Brighton Fringe 2023
Federico Garcia Lorca wrote ‘Blood Wedding’ about rural society in the southeastern Spanish province of Almeria. It’s a hard, unforgiving terrain, and the inhabitants face a constant battle to keep their land productive, and protect it for the next generation of their family. Romantic relationships might be based on love, but the linking of families by marriage involves a hard-eyed calculation of the union’s benefit to the landowners’ estates.
But one farming community is very like another, and so it was an easy fit for Natasha Higdon to set her adaptation somewhere on the moors of northern England. The accents might be different, but the people – living their lives far from the sophistication and comforts of a city existence – are very similar.
The Elms Theatre at BHASVIC feels like a vast, cavernous space when you enter. A completely bare stage, with a backdrop illuminated by coloured projections. Blue lanterns set high in the roof gave a sense of being outdoors in daylight, and the first thing we saw was a group of peasants working the field. Their accents tell us that it’s somewhere northern like Yorkshire, but the women are dressed in the long skirts and embroidered blouses of the Spanish rural class.
There’s a lot of physical theatre in this production – this group are holding long sticks, pushing them in front like you would a broom, but it’s obvious that they’re actually holding the handles of ploughs, as they work back and forth across the stage, breaking up the stubborn soil. In a lovely touch, someone brings on a puppet Crow, moving it jerkily as the bird pecks hungrily at the newly opened furrows.
The Director, Natasha Higdon, told us at the end that her actors are only sixteen and seventeen, but she has achieved a very professional result with these sixth-formers. Occasionally a few of the lines were delivered rather too fast, but the actors’ projection was confident and very audible. Their ensemble work was beautifully achieved – I have a vivid memory of a line of them across the stage, bodies swaying in unison as they prodded the ground with their sticks, voices in perfect choral harmony as they sang “Crush the weeds, that tighten our seeds …”
Beautiful movements. There was actual dancing, as well, in the outdoor scenes in the fields, and later at the Wedding. Perfectly choreographed steps and turns – balletic – that wouldn’t shame a professional troupe. There was a soundscape throughout the production, too. Music – sometimes muted, allowing us to appreciate the dialogue, sometimes powerful, music swelling in intensity as the action heightened – or a chorus of voices producing a haunting, ululating sound that felt vaguely Moorish, vaguely Celtic … completely evocative of the play’s themes.
Higdon has changed the geography, but she hasn’t altered Lorca’s plot. Cian lives with his mother, and works their farm alone, as his father and brother have been killed in a feud with a neighbouring family. Mother is still in mourning for her menfolk, but if the estate is to survive then Cian must marry and provide children to carry on the family line. In this kind of society, land should marry land – and he’s about to wed Orlaith, whose family property is located some distance away. An attractive proposition – I mean Orlaith, of course, as well as the estate … though when they go to visit Cian’s intended and her father, Mother seems more interested in the soil and water potential of the terrain, than in the bride-to-be.
There’s a complication, though. Orlaith has had a long-standing love affair with Darragh, whose father and brother were the killers of Cian’s relations; and Darragh is now unhappily married to Orlaith’s cousin Penn. (these country people, Eh? …) The affair seems to be in the past, and Cian appears a fairly easy-going man – not very worldly: at one point we see that he cannot read – but he hears a constant stream of innuendo from friends, and even the neighbouring children, little hints casting doubt on what exactly is Orlaith and Darragh’s relationship …
We get some idea, when Darragh turns up at Orlaith’s home very early on the morning of her wedding day. Stan Toyne plays him upset, and drunk, and angry – staggering a little in her courtyard while Orlaith and her maid look down from an upstairs window. The production made very creative use of an open corridor which runs high up along the side of the stage. With the backdrop a dark blue, along with most of the lighting, it was easy to imagine moonlight glinting on flagstones. (I love the way that theatre treats us as adults, with good imaginations – we’d seen that same stage floor as a ploughed field just a few scenes before.)
Orlaith is still in love with Darragh, but his family is not wealthy, and so the economic and family pressures of her community demand that she wed a man she has no real feelings for. Darragh, on his side, has already married a woman he has come to despise, and we see how the feeling of being trapped brings out his vicious nature in his treatment of his wife Penn. These domestic scenes provide plenty of demonstration of the company’s talent for physical theatre – Penn holding her infant protectively as her husband beats her; Kitchen maids at Orlaith’s house tapping rhythmically with rolling pins, or stirring dough in a bowl; Two people in a horse-drawn wagon, sitting on the floor swaying as the cart pitched and rolled along the rutted road. All done in mime – it was just actors on a bare stage – but actions performed so believably that the situations seemed real.
The wedding duly takes place, though, and the play’s action unfolds with the awful inevitability of a Greek tragedy. A large group on stage, and there’s music, and dancing, and on the surface there’s merriment. But finally the heart does what it will – Darragh catches Orlaith’s eye, then her hand, and the pair slip away from the wedding unnoticed.
Three families’ honour outraged – the Bride’s, the Groom’s and the Lover’s. That sort of crime cannot go unpunished, and the villagers set off in pursuit of the runaway couple. In Lorca’s original, the chase is symbolically overlooked by The Moon, and by Death; but Higdon has wisely eschewed those elements, and just concentrates her action on the hunt. A number of the actors carried battery torches, which they employed to great effect – lighting up figures or faces on the darkened stage, or casting hugely distorted shadows of each other onto the backdrop. The sense of being in a gloomy forest was overpowering.
Inevitably, Cian catches up with the lovers, and there’s a confrontation. But the Director – who’s also written this adaptation – has engineered a reversal of character here. Now it’s Darragh who appears as the reasonable party, trying to explain that he would find it impossible to live without Orlaith. “I have risked too much to be with her. Turn around, walk away. Go back to your life and rebuild it.” Meanwhile, the previously mild-mannered Cian vents as much spleen on his runaway bride as he does on his rival. We were left in no doubt that Cian would assert his dominance in his marriage, and probably turn into a worse wife-beater than Darragh.
But the men fight – significantly, it’s Cian who has brought the knife, and uses it first – and by the end of the clash both are dead.
In the final scene, Cian’s Mother arrives on the scene, cradling her son’s body in her arms – she’s lost all her family now. She turns on Orlaith – “LOOK AT ME!! … What have you done?”. When the girl’s father arrives, Mother’s voice turns steely – “You do not want to know my next step – because when the others arrive, your daughter will be made an example! ”
It’s probably invidious to single any actor out for praise in such a talented group, but for this reviewer, Stan Toyne’s Darragh, and Isla Jones’s Mother, stood out. The range and development of emotions that these actors delivered was far above what you’d expect from a youth production – my memory of those final lines of the Mother still makes me shiver.
And her neighbours do arrive – as the backdrop turns red, the villagers fall on Orlaith, hitting, tearing, ripping her wedding dress from her prostrate body and hurling fragments into the air. Finally, her father gently lifts the woman’s corpse and carries it off, leaving Cian’s Mother and Darragh’s widow Penn to caress the bodies of their men. The awful – inevitable – outcome had come to pass.
For a few moments after the lights went down there was total silence in the theatre … then we recovered ourselves, remembered where we were, and the audience began an extended period of applause.