The Yale Cabaret is back. It opened this weekend with the U.S. premiere of Have I None, a taut, difficult, and entertaining play by Britain’s Edward Bond, directed by Jessica Holt. With a cast of three in a shabby, barely furnished room, the play manages, through dialogue and interactions alone, to create a sense of claustrophobia, dystopia, and lots of other phobias. It’s a play about a grim future in which the government has stepped in to save people from themselves—which translates into our society of luxury being replaced with a society of austerity and “resettlement.” To attain this state of ultimate parsimony, apparently, one of the luxuries dispensed with is the luxury of having a past. Photographs and pictures are not allowed, that much we gather from the dialogue. That’s not to say that the backstory ever becomes completely clear; this isn’t a sci-fi tale of future shock and how the world got that way—Bond seems only interested in giving us the bare bones of this bare-bones world. What he does explore is the effect on humans of whatever status quo they find themselves coping with.
It’s 2077 and a couple, Jams (Aaron Bartz) and Sara (Ceci Fernandez), live, under considerable tension, in their government-issued rooms, with their government-issued table and two chairs (“authority discourages furniture,” it’s said). Jams works on a patrol that goes about “the ruins” to make sure all is as it should be; he witnesses things like an old woman struggling to hang up a picture—strictly forbidden—and, in Reading, a mass “suicide outbreak” during which the residents all walked through the streets holding knives at arms' length before them, until they began to stab and cut themselves mercilessly. Sara, who we meet first, is plagued by sporadic knocking at the door, and no one there when she opens it.
Into this spare domestic space comes Grit (Chris Bannow) who claims he is Sara’s brother. He has walked “months” from the “other side” where there was a suicide outbreak—people throwing themselves off buildings and bridges. He carries a picture he claims shows Sara (whom he calls Sally) and himself when they were children. She denies knowing him. And of course photos are forbidden, so Grit is not only a potential reminder of a past best forgotten, he is also, in traveling with a photo and without a travel document, a sort of renegade. But his most immediate disruption to the life of Jams and Sara is that he sits, severally, in each of their chairs.
The comedy of the play is in the minutia of these domestic tussles over space and possession. Sara says she keeps a diary (though one imagines that too would be forbidden) to note events such as the time she heard her chair scrape—proof that Jams had been sitting in it and got out of it when she came in. Other infractions include the time Sara left the tap running and the time she left her shoes where Jams might trip on them and break his neck. With these exchanges—engagingly vehement and both shocking and absurd—Bond shows us the quality of life under such austerity. If it echoes of life during wartime—with rations and the threat of the Blitz—that’s no doubt because Bond was a child in WWII and the horrors of the future he imagines recall the horrors of a past when death came knocking regularly, in the midst of life as usual.
Holt’s production maintains a firm grip on the play’s tension, and her cast is quite adept at the kind of humor, dark and very British, on view here. It’s a fine line. Bannow’s Grit, for instance, is someone whose life has come apart but who somehow manages to be a forthright fellow. What his aim is, in trying to claim kin, is never stated outright—to Jams he’s a “sick ghost with a disease”—but his presence there occasions a hallucinated scene with Sara, gowned in a cape of spoons that becomes a cape of bones, who tells him she remembers when he had fever as a child and, to her mind, died, though their parents and the doctor were unaware of this. This scene, with Sara crouching beside the sleeping Grit, presents the only tenderness on view in the play—that is until Grit helps the dying Sara to leave the house after she deliberately consumes poisoned soup meant for him.
The strength of the play is in its pacing, letting things settle upon us during lulls, broken-up at any time by shouting fits. In the histrionics we might occasionally lose a key line—Bond’s dialogue is very precise and, though the cast very gamely creates suitable British accents, at times the tonality is a bit off. This seemed to me particularly the case for Jams. Aaron Bartz does an amazing job in a part that provides the forward thrust of almost every scene, full of the verbal energy of a man who will talk aloud to himself and to anyone in earshot, but his Jams seems to me too sensitive. I believe Bond intends a character much more in-keeping with the stereotypical “bobby” or British Constable, so that much of the comic intent depends on this figure’s fetish for control and fear of getting “chopped” for infractions against the code of conduct—he even uses the phase “conduct unbecoming” when refusing to help his dying wife leave the house.
Fernandez gives much dignity and pathos to the role of Sara, her very expressive eyes and hands creating a sense of a woman capable of living a much different sort of life, and her wandering in the ruins attests that her dissatisfaction goes beyond use of her chair behind her back; we should see that Sara’s fierce defense of her rights in the house comes from years under the same roof with Jams—regardless, almost, of what’s going on “out there.” Grit, in bringing with him a phantom past and creating an occasion for poisoning, gives Sara her out, which may be the start of another “outbreak” as Jams looks out the door after her departure and moans “O God it’s worse than Reading.”
A final note, about that title: the playbill quotes a line from Acts 3:6, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give thee,” but I find another relevant reference in the old riddle that begins “Brothers and sisters have I none…”
Have I None By Edward Bond Directed by Jessica Holt
Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Dramaturg: Hugh Farrell; Producer: Molly Hennighausen; Set: Alexander Woodward; Costumes: Grier Coleman; Sound: Joel Abbott; Lights: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Technical Director: Justin Bennett
Yale Cabaret January 16-18, 2013