His word is Bond

Edward Bond and Robert Woodruff team up for totalitarian chills in Chair.

SEAT OF POWER Woodruff takes a load off with Chair.

SEAT OF POWER Woodruff takes a load off with Chair.

If we have learned nothing else from the past several months, surely we now know it’s hard out there for a maverick. But doesn’t theater clasp buccaneers and iconoclasts to her bosom? Not when they are prickly bomb-tossers like Edward Bond, a man who can simultaneously be hailed as one of the most important living British playwrights and still exist in almost total artistic exile in his homeland.

Bond, 74, hasn’t slowed down since his censorship-smashing Saved in 1965, yet these days most of his work appears only in France, and he is seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic. Luckily, director Robert Woodruff is out to change that. Woodruff has directed three of Bond’s works—Saved, starring Norbert Leo Butz, at Theater for a New Audience (2001), and two productions at the American Repertory Theater in Boston—and now he returns with the New York premiere of Chair. In this minimal Orwellian thriller, a woman brings a chair to a soldier waiting for a bus, and all hell promptly breaks loose. “Robert understands my plays,” says the dramatist, whose artistic convictions have led to repeated squabbles with British directors, and thus his absence from their scene.

The match is an appropriate one—both men talk about their affinity for the extremities of human behavior. Woodruff’s work tends toward sweeping, painterly images and actors working at the edge of their physical capacity, which equips him to match the playwright’s poetic use of violence. Bond specializes in symphonies composed from human ugliness, punctuated with nasty shocks. Saved’s climax sees bored youths stoning a baby to death in his pram; Olly’s Prison coolly depicts a man killing his daughter.

Bond influenced a generation of edgy British writers such as Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane, but he still can’t be matched for evoking sheer, vertiginous terror on stage. He uses states of fear to force the audience to think in “accident time,” the sensation that time is moving slowly as the panicked brain speeds up.

Though eager to sit in on rehearsals, Bond was stuck at his home in Cambridge, England, where his wife had a fractured arm and he was “doing the washing up.” But the author’s fondness for stateside productions of his plays (which have been almost exclusively staged by Woodruff) is palpable. He also clearly misses the opportunity to raise some hell. “I was scheduled to talk to the students at Columbia,” Bond says. “It’s too bad I won’t get to talk to them about Obama.” He avows, “The fate of a democracy depends on its drama. People say, ‘Oh, come on, Edward.’ But if the theater doesn’t change, then Obama will have failed.”

Many of the things Bond says are provocative, if not downright impish. He bristles with barbs about David Hare’s The Vertical Hour (“He must be a genius—he stayed awake while he wrote it”), fellow titan Samuel Beckett (“Basically antihuman”) and Elia Kazan’s Method acting style (“That’s the theater of Stalin right there”). But he reserves his deepest animus for important things, such as the “way that evil masquerades in society.” Woodruff agrees that Bond is a big-issues guy. “He’s investigating the relation between the individual and the society,” the director notes. “When actors pick up his work, it’s like working with the Greeks. They feel, This is why I’m on the planet. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it.”

Again and again Bond returns to an idea of “humanness” and the way that drama can help create that in an audience. “The human mind creates itself to comprehend justice,” he asserts. “The first thing a child learns is right and wrong. If a child thinks it is being mistreated, it discovers real rage, on the scale of Lear or Hamlet. Drama lets us re-create the world, and so exercise our judgment as we do it.” This credo drives Bond to tackle people at their worst. More than any other dramatist, he points to the horrors of Hiroshima and Dachau as reasons to write, to tackle questions of good and evil.

Naturally, that raises the bar for productions to an almost insuperable height. How does Woodruff juxtapose what Bond calls “the edge of the universe and the kitchen table”? He’s still puzzling it through. “This play is like bone on bone,” the director mutters as he heads back into rehearsal for another brutal go-round. “If we can get it to feel like that—to take all the cushion out of it—we’ll be fine.” Gird your loins, folks. Bond is back.

Chair is playing at the Duke on 42nd Street through Dec 28.

Robert Woodruff: Dangerous stages TONY surveys the past decade of Woodruff’s haunting onstage images.»