And Then Come The Nightjars
The Latchmere, Theatre 503
We encounter rural Britain more frequently through soaps – Emmerdale and The Archers – than on the stage. This is a missed opportunity for writers and for this reason alone this new play by Bea Roberts is a welcome and unusual joint-winner of the first Theatre 503 Writing Award. This month it receives a run in London before heading off to the Bristol Old Vic, which co-sponsors the production.
The play takes place between 2001 and 2013 on a farm in South Devon and comprises six different snapshots or vignettes in the lives and friendship of two men – Michael Vallance (David Fielder) and Jeff Crawford (Nigel Hastings). The action takes place entirely within Michael’s barn, a lovingly detailed realistic interior, full of clutter, cattle-feed sacks, old tools and cobwebs, the creation of designer Max Dorey.
Michael is in his 60s as the play begins, and Jeff about twenty years younger. Michael is a gruff, cantankerous cattle farmer who has recently lost his beloved wife Sheila. He is born and bred in this part of Devon near Tavistock, and speaks with the warm burr of the local accent. Jeff, on the other hand, speaks in received Home Counties tones, and is less fully embedded in a rural background. He is the local vet, and the action begins at the onset of the Foot and Mouth pandemic, as he visits Michael to warn him of an outbreak on a neighbour’s farm.
The two men have a lot in common. If Michael is lonely because he has lost his wife, then Jeff is lonely because he is in process of losing his and spiralling down into alcohol dependency as well. They meet initially for work – a cow is about to calve as the play opens – then to pass the time, and ultimately for companionship, as Jeff’s marriage finally founders and he moves in to help in running the farm. In many ways this is a play about male friendship in adversity, but at the same time it offers a nuanced threnody for loss of a way of life in the countryside. The nightjars of the title make a couple of appearances in actual fact but also preside more generally, as much as a symbol of death and bad luck hanging over the whole drama.
The writing is gentle, wryly humorous, and full of gentle joshing. After the first act devoted to the consequences of the epidemic the play is not so much plot-driven as an exploration of character. The focus is very much on the qualities of the interaction between the actors and the sense of location – the latter brought into being very effectively through a subtly varied lighting scheme by Sally Ferguson. What is perhaps most impressive here is the modulation of tone achieved in the writing – within each scene there are opportunities for the actors to display the grandest and the most nuanced of emotional resonances. Whether it is the loss of Michael’s precious herd of cattle or Jeff’s self-hatred on the one hand, or the minor irritation of MAFF regulations and tiresome conniving neighbours on the other, there is always a credible balance between full-throated passion and gently satirical observation.
Much of the credit for bringing this off in practice belongs of course to the actors. It would be easy to present a lazily generalised portrait of Michael as a stock yokel stereotype, but Fielder draws on his extensive experience in depicting Beckett’s roles to present a fully fleshed out pattern of ornery contradictions. We get to see Michael’s love of his cows and his ancestral loyalty to his farm, but also a shrewdness and deep-rooted insight into human nature that in many ways is subtler than Jeff’s more worldly reading of affairs. Poignantly, for someone so deeply rooted in the land, he also conveys and describes a sense of how sensitive and vulnerable the countryside is to the forces of change, and how transitory what appears to be permanent actually is.
In many ways, Hastings has the more difficult role to play. In the first act he has ultimately to side with and enforce the decrees of the outside world, while purporting to be the same kind of defender of countryside values as Michael. He does well in conveying the mental dilemmas involved. We then have to see his own world disintegrate in a fog of alcohol and self-pity, and the actor manages to demonstrate this without affectation or exaggeration. Finally, we need to see him reconstruct his life once more and come to an acceptance of himself in later middle age and as a successor to Michael as the champion of a sense of the value of rural continuity in a world of barn conversion, spas, and insensitive housing estates built on former farmland.
Technically this is an adept production, something that can easily be missed in such a small-scale and often minor-key work. In addition to the excellent design and lighting, the scene changes are managed skilfully to suggest the passage of time over the years, and the director devises a continual pattern of movement and stage business that prevents the action from becoming becalmed or static. The final tableau has a Rembrandt-like glow about it but beyond sentimentality in a way that is genuinely affecting.
Portrayals of rural life can easily slip into caricature or rosy idealisation as Cold Comfort Farm always reminds us. It is the great achievement of this play to bring the countryside to life without exploring either extreme. The creative team and actors have devised a production that does justice both the genuine bucolic beauty of the English farming world while not fighting shy of the reality that rates of depression, suicide and alcoholism are generally higher than in urban Britain. When there is often so little understanding – both ways – between town and country, a play such as this can provide a means of bridging that gulf over and above its own apparently modest dimensions.
Photos: Jack Sain