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A CurtainUp London Review
The Pope's Wedding
by Neil DowdenThe Cock Tavern Theatre has come up with the terrific idea of staging a season of works by the major but sadly neglected British post-war playwright Edward Bond. It features six plays, one from each of the decades he has been writing, concentrating on rarely staged work or premieres, including a brand new play from this maverick 76-year-old. It represents a long overdue revival of interest in a distinctively subversive theatrical voice who fell out of favour with the theatrical establishment some years ago.
Bond's first play, The Pope's Wedding, is here revived shockingly for only the second time in Britain since being premiered at the Royal Court in 1962. Set in an impoverished rural Essex, it is a fascinating though flawed mixture of vernacular naturalism and mysterious symbolism which may not fully convince but intrigues all the same and heavily foreshadows his later, more mature works.
The initial focus is on a group of six farm-labouring lads, whose only relief from hard physical work is drinking, smoking, playing cricket, scrapping amongst themselves and trying to get off with women whenever the occasional opportunity arises. Though at the start Pat is going out with Bill, she soon switches over to Scopey, but after a honeymoon period their marriage begins to fall apart as he becomes obsessed with the hermit-like old man Allen whom she has been helping, leading to a violent climax.
The Pope's Wedding features recognizably Bondian themes of mental illness, simmering male violence, an ignorant crowd threatening an outsider as a scapegoat for its own frustrations and fears, and a claustrophobic community harbouring repressed desires and resentments. Though the deprived social background is strongly set, this is not an obviously political play, as it follows the strange psychological journey of Scopey as he slowly seems to take on the identity of Allen. The play assumes a brooding, threatening atmosphere in which the protagonists' motives are never explained but although powerful the overall result is uneven and unsatisfying.
Conrad Blakemore's patchy production is not a bad effort but does not capture the full force of Bond's disturbing ambivalence, so that what happens seems strained rather than natural. The scenes with the young bucks bantering and brawling are the strongest, with a deftly presented cricket match, but the more subtle, poetic moments do not work so effectively. In Nancy Surman's design the prints of Constable's 'Haywain' on the walls act as an ironically Arcadian counterpoint to the brutal reality on stage, but fluidity is not helped by intrusive set-changing on a tiny stage, which makes the drama unnecessarily slow-moving.
The cast do a pretty good job. Tim O'Hara shows well Scope's transformation from shy blokeishness to cocky menace but he does not illuminate what is going on inside his head. Rebecca Tanwen's sensual Pat quickly tires of her husband's irrational and intimidating behaviour as she veers again towards the Matt Stokoe's straightforwardly manly Bill. And John Atterbury's defensively inarticulate Allen is a man on the margins of society who barricades himself into his hut like an animal in his lair.
Even if not quite rising to the challenge in this production, full credit should be given to this enterprising fringe pub theatre for taking on the demanding but rewarding works of the radical provocateur Bond. The rest of the season should prove interesting.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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