A farmhand prowls across a tiny patch of land, potatoes peeping out hopefully, as birds circle overhead. Each time the birds approach, the girl waves her clackers and the noise, temporarily, scares the scavengers off. But the danger will not disappear and this human scarecrow is living on borrowed time.
It is a typically packed opening to a typically pulsating and elegantly textured Caryl Churchill play. Churchill threads history and theatre together with such grace. She uses clever doubling to represent history’s endless and inescapable repetitions and she manipulates dramatic form, which allows elegant leaps between time, location and character, to pack reams of ideas into bulging and sometimes searingly emotional scenes.
The ground covered in Fen is a small farming community nestled in East England, presumably some time in the 1980s. It is a time of flux for farmers, when the price of the land is being driven up and the taxes are rocketing. It is a time when farmers are struggling to hold onto their heritage and farmhands are struggling to hold onto their rights. It is also a time when happiness seems as elusive as those swooping and ever-threatening birds. Make no mistake: this is an enlightening and, at times, poetically persuasive piece, but it is also an orgy of despair. It is a play in which the line, ‘I’m thinking of committing suicide’ comes as light relief – the release of admittance – rather than a surprising thunderbolt of misery.
Against this soot-black background, one couple stands out: Val and Frank, unmarried but in love. When Val (Katharine Burford) leaves her husband and two daughters to follow farmer Frank (Alex Beckett), she is ostracised by her friends and fellow farmhands. Her happiness is snuffed out. She is a woman in the wrong place and the wrong time.
This is what Churchill does so well; she finds a period and a community steeped in tradition and unspoken rules and sets a firework fizzing in its midst. She then creates one exceptional but credible character and uses this anomaly to highlight the cruel rigidity of a particular time in history. She shows us life as it was then – but she also shows us life as it could be. She explores history’s stubborn refusal to catch up with an enlightened few and the misery this sows for those anachronistic and misplaced souls.
Director Ria Parry, winner of the Leverhulme Bursary, sews Churchill’s tapestry together neatly. The Finborough seems an absurdly small venue for such an expansive play, set amidst the sweeping countryside, but this enforced claustrophobia actually suits Churchill’s play nicely. All the characters seem trapped. All the settings seem too small. And, whenever people attempt to escape this tiny space, there is nowhere for them to go.
There are, however, some emotional pot-holes. The relationship between Frank and Val, which throbs underneath this piece but never bursts into full flames, ends with a Shakespearean flourish. They are this play’s Romeo and Juliet – only, it is the verdant countryside cosseting this couple, rather than Verona’s romantic landscape. But Shakespeare gave Romeo and Juliet’s relationship over three hours to develop and this couple gets barely thirty minutes. It makes for a conclusion which one can understand, that has been carefully prepared for, but doesn’t quite twist the guts.
The more moving moments are those that explore the stamped out voices, scampering to be heard in nearly every scene. All the women are trapped; Val, but also her daughters, her mother and her grandmother. Chuchill’s clever doubling means this repetitive cycle of frustrated ambitions is exponentially expanded; as the actress playing the grandmother switches to the role of young girl we realise that this new generation is no freer than the one before. At the end, Val’s mother, who never sang ‘because she wanted to be a singer’, ascends a rickety bridge and mouths along to a soaring aria, her eyes twinkling with dormant dreams. It is such a cruel but beautiful image, suggesting a landscape populated with voices (women’s in particular), silenced by personal fears and public politics.