Slayed by Saved

30 October 2011

Saved, otherwise known as “the play where the baby gets stoned”, has had its first revival on the London professional stage in almost 30 years. I went along, and lived to tell the tale. 

Saved is well and truly a theatrical cause celebre, largely because of the shocking brutality of its subject matter, the Rite of Spring-like scandal it created at its premiere in 1965, and its part in the eventual liberalisation of English theatre censorship laws. Originally refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, which still had the power to veto or demand cuts to play texts, the Royal Court performed Saved under the guise of a “private members’ club”, but was successfully prosecuted for breaching the law, despite a public campaign in its defence lead by Laurence Olivier, the then director of the National Theatre. The law was eventually repealed in 1968. Saved went on to have over 30 international productions, is now assuredly referred to as a 20th century classic, and subsequent generations of playwrights including Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane have cited the play as an influence on their own ultra-violent work.

But despite its reputation, very few people seem to have seen Saved performed. Partially this is due to its author, Edward Bond, a man of acute intelligence but very little humour and a dictatorial attitude to the performance of his plays. Bond hasn’t let Saved be performed in London since the mid 1970s, when it was last directed by the young Danny Boyle at the Royal Court Theatre. Bond hated Boyle’s production and publicly criticised it, and has made some fairly bitchy comments about Boyle’s subsequent career since, including his Oscar-winning movie success Slumdog Millionaire – old grudges die hard, it seems.

Boyle isn’t alone though – Bond appears to have fallen out with nearly every subsidised professional theatre company in England – notably the Royal Court and the National, who once championed his work – and has had publicly fought spats with actors and directors who didn’t interpret his work to his liking. The first West End production of one of his plays – The Sea, starring Eileen Atkins – only took place a few years ago, and true to form, Bond hated it, reportedly storming out of rehearsals and refusing to attend the premiere. (I rather liked the production, and you can read my review here).

Bond now generally only allows his work to be performed in the UK by non-professional groups and student theatre, or by European theatre companies, where he has a God-like reputation. So it’s been something of a coup for Sean Holmes, the artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, to gain Bond’s approval for a revival of Saved. According to press releases, Bond allowed the revival to take place following last year’s ascension of the Conservative Party – who he has called the worst government in Britain since the 1930s – and particularly in the light of this summer’s riots, which appear to be the latter-day manifestation of the violent anarchy he prophesised in Saved in the mid 1960s.

I approached Saved with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. Here at last was an opportunity to see a classic play I’d read about years ago, as well as a rare opportunity to see a little-performed work. But did I really want to go and see a play involving a baby being stoned to death in its pram? While sometimes, this kind of challenging theatre can be exciting and invigorating, at other times it can make you want to prefer to put your head face down in a bucket of shit for three hours. Saved doesn’t qualify as theatre-as-entertainment: Footloose the Musical it definitely aint.

Even once you get over the initial squeamishness about the subject matter, there was a question of relevance. Could the play, which was once so scandalous, have any relevance for a post-censorship age of internet porn, war footage on the 6pm news, and horror films like Saw IV.  Would the act of a baby being stoned onstage even be shocking for a society numbed by what seems like endless revelations of child abuse? Was Saved just James Bulger Redux or Baby P: The Musical? – another slice of English kitchen sink miserabilism that would have very little to say about the state we’re in?

As it happened, Saved was an enormously absorbing and rewarding (though somewhat harrowing) experience, and one I’m relieved I went to. Thank God for Patrick, who had the good sense to get tickets for preview week so we could see it before reviews and Radio 4 critics got their teeth into it, and for being as willing as I was to take the play on in all its difficulty.

So, what’s the big deal with this play anyway? Yes, a baby does get stoned to death in its pram, onstage, in real time, by a gang of youths, one of whom is possibly the baby’s father. What’s brilliant – and depressing – about the work is how the entire play leads up to and provides a context for that scene, which makes it both more shocking, and somehow inevitable.

The characters in Saved exist in a lonely hostile universe, which seems to embody both the drabness of post-war council estate Britain, and a terrifying new world of moral weightlessness, casual sex and random violence. Although the external forces of the state are referenced – the police, the social services, the prison system – they’re as minor inconveniences to be dealt with or avoided. What’s striking about the characters is how isolated they appear to be from any wider social or political forces – TV and radio intrudes as a formless, unintelligible muzak – which leaves them with little to do but forage, animal-like, to survive.

The play pivots around Pam, a charmless teenager who’s first seen casually shagging Len, a near stranger, on the living room sofa while her near-catatonic father walks in and out again wordlessly. The action jumps forward to show Pam as the mother to an unseen baby, living with her unhappy bickering parents with Sid installed as a lodger and quasi-father figure. As they sit impassively in front of the television, the baby cries offstage, while no one moves to check it. In real time, the scene probably lasts about 15 minutes, but to watch it, it feels like an eternity, and brings you to the point of wanting to scream, and represents a more shocking (and realistic) picture of child abuse than what’s to follow. Pam rapidly loses interest in Len, and goes in pursuit of Fred, a geezer who plays with her and then ignores her brutally for the rest of the play. Meanwhile, Len loyally hangs on waiting for Pam to show him some affection again, and hoping also to find something in his life that’s meaningful.

The characters speak in a truncated, semi-literate, staccato speech that feels very South London as well as being highly stylised. It’s a compellingly poetic rendering of the inability to communicate, where (as with Pinter) the pauses and broken connections between the speech are as telling as the words themselves. In his review for the Guardian, Michael Billington argues that the language reflects Bond’s concerns with the coarse, brutal world we have created, in which “linguistic vacancy leads to moral indifference”.

In “that scene”, which happens about an hour into the play, shortly before the interval, Pam, quickly tired of motherhood, abandons the baby in a park and goes in search of Fred. After avoiding her, Fred and his mates happen on the pram, and use it as the subject of a violent game, which grows progressively more vicious. Egging each other on, they heap more abuse on the baby, smearing it in its own faeces, pissing on it and then finally stoning it to death in its pram. There are no baby sound effects this time – just the pram, parked silently in the centre of an empty stage, with a balloon (a gift from its grandmother) tied heartbreakingly to its side. It’s a devastating scene, acted fearlessly and without vanity by Holmes’ young cast. The interval comes mercifully soon after, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience clear a theatre as quickly and run to the bar with as much sense of relief as this one.

In the second act, Fred gets sent to prison for his part in the baby’s killing, but appears unchanged by his conviction or imprisonment, cursing his bad luck and priding himself on his new street cred. Pam, still holding a flame for Fred, gets viciously cast aside, while Len continues to toddle behind her, hoping for a friendly word. As violent as the baby stoning scene was, Bond saves the real fireworks for scenes between Pam and her miserable parents, who ricochet between catatonia and screaming arguments. Pam and Len, it is suggested, will turn into Pam’s parents before too long.

Through it all, the characters act and move as if they are throwing themselves against invisible walls: everyone seems to be dissatisfied with their lives and want something different, but no one has the ability to wade out of the shite of their own circumstances. Well, up until the final scene, anyway, which appears to offer some kind of redemption, or at the very least a respite from the misery of the last 2 hours. Pam and her parents sit silently in the living room, while Len works on the reconstruction of a chair that was broken in one of the earlier fights. The characters seem at peace, or at least mollified into silent submission, and it’s the closest they’ve come to resembling a functional family unit for the whole play. Only one line is spoken (by Len, to Pam, “Fetch me ‘ammer”) and the scene ends in silence.

Bond describes the ending as “almost irresponsibly optimistic”, but I’m not so sure. While the family may have found a way of co-existing without destroying each other, it’s at the cost of any verbal communication. If this is Bond being optimistic, then I’d hate to see pessimism. My own reading of the ending – which I think still fits with Bond’s vision of the play – is that there is no escape for the characters; that each of them remain stuck in their own private circle of hell.

What’s extraordinary about the play is how modern it felt – both in its style and subject matter – and how confident Bond is at showing appalling inhumanity without the need to lecture or revert to the standard sentimentalism of British social realist drama. Although the situations Bond sets up are shocking, he writes from inside the characters’ experience, rather than viewing them critically from the outside, and shows enormous compassion towards even his most marginalised and reprehensible characters. That Pam and Len and Fred and the rest all remain essentially “unsaved” seems less like a desire to shock middle-class audiences in a kind of “poverty porn”, and more like an attempt to try and understand the characters’ desperate situations. One of the more provocative readings of the play’s title is that it is only the baby who is “saved” by being killed, thus being spared from growing up in an otherwise appalling existence with an unloving family.

Saved is a hard watch, and a difficult play to confront. It remains, I think, a very important play, both for the confidence and coherence of the writing and the drama, and because it feels more strikingly like a play for our own times than a relic of the 1960s. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to see it – though I may need to rewatch Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion a few times as my own form of irresponsible optimism.

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