Edward Bond: 'The most obscene thing I've seen recently is Slumdog Millionaire'
In a recent event on the Brighton fringe, playwright Edward Bond discussed the horrors of being bombed, children's need for theatre – and why he's so angry about the 'Bollywoodisation' of India
Chichester Festival theatre may be laying on a starry revival of Bingo just up the road. But on Tuesday night playwright Edward Bond – who rarely gives interviews, and now writes in self-imposed exile from the British theatrical establishment in Paris – chose a fringe production of another of his plays, at a tiny pub venue in Brighton, to deliver a passionate and characteristically shocking argument for our fundamental need for theatre.
Sitting with his wife Elisabeth on the front row of the Brighton festival fringe venue Upstairs at Three and Ten, so close to the little stage that she caught a flying prop and he was nearly sprayed with fake blood, Bond watched director Aine King's budget update of his Falklands play Tuesday, which brings the current war in Afghanistan howling into one teenage girl's English bedroom in a discord of desert fire and James Blunt.
"One of the things that makes me a writer is that, from the age of three, I was constantly bombed," Bond said in a question-and-answer session afterwards. "People would fly overhead and try and kill me. A bomb is coming down and you say, 'it must hit me'. Ten minutes later it is still coming down and you say, 'it must hit me'. Ten years later it is still coming down and you say, 'it must hit me'. Television just can't tell you what that's like. And so you write out of the noise – and the silence within that noise.
"I think I'm a very political writer but I don't write political tracts. Drama has a different function, which society is pushing out, and that's dangerous. Theatre is communication between people. That's why I hate it when writers are clever." Bond seems more tolerant of clever directors, though. He admired King's alteration to Tuesday's ending – which he revealed she had not mentioned for fear he wouldn't come (and which I can't reveal without a spoiler).
"I want to go away and think about your change to the ending," he told her. "It was very, very interesting. You were pushing the play into 2010 – in a very good way. At the end, the space got closer than this little room. Young people are having to learn to live in a new reality where what was continents, jungles away is now next door – which is the play I'm writing at the moment, actually. That's why theatres like [Upstairs at Three and Ten] are so important. You're getting something very close to the theatre of Dionysus here. If you really want to see human theatre you come to a place like this – you don't go to the National Theatre, that's rubbish. And when I say rubbish, that's looking on the good side!"
Mention of the National has always tended to get Bond hot under the collar. But when we really heard his moral anger – the same that had earlier pumped through almost every line of stage dialogue – it was on an entirely unexpected subject. "You know, England colonised India," he began, "but Hollywood has turned it into Bollywood, and that's much worse. The most obscene thing I've seen recently is Slumdog Millionaire."
"Why obscene?" he asked, his voice rising suddenly in indignation. "Because drama must pay attention to the thing that is most extreme in human behaviour. In this film, a child has his eyes burned out. You don't write a film about winning when that can happen. The Greeks wouldn't have stood for it. It's a corruption of human reality – which we create in the imagination."
As with Bond's plays, the Q&A audience were left flailing around for a glimmer of hope. And, as in his plays, it was there, in the starkest image of the night. These days most of the work Bond undertakes in his country of birth is with children – particularly the Birmingham youth group Big Brum Theatre.
"I'm not pessimistic about young people," he said. "I've heard directors at the National who say 'audiences now can't concentrate'. But they do. Working with Big Brum, they all had different problems – drugs, assaults at home. These children had tattooed postcodes on their wrists – my god, the Nazis did that in the camps, but they had done this just to grab some identity. At home they couldn't sit still for five minutes. In the theatre they sat for an hour. And I'd watch the eyes of these children and it would scare me.
"Where have I seen that look before?" he asked as the audience craned forward in unison. "I had seen that look in a film about starving children in Africa. Those children needed food. These children also needed and wanted something – and they won't get it from the TV or the big established stages. They'll get it from places like this."