Brighton Fringe 2019
Sary is directed, lit and designed by its author Sam Chittenden at The SweetVenues Sweetwerks 2, with few props and a beguiling soundscape by Simon Scardanelli, and Sweetwerks technical support directed by Chittenden. Till May 16th.
Sam Chittenden and Different Theatre Productions spell magical story-telling and a poetic serenity in the face of the dark. Sary, set on the early 19th century Sussex Downs, is no exception. After its premiere last October Brighton’s Horrorfest – though more truly spooked with the moon than blood moons – its revival occurs in a space that does it justice.
Directed, lit and designed by Chittenden at The SweetVenues Werks 2, there’s now two farmhouse chairs, matching clothing (brown smocks, grey dresses) a sewing basket, creel, water carrier and a beguiling soundscape by Simon Scardanelli, with a haunting violin folk tune – this might be original. The programme card supplies a helpful glossary for arcane idioms but it’s not essential to follow the tale.
Sary builds on an innovation of Chittenden’s short 2017 play Moving Slowly. This features two actors playing younger and older selves of a BBC newsreader, affirming each other whilst reading out the shipping weather. The difference here is Chittenden’s high-impact language, loosed on her more esoteric pieces, ensures we live along the arachnoid line of her telling. Lines like the river Adur overflowing ‘like molten lead from a crucible’ emerge like a hidden stream. There’s eddies and switchbacks too, and because the storytelling relies so specifically on voice and gesture with not a hurried movement throughout, we ourselves turn language or nothing. It’s hypnotic.
Here the excellent Sharon Drain, also seen in Brighton in NVT’s Jumpy last June, is again joined by Rebecca Jones whose student theatre credits are joined by much recent film work. It’s good to see her in the theatre. Interactions between both actors is exquisite, every move calibrated with nothing but black cloth backdrop and props to distract from spectators sometimes inches away. Drain and Jones create a language of hushed intimacy that keeps a single cough at bay. In Sary’s hour length there’s profound silence.
Based ‘loosely on the tale of Sary Weaver’ this tale fuses that singing solitary’s life with the legend here reproduced. That baldly stated suggests a hare, injured by villagers and escaping is seen again: Sary’s limping on the same leg she was stoned with in that avatar, so they say.
There’s far more to what they say though. This is a fair field emptied, not filled with folk. And if that invokes Langland Chittenden supplies an excerpt from a Middle English poem ‘The Names of the Hare’ and a Heaney translation, slightly longer. Clearly designed as a jump-off for transformation and an eternal shuttling of hare and woman, it’s not the only place seeing poetry.
Chittenden’s text is naturally laced with it, but this is crafted, rising organically from situation, period, idiom. Not the kind grafted on to intensify untheatrical moments. From the downs ‘clobbered with light’ that glossary informs precisely too. There’s everything from after-burden for afterbirth, Appleterre for orchard, to terms like Good Friday Bread left to go mouldy and provide an early kind of penicillin; and January butter tramped through the house. Indeed Chittenden’s Sary involves us so richly in the telling of her simples and herbs it’s almost a balm from the sorrows of the story itself.
These include early attraction to a young shepherd boy ‘a Looker’ as they were called. He is to Sary too, the one she would have had, indeed nearly did, physically and maritally, hadn’t death taken him. It’s all described gently, so the rude awakening of womanhood is experienced to our shock but not surprise as rape: and flight from this stepfather (Sary’s real father given a hat, gruff voice and early death); pregnancy, late miscarriage after Sary’s baby was ‘too late for shame, too early for life’ pink in snow, through to another very different pregnancy, after an extraordinary lust uniquely satisfied under the moon in a mystic intervention you might guess. Sary bears a daughter and starts bringing her up.
Some things like diphtheria are harder than simples to combat, even with the hare in your blood. Though storytelling’s quietly compelling here, we’re more transfixed by the quiet shuttling of identities of the two actors, the gazing affirmations and mirror litanies they pronounce. There’s a build-up of incremental herbal living, of cures and curses given to Sary, and her profound love of solitude when anyone she might love is taken from her. Particularly touching is the actors singing to each other, with haunting, pure folk voices. Their performances are exemplary and could hardly be bettered.
The accelerated lope into middle and old age is antiphonally handled in just such a way. The solution of how to avoid either Christian burial or being cut up by students is hit upon. Scardanelli’s sound and studio lighting are particularly effective here.
It’s granted to few to portray such gentleness of spirit, with a tender regard for difference and solitude. Whilst not intended as Chittenden’s most dramatic piece (for more expansive drama see her new Clean, at SweetVenues Mayo 25-27th May), it’s enormously satisfying as storytelling: it could easily transfer to radio and hold its listeners. It’s another gem from Chittenden, polished to a glint of future performances. The imaginative force, language and unsettled serenity of this work demands a sustained run.