The Sea

Published April 17, 2008

Waves crash on the Haymarket stage, thunder rumbles, the sea roars as it steals the life of a character who, though central to the plot of Edward Bond’s The Sea, will not speak a word. So powerful is the sound of the murderous water that it drowns the opening words as one man tries to save his friend, another refuses to help and a third is too drunk. Matthew Amer was in the first night audience.

The opening death looms over a small seaside town, while barely affecting its residents at all. Most of them slept through the deathly storm anyway, while those that didn’t have other problems. Yet the consequences of the death, or the lack of them, are what concern Bond’s dark comedy.

David Haig is surely the go-to actor of choice when anyone needs an off-kilter, neurotic, angry man-on-the-edge, and in this production he once again steps into these well-worn weather-beaten shoes. From a seemingly mild-mannered, pleading shopkeeper emerges a man who has struggled his whole life to make ends meet as a draper in a small seaside town. Pushed to the edge, he believes that aliens are invading and that vigilance is the first line of defence. Believing that the wave-tossed boats carried such invaders, it is he who refuses to help and has to live with the consequences.

Eileen Atkins revels in the role of Mrs Rafi, the stern, aloof matriarch of the town to whom everyone else must bend. Her treatment of Haig’s Hatch triggers his complete breakdown in a scene as disturbing as it is humorous. For her the death is nothing more than another opportunity to be the centre of the world, while Marcia Warren’s Jessica Tilehouse constantly strives to step out from her all-consuming shadow.

Bond’s play is full of disconnection, with no character really expressing an emotional connection with any of the others. It is a community that is strangely separate. Harry Lloyd’s Willy is particularly upright and stern, even though his friend has just been killed. Life goes on. One insignificant life does not, it seems, really matter to almost anyone.

As is so often the case, tragedy and comedy go hand in hand, the funniest moments often also being the most disturbing: a funeral which descends into a battle of wills and sees ashes used entirely inappropriately; Hatch’s energetic, material-fuelled breakdown; a rehearsal for a local production in which Rafi dominates the entire community. Each balances laughter with a nagging sense of desperation and detachment.

Paul Brown’s design sees vast slate beaches and ragged cliff tops brought to the Haymarket’s stage. A desolate landscape for a desolate comedy. em>MA