Brighton Festival 2014
The Fen Country is flat. It’s bleak and isolated and its people don’t like outsiders. But it’s enigmatic and this production weaves its magic to bring the atmosphere of this strange place right into the theatre for the audience to measure up. The result is a haunting dedication to a part of the world that is fast changing, due to climate change and the increased demand on the land.
Ours Was the Fen Country is driven by verbatim recordings of fenland folk, where the performers copy the inflections and tones of the speakers as they listen to a series of interviews on headphones. The piece plays with the way in which the text is delivered, shifting between live delivery from the performers and amplified recordings, giving us the opportunity to share the rich and evocative resonances of the local voices, which bring a sense of place into the theatre. These voices belong to people whose way of life is fast disappearing: the eel man, who lives in hope that he won’t be the last; the elderly horseman who has an affinity for all breeds including the endangered Suffolk Punch; and the farmers who are witnessing their land wither away.
A central design feature is a replica of the Holm Fen Post, driven into the ground in 1851 by a local landowner who suspected that draining the land would lead to subsidence. The post was originally flush with the top of the soil, but now stands 4m above the surface and is a clear indicator of how changes to land management and climate change is affecting the landscape. It stands as a stark symbol of what is lost and a bleak warning for the future as the land continues to shrink by 2cm per year and as one man recounts – ‘that old wash is only 10 miles as the bird flies’.
The text is supported with solo and group movement pieces, which go some way to echo the sparse and watery landscape. For me, the most affecting piece involves an interview of a man reflecting on Cromwell’s character, which is archetypal of people from this area – stoic, gritty and determined. The group begin to stamp and march in time to his words, which are peppered like bullets, sending the performers ricocheting across the floor. This provides a very welcome change of dynamic in contrast to the general lyrical nature of the performance.
The production offers high production values with a skilled cast and deft direction from Dan Canham. Particularly effective is the sound design by Dan Canham himself, which weaves together excerpts from interviews, field recordings and music. Again the sound is simple and sparse – but there is nothing much more haunting than the call of a solitary curlew (if I identified that correctly). This seems like an appropriate word. The Fens are marked out in our cultural history as an unusual, isolated and captivating place. As our world seems to become ever more homogenised, it’s not hard to feel wistful for the old ways. However, this production and the people it represents, are far from submissive. These folk are boldly pragmatic. Several consider the idea that nature will redress the balance and if that means humanity paying the price, then so be it. ‘We’ve lost respect for nature and so we deserve to loose out.’
This piece was presented at the Brighton Festival as part of the Caravan programme, which aims to showcase the best and most inventive theatre being made in the country. The company thoroughly deserves such recognition as the work is of a very high quality, playful and engaging. Some audience members with whom I discussed the show, were disappointed that choreography had not featured as strongly as in previous productions. I was happy to be absorbed by the sound. And after all, leaving the audience wanting more is a far healthier position to be in than the alternative.