FringeReview UK 2018
Sary is directed, lit and designed by its author Sam Chittenden at The SweetVenues Welly, with few props and a beguiling soundscape by Simon Scardanelli. October 26th and 27th 2018.
Sam Chittenden and Different Theatre Productions spell magical story-telling and a poetic serenity in the face of the dark. Sary, set somewhere in early 19th century on the Sussex Downs, is no exception. Despite being squeezed in – literally in this diminutive space – to Brighton’s Horrorfest, it’s more truly spooked with the moon.
Directed, lit and designed by Chittenden at The SweetVenues Welly, with few props and a beguiling soundscape by Simon Scardanelli, 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.
Here the excellent Sharon Drain, last seen in Brighton in NVT’s Jumpy last June, is joined by Rebecca Jones whose student theatre credits are joined by much recent film work. It’s good to see her in the theatre, even such an intimate one. The interactions between both actors is exquisite, every move calibrated with nothing but black cloth backdrop, a wicker basket and water carrier, and a shawl or two to distract from spectators inches away. Drain and Jones create a language of hushed intimacy that keeps as a single cough at bay. In Sary’s hour length there was 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 laced with it, from the downs ‘clobbered with light’ here glossaries very precisely too, to idioms and terms Chittenden supplies on an immensely informative programme card. There’s everything from after-burden fro afterbirth, Appleterre for orchard, to terms like Good Friday Bread left to go mouldy and provide an early kind of penicillin. 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’ 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 is particularly effective here.
It’s granted to few to portray such gentleness of spirit, and a tender regard for difference and solitude. It’s another gem from Chittenden, polished to a glint of future performances. The imaginative force, language and unique serenity of this work demands another run.