a skinny hipster crawling across the stage dressed as a turtle - I mean come on people is that the best we can do? There is good stuff out there, but faced with this avalanche of banality who can blame Bond for wanting to stub his cigarette out in theatreland's eye? I'm with him when he writes "I write of the rape of a corpse with a beer bottle to bring back some dignity to our theatre".

Though the reviews aren't all in yet, they'll say that the violence in Dea is gratuitous and just there for shock value (the snootier critics will be quick to point out that they weren't shocked at all). Firstly, there's nothing inherently wrong with setting out to shock people out of their complacency, secondly, the violence in Dea must be outrageous in order to reflect our fucked up world. Then again, I guess it's appropriate to react with blase blankness to soldiers threatening to gangrape a female prisoner when this very crime has been carried out in our name countless times and nobody gave a toss then either.

Dea is, ultimately, a ragged, chaotic and entirely appropriate reaction to a world gone mad. Bond cuts through the bullshit manners and taste that restricts most theatrical writing and delves deep into the mire of modern life. In the nihilistic closing scenes, two characters desperately pick over the bones (figurative and literal) of civilisation. This is where we're heading, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

On top of all that it's a cleverly executed and pacy piece of drama, with the second part in particular displaying a great eye for blocking and set design. Helen Bang excels amongst the cast and makes for a compelling central, St Sebastian-esque figure, her desperate eyes looking like snooker balls rolling around in her skull as she absorbs the horrors surrounding her. There's a couple of rough-edged performances scattered through the show; but by and large this is a brave cast displaying an overwhelming commitment to the text.

I don't expect Dea will do particularly well, financially or critically. For one it's in Sutton, a pain to get to at the best of times. For another it's three hours long and the curtainfall comes dangerously close to missing the last train back to central London. For one more thing, maybe audiences just aren't up for three hours of insane people waving severed heads about, murdering babies and fucking their sons.

But I very much am. Dea is a hurricane of rancorous air in a theatreland that seeks to mollify, swaddle and infantilise rather than challenge audiences. Edward Bond is 82 this year, but he's still got that crucial "fuck you" factor. This play deserves to be seen.


Dea is at the Secombe Theatre until 11th June. Tickets here.

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