This time a week ago I was on my way to Hammersmith for my second foray west in the space of two weeks. This visit to the theatre had a lot to live up to after the first (this was to see the magnificent Bon Iver, easily one of my highlights of the year) and the production didn’t disappoint. It is just a shame that the audience did.
I went to the Lyric Hammersmith to see director Sean Holmes’ adaptation of Edward Bond’s play ‘Saved’, the first time the play had been put on in London for 27 years. Initially refused a license from the Lord Chancellor, the play’s reputation certainly proceeds it: several of the scenes of the play are notorious for their content and the play itself was heavily influential on the 1968 Theatres Act which resulted in the abolition of theatre censorship in Britain. That this play, so deeply entrenched in the issue of censorship, has been brought to the stage just as the massively controversial SOPA bill goes to Congress in the USA is extremely fitting. ‘Saved’ and its controversy provoked a response from Laurence Olivier, who in a letter to the Observer: “Saved is not a play for children but it is for grown-ups, and the grown-ups of this country should have the courage to look at it.”
I, however, was largely unaware of the controversy surrounding the play. My experience was a refreshing one; I consented to going with only the vaguest idea of what happened in the plot (I had heard of the infamous baby-stoning-scene) having not read the play or any reviews of it. I only became conscious of this halfway through the first act and in our internet culture of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, I couldn’t remember the last time I read a book, watched a film or played a game without being inundated with information or critical opinion before doing any of those things. In that respect I was quite unprepared for what followed.
I like to think that I am fairly desensitised to most things, but ‘Saved’ gave me some of the most uncomfortable moments of entertainment I have sat through in my recent memory. There is a scene in the second act in which the family of the play sit in the living room, watching television whilst their baby is crying off stage. The crying is near constant. The scene lasts for at least 15 minutes. The sound of a baby crying is supposedly one of the sounds that most people highlight as the worst sound to hear, or at least the most distressing. I never really bought into this, having little fondness towards children; my opinion of a baby’s cry was that it was a mild annoyance. However, being subjected to the sound of the crying whilst watching a family ignoring it, to the point where their television set is turned up to try and drown the sound out, was an extremely moving and horrifying piece of theatre.
The set piece involving the stoning of the baby requires little introduction. All I will say is that it was acted terrifically. Considering there was obviously a lot of expectation of this scene (think of it as the State of the Nation play’s version of Hamlet’s soliloquy), it still managed to present the barbarity of the scene in an exceptionally harrowing manner.
The play is not merely a series of distressing and violent relationships between characters; it tackles the issues of cultural poverty and social disenfranchisement on a council estate in 1960s Britain (once again apt, in the light of the summer of rioting), whilst offering an ‘almost irresponsibly optimistic’ end, as the play write himself puts it. Whilst I feel that Bond’s statement here is perhaps slightly flippant, the final scene casts and interesting light over the rest of the play, with the family unit becoming somewhat functional (or at least communicative). I was expecting the play tackles the issues affecting the working class disaffected era, and my experience duly delivered.
What I did not expect was the meta-theatrical aspect of my trip to the Lyric. I became one the disenfranchised youths of the play. It was not society with which I had my gripes though. It was my fellow theatre-goers.
I had intended on seeing this play a week before I did, but had to rearrange due to other obligations. My initial seats had been in the stalls but I had to settle for seats in the circle when I changed. It’ll be fine, I thought. It turns out I was placed behind a group of, what I assume must have been an A level English/Drama class, as they were a year or two younger than me and accompanied by a teacher-age woman. Bearing in mind this was a Friday evening, I once again thought this would be fine – students who give up the start of their weekend to go to the theatre must have some interest in the production. How wrong I was. They spoke throughout the entirety of the first half of the interval to the point where the usher stood next to their row in order to reduce them to whispers, as he was clearly getting sick of having to leave his seat to reprimand them. On top of this, each of 4 girls directly in front of me checked their smartphones every 2 minutes, producing a vibrant light that would shine in my eye each time. I am a massive fan of technology and social networking websites/ applications but this was the first time in my life that I had been truly enraged by their existence.
To cap off the experience, in the midst of a particularly emotive scene, involving a long, contemplative silence, one of their phone’s rang. It was not on silent. As if this was not bad enough, the girl had the audacity to *answer* the phone and explain they were in the cinema. I was both baffled and livid. Not only was this incredibly inconsiderate of their fellow audience members, such as myself, but unbelievably rude to the cast on stage. Have they not been to the cinema in the last 5 years and seen the Orange adverts telling them to put their phones on silent?! I just couldn’t fathom how anyone could be so inconsiderate of those around them. If this individual, and the group they were with were so uninterested in what was going on, they shouldn’t have been there simple.
This experience did not ruin the play for me – it was fantastically acted and directed throughout (the use of the empty stage to externalize the distance of the relationships between many of the characters was an exemplary move) and I would strongly advise checking out anything else than Mr Holmes does in the future. My experience merely marred an otherwise wonderful evening. It is the first time I have truly felt ashamed of my generation.