HOARD FESTIVAL (2nd Visit)
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 16th July, 2015
An eagerly anticipated return visit to the New Vic to catch more of the excellent festival of work inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard. Before the double bill in the main house, I catch another couple of ‘table plays’ in the bar.
In Hwaet! by Tom Wells, Elizabeth Elvin plays a woman in cod-Anglo Saxon garb, a mother preparing a surprise party for her daughter who is leaving to study archaeology at university. It’s an amusing monologue – the woman has a very funny turn of phrase – but running through it is a rich vein of emotion that is ever-present in Elvin’s eyes, behind the smiles and the laughter. Lovely stuff.
Sara Pascoe’s Hoarder features a young Anglo Saxon widow who monitors squirrels so she can dig up the nuts that hide away. She is a bit squirrel-like herself and she seeks the stash of gold her late husband buried – she even asks a couple of people around the table to open their bags or empty their pockets. It’s an energised performance from Gwawr Loader, tightly wound and delivered with conviction. Fab.
On to the main double bill.
UNEARTHED by Theresa Heskins
The New Vic’s resident director Theresa Heskins appears (here portrayed by Bryonie Pritchard) to explain how she put the play together. She interviewed a range of people connected with the discovery and then edited their words together to create the narrative. And so the actors speak verbatim words of real-life people. The style mixes naturalism with documentary elements. Pritchard withdraws, substituting us, the audience, as Theresa; the characters now address us, as narrators. This is a fascinating account of an endlessly fascinating story. We meet Terry whose metal detector found the treasure (David Nellist in bluff, amusing tones) and the museum experts whose minds were blown away when he took it to them. Also included is famous TV historian Michael Wood (invoked by the wonderful Adam Morris) who speculates about the nature and the origins of the find. It cracks along at a fair pace; names are projected on the floor to help us keep track of who is whom and images of some of the pieces appear and spread across the stage. There isn’t much in terms of on-stage action but that’s not the point. The documentary style engages us and holds us throughout. As facts and opinions are unearthed, our imagination is stimulated and our sense of wonder activated. Pure gold.
THE GIFT by Jemma Kennedy
This is a story of an Anglo Saxon community thrown into conflict by the return of the menfolk from battle. They bring with them a bag of gold from the recent convert to Christianity, their King. He wants to enlist them to help build a cathedral at Lichfield. The men are up for it; the women not so much. In this society, the women have equal say in decisions and ownership of property – but it’s no egalitarian utopia: they keep bondsmen and slaves to do their bidding.
Jemma Churchill impresses as the formidable matriarchal Wilda, determined to stick to their own ways and values, contrasted sharply with the meek Welsh girl, their slave Cain (Gwawr Loader). David Semark wears the garb and his chieftain’s attitude as though he was born to them, while brash,blokish Beorn (David Kirkbride) shows us lad culture stretches across the centuries. Romayne Andrews is appealing as young man Teon, who is sweet on the slave girl, and Johnson Willis adds to his portrayal of Dudda the bondsman with some sweet lyre-playing. Paula James is ‘wise woman’ Rowena, who interprets dreams and conducts rituals (they are a superstitious bunch) but the rot of Christianity is spreading, infecting hearts and minds, even within this very tribe.
It’s a story of the end of a world. Kennedy’s script has an air of authenticity about it and the production benefits from Lis Evans’s design work in terms of the set and the costumes. Gemma Fairlie’s direction keeps proceedings clear, but the piece seems a little too earnest to me. When Teon elopes with Cain and marries her in a Christian ceremony, she is merely swapping one kind of slavery for another: the new religion diminishes the status of women in society – we’re still working through the consequences.
There is still plenty more going on at the New Vic that I haven’t seen. Like the treasure of the hoard itself, or Anglo Saxon society, I can only glimpse tantalising parts with my understanding incomplete, and the whole thing unknowable.