Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Tollpuddle Martyrs Story: We Will be Free
Venue: The Assembly Rooms, http://www.assemblyroomsedinburgh.co.uk/assembly-rooms/home.html
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
This is the story of Betsy Loveless whose husband, George was a Methodist preacher and one of the martyrs. Through song and traditional story telling we hear of his martyrdom, unfair trial for swearing an oath and transportation to Australia before a campaign launched more in hope than expectation leads to his return to her loving arms.
The peasants are revolting. They are in dire need, suffer from extreme poverty and are being squeezed by their overlords. George goes to see the local man in charge James Frampton for a wage increase to which Frampton agrees and then simply does nothing about it. The Trades Unions hear and offer support so George recruits people to take the oath for the new Union. Such a ceremony brings 6 of them to court for swearing such an oath as it is believed to be illegal. They are sentenced and off to Australia they go. George arrives in the outback and the local man in charge offers to bring his wife and child out to him there. Much though he wishes to be reunited he refuses on the grounds that he is an innocent man and should be returned home to the Sycamore tree and Tollpuddle. Back in England, when it is pointed out that other secret societies have such oaths and even royalty swear to them the martyrs are to be returned and George comes back to Betsy.
This was wonderfully well written and the folk style with mummers, accordion, only two players and rhyme used when needed made it feel like a folk tale worth telling. Each of the scenes managed to capture the mood, the time and the atmosphere. With song in particular this worked a treat.
Both Neil Gore and Elizabeth Eves are fantastic. They have a gentle storytelling style that draws you in and using the announcement at the beginning to create further comic effect is just genius. It leads us to follow these genial guides with ease.
The staging was simplistic though the Sycamore Tree does cut out some of the sight lines to stage right. I wasn’t at the other side but could imagine that some issues are there too. The screen is also squinty because of the clutter onstage which means I didn’t see fully some of the illustrations. This was unfortunate because much of what I could see looked an updated version of the styles of political cartoons of the period and looked rather good.
Both actors were able to perform with music, instrument, with rhyme and in prose to an exceptionally high level. They always looked to the audience for them to become part of the experience and their use of them in the trial scene works very well. It is not over much and people were willing to be picked upon. It leant a wonderful charm to what is, in essence, a very heart rendering tales of injustice.
Distance and time may make us look at these injustices now as some kind of long forgotten and necessary process but for me it was a simple tale very well told of why we should be grateful for our own freedoms.
This took old forms of theatre and engagement with the people and for me gave them a really good new lease of life. I think there are plenty of other topics that could benefit from this style of telling. Last year I saw a troupe do Trojan Women in this style and it didn’t work so this made me wonder why this achieved what the Trojan Women didn’t. I think it comes down to the combination of the quality of the storytellers and the subject matter being English so English forms would underline the poignancy of the drama.
I thought this was one of the best things I have seen that followed George slaying the dragon onstage. I think we have seen the future of good folk drama and it is taking lessons from the past.