Edward Bond wasn’t there on the first night of Saved, the play that made his name and helped remake British theatre at one fell swoop. On November 3 1965, when the Royal Court unveiled what ranks among the most controversial and influential dramas in its history, still notorious for its pivotal scene in which a group of young working-class men casually torment and then stone to death an abandoned baby in its pram (“Might as well enjoy ourselves”), he was at home.
What was he doing? I ask him. Was he pacing about, fretfully waiting to hear how it had gone? Bond, now 77, and with well more than 40 plays to his name, taps his forehead and a smile creeps across his thin lips: “No – I was already getting on with my next one.” He gleaned from others the appalled response of some of the spectators – as the Daily Mail critic reported: “It is not often in that hardened audience that you hear the cry 'Revolting’ and 'Dreadful’ and the smack of seats vacated, but you did last night.”
Was Bond surprised at the outrage that followed? Yes, he says. “To me, the play was perfectly obvious. I think a lot of the reviews were vitriolic because I had disturbed something – Saved is telling you something you need to know. What you do is push the contradictions in society to an extreme and out of that extreme you can say, 'this is what is happening to you’.”
A major revival this month by Sean Holmes at the Lyric Hammersmith stirs questions about the impact it had then, and what it might achieve now – and invites, from the author, memories about being caught up in a cause célèbre that was instrumental in ushering in the end of theatrical censorship.
Bond recalls the “intellectual anger” that seized him when he saw the blue pencil lines the Lord Chamberlain’s office had marked on the script with suggested cuts. His refusal to amend it in any way – “I would not alter one full stop” – and the consequent decision to present Saved as a “club performance” for members-only, and subsequent prosecution of the director William Gaskill, galvanised a parliamentary review of the law, eventually resulting in the abolition of censorship in the 1968 Theatres Act.
While Saved may be much heard of, it’s seldom seen. Its last London showing was 27 years ago – again at the Royal Court. When you hear Bond talk in scathing terms about that production, directed by Danny Boyle – (“They didn’t understand it at all, how it’s structured, how it works, what it’s saying”) – you grasp why he has been reluctant to let others near it – and why he has earned a reputation as one of theatre’s prickliest customers. The Court’s then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark has described him as “the most difficult person I have worked with in 40 years”.
So why grant approval for another look at it now? Bond admires Holmes, who directed a Chichester revival of another of his finest works, The Sea (1973), a production he glowingly contrasts with a recent West End attempt he refused even to attend, having watched a run-through in dismay. But it’s the times, more than the suited temperament of his younger collaborator, that have changed him: we owe this rare sighting of Saved to Bond’s disgust at the Coalition.
Shifting from wryness into incandescence, his pale blue eyes glinting with fury through his spectacles, he says: “It occurred to me when the present government got in that it was going to be the worst government since the 1930s because it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Laurence Olivier said that Saved was a warning about what will happen. The play is more relevant now. I’m certain of that. There’s a huge hollowness in our society.”
There’s a point of connection, he believes, between the action of the youths in his play and the August riots. “Those girls out there, those guys – were they acting politically? You have to say “No – they don’t understand their political situation”. They didn’t find out where the bankers are living – they turned on their neighbours. They started destroying themselves – and that’s what happens in this play. The guys kill the baby in order to gain their self-respect. That seems like a total contradiction. That baby is dirty, inarticulate, unable to control its situation.”
So it becomes an emblem of their helplessness? “Absolutely that – and that’s what happened in those riots. It’s going to get worse. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that we are driving straight at that brick wall.”