"Beauty is devoured by bitterness"
by Owen Kingston for remotegoat on 28/05/16

Edward Bond's Dea is a tragic tale in more ways than one.

Loosely modelled on Euripides' Medea (which incidentally came dead last when it was first presented at the Dionysia, yet still endures where many better-favoured works have perished), Dea explores the complex situation of a woman who murders her two babies, only to be raped by her husband immediately after, and then committed to an asylum. After becoming pregnant by her husband through rape, she gives birth to two more children who she is allowed no contact with. The rest of the play chronicles her attempts to reconnect with her family, with disastrous and disgusting consequences.

Of course, the play is about so much more than these mere aspects of plot. Bond's lengthy programme notes suggest that his intended reading of the play is a political one. The absent adulteress in this version of the Medea story is replaced by the base desires of man – the adultery itself an alignment with humanity's capacity to devour itself. Johnson (played by Edward Avison-Scott) cheats on Dea (Helen Bang) with the socio-political system he has embedded himself inside, and then proceeds to blame her for the horrific war that seems to last beyond a lifetime, when the truth is that his co-operation within the socio-political system that starts the war, along with the co-operation of so many others, is its true impetus.

We are not used to this sort of writing in the UK, and contemporary criticism suggests that we have all but lost the capacity to understand it. Bond draws heavily on the legacies of both the Athenian and the Renaissance playwrights to explore and understand the social and political developments of the last forty to fifty years, and to find a theatrical language for expressing humanity's failings. He asserts that “Drama's function is to push the present to extremes so that we may see what we are doing and where we are going”.

Dea certainly achieves this, and the result is perhaps the bleakest evening in the theatre that anyone might expect to experience. Bond is clearly disillusioned with the state of modern British theatre, and this production goes out of its way to slay the holy cows of our modern theatrical practice. You will see no Warhorse-like invention here. Indeed, this production of Dea appears to be frozen in time, as though the last forty years of British theatre had never happened. For audiences and critics alike the experience is alienating to say the least, and at times makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it is telling that the source of this discomfort in the audience is the almost embarrassing display of archaic theatre practice, as much as it is the repeated depiction of the brutal murder of infants and incestuous rape.

For while Bond's practice may have moved in one direction, British theatre has moved in another, and Bond's disengagement with our recent theatrical heritage and developments in dramatic writing are all too evident. Changes of scene are long and painful. Exposition is inelegantly dumped on us, and emotional truth is subverted by unrestrained verbiage and theatrical asides. In a world where Game of Thrones is a benchmark for modern television drama, emotional realism trumps affected theatricality while infanticide and incest have lost their impact. Bond's Dea, therefore, does not shock us in the way it might be intended to. Instead we find ourselves more shocked that this colossus, this giant of theatrical innovation, has apparently fallen so far.

But one cannot help but wonder if Dea can also be read in a completely different and very personal way - perhaps one that was entirely unintended by the playwright - as an exploration of Bond's relationship with British theatre. In this reading, the adultery of the story becomes a perceived obsession with spectacle and entertainment, and the adulteress herself the succession of younger playwrights and their plays, full of life and energy but lacking the substance Bond perceives in his own work and sees nowhere else. A jilted lover, he murders his own children to save them from the world his lover and its adulteress have thrown their lot in with, and the great betrayal becomes that of his contemporaries to what Bond perceives as the purpose of art, and the purpose of drama in particular – to push our understanding of the present to it's extremes “so that we may see what we are doing and where we are going” - thus to aid in the defence of humanity against itself. The idea that Dea may be so unintentionally self-revealing is a fascinating one. As a window into the mind of its author, it may be of unparalleled importance.

Regardless of the reading, the play is one full of bitterness and disappointment. It is difficult to watch, and very difficult to watch through to the end. It is unrelenting in its bleakness, and deeply unsettling, in part because Bond has an enviable prophetic track-record when assessing the state of our society. Saved was considered extreme and unlikely in its day, but fifty years on there are regular news reports from around the world of parents neglecting babies to the point of death in order to pursue their own pleasures. One can only hope that Bond's assessment in Dea of the way our society is heading is overblown and hysterical, but the current critical response to Dea – choosing to focus on the triviality of its form rather than the significance of its substance - suggests that this modern-day Tiresias may very well be proven correct in time.

To reduce such a work to a star rating, therefore, seems the height of churlishness and indicative of everything that Bond would perceive as wrong with British theatre. Because Dea does not sit comfortably within our paradigm it is tempting, as other critics have, to dismiss this work and move on - to ignore the rantings of this blind prophet on the fringe of our society, failing to communicate with the world he has come to save – but I find that I cannot in good conscience do this, and neither should you. This production is not enjoyable and you do not need to see it. Nevertheless if you care about our society and the state of our theatre you ought to see it, if only to challenge yourself to gaze into the intricate mirror that this octogenarian artisan has constructed. Bond may not have found the answer he hopes for but he has distilled the essence of our problems. If my words have persuaded you of anything, I hope they have persuaded you not to ignore this lone voice crying in the wilderness. There are plenty of tickets left. One can only speculate, but it is possible that this may be the last play from Britain's greatest living playwright, and it is also possible that it might be his most significant.

It will resonate, like a Greek scream in an amphitheatre, long after his death.

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