Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review of the New Vic 'Hoard' Festival

Review:  "Unearthed" and "The Gift" at the New Vic Theatre's 'Hoard' Festival

Over the past few months we have been excited to follow the development of the Hoard festival at Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre; a national-theatre and Arts Council funded project which began with a modest aim to tell the story of the famous Staffordshire Hoard and has since snowballed into the most ambitious project the theater has undertaken to date.

The festival has grown to include four stage plays ‘in the round’, a pair of studio-plays, a series of table-plays designed to entertain visitors in the theatre’s atrium and bar areas, and ‘400 pieces’; an unusual project involving volunteers and taking the drama out into the community.

During the later stages of development of the festival, the Thegns have been involved, in a small way, in advising the props, costume and set-design teams, helping the team develop a ‘look’ and ‘feel’ for those plays set at the time of the Hoard based on material-culture represented in archaeology from the time. We were highly honoured to be given front-row seats for the press-night during launch-week for the first set of plays; ‘Unearthed’ by Theresa Heskins, and ‘The Gift’ by Jemma Kennedy, and as the team had been keen not to spoil or leak any of the content of these plays to us save for the technical details, it is fair to say we sat down in the impressive theatre-in-the-round, feet quite literally on the stage, unsure of what to expect…

(Please note that the author acknowledges he is not a well-practiced theatre reviewer, and that, too, he cannot claim to be unbiassed.  Nevertheless he hopes the following comments will be of interest and help to those considering visiting the festival, or help those who already plan to visit to know what to expect. )
Images copyright www.newvichoardfestival.org.uk used here under UK 'fair-dealing' for the purposes of review.

The first performance, ‘Unearthed’, written and directed by New Vic stalwart playwright Theresa Heskins, set out to tell the story of the discovery of the Hoard. As part of the background work for this, Theresa had conducted over 80 hours of interviews with experts and participants in the original discovery with a handheld voice recorder, and it quickly became clear that the testimony of these characters would form the backbone of the retelling; the actors and actresses on stage bringing the story and interpretation of the Staffordshire Hoard to life by speaking the words of those who had been involved. From accounts from an eccentric band of metal-detectorists, to uncanny impressions of Hoard discoverer Terry Herbert, historic smith Hector Cole, and historians Michael Wood and Paul Mortimer, guided along with enthusiastic narration by a portrayal of the playwright herself and Hoard specialist Cathy Shingler, this was a performance which brought the story (and particularly the excitement) of the discovery to life. 

Historian Michael Wood (played by Adam Morris) excitedly unfolds the story of the protection-money paid by the Northumbrians to king Penda of Mercia in the mid 7th century. Could the Hoard be part of this famous pot of gold?

Don’t get bogged down with comparative analysis of Anglo-Saxon insular Salin-Style-II decoration” spake patron of the festival, Michael Wood (played in ‘Unearthed’ by Adam Morris) – sage advice highlighting the challenge of retelling this story in a way which communicates the careful scientific detective-work involved in the Hoard’s interpretation which does not stray into the territory of a dry documentary. “Bringing the Hoard to life” is an admirable ambition, and ‘Unearthed’ does so both figuratively and literally. Stunning, swirling visual projections of the famous items themselves, shone onto the centre of the stage, punctuate the play, and at one point characterful beasts from the finds themselves leave their rigid interlace and crawl across the boards.
With its focus on the excitement of the discovery, communicated beautifully by the cast, the emphasis on the mysteries of the Hoard, ‘Unearthed’ remained ‘human’ and engaging despite communicating a huge amount of detail about the incredible find, peppered with humour, and maintaining a light-hearted tone.

Hoard finder Terry Herbert (played by David Nellist), specialist Cathy Shingler (Elizabeth Elvin) and historian Paul Mortimer (David Semark) discuss their Hoard theories as images of the glittering items swirl beneath them.

The story is not without peril. The characters recall the secrecy of operation to recover the treasure, with clandestine meetings in car-parks, switching of vehicles, cover-stories, and a rumour of a local murder planted by the land-owner in the local pub to put the ghastly ‘night-hawks’ off the scent. Later comes the challenge of raising the money to secure the treasure for the region’s museums. Towards the end of the performance various non-experts appear and give their take – emphasising the sense in which all who see the Hoard feel engaged in its mysteries, but also communicating what this find means to the people of Staffordshire, and the Midlands as a whole; an inspiration to artists; a tourist attraction; an early foreshadowing of our region’s craft and manufacturing heritage, and a source of regional pride. Theresa Heskins’ charming and enchanting retelling of the Hoard story encourages one to marvel at the miraculous treasure, but also at the miraculous effect it has had on all of us Mercians.


The second performance, 'The Gift', written by Jemma Kennedy and directed by Gemma Fairlie, transports the audience back to an ordinary (or indeed, perhaps atypically downtrodden) settlement near Lichfield on the cusp of Christianisation, during the reign of Wulfhere. The audience is greeted by cool, descending mist from the roof, onto a modest hall arranged around a central hearth, with a fire which is carefully lit by a cast-member at the beginning of the performance. The wonderful set-design contributes perhaps more than anything to a sense of being transported back in time, along with excellently researched costumes which were hard to fault. The fictional story is rather beautifully opened with music on a 7th century Anglo-Saxon warrior lyre played by a member of the cast. These aspects, along with the incredible performances of the cast served to create a great sense of immersion.

'The Gift' begins with the return of a small band of warriors from a campaign in Northumbria as part of the king’s army, with a small portion of golden treasure, and the palpable excitement of the women-folk of the community which becomes painful anguish and grief as they notice that one member of the troop didn’t make it home. This first couple of minutes of the performance immediately sets the tone for the rest of the play; powerful, challenging drama that at times is difficult to watch. It is a credit to the cast (particularly Byronie Pritchard and Gwawr Loader) and director (Gemma Fairlie) that such moments were so moving, and at times unsettling. The action sees conflict erupt within the community over what to do with the treasure, seeing numerous lives destroyed, and ultimately with the burial of the gold ‘where the poppies grow’ near the Roman road.

The story of 'The Gift' focuses closely on the changing world of the 7th century, and how these changes (particularly Christianisation) would have played out in small, previously pagan communities. While the men seem quite ready to shrug off their pagan ways and take up the new faith, the women of the community (arguably the main focus of the story, and led by the formidable Wilda - Jemma Churchill) are more reluctant, and are so motivated by their superstitions, sense of identity and fear of change that they are driven to rather extreme ends.

Despite the impressive work in creating the well-researched “world” in which the action takes place, it is important to recognise that these plays set in the 7th century are creative responses to the Hoard and not meant to be meticulous historical reconstruction. Nevertheless it is fair to say that the depiction of Anglo-Saxon culture and society in ‘The Gift’ is not a favorable or kind one. Following on from a now well-established tradition of depicting ordinary early-Medieval folk as fairly crude and un-prudish with a love of innuendo (based on a fair bit of evidence), the less hard-hitting moments of the play are filled with earthy humour. This seems fair enough, but the playwright Jemma Kennedy has chosen to focus on various aspects of early Anglo-Saxon society that enthusiasts for the period might often seek to downplay; slavery, prejudice, ritualism and fatalism. While the men-folk are portrayed as macho and loutish (again probably quite fair), the women are portrayed, for the most part, as superstitious and bloodthirsty, while their cruel treatment of a Welsh slave seems to have been based more on recent notions of slavery than anything we have evidence for from the 7th century. Likewise certain ritual elements (not limited to blood-rites and human sacrifice) will leave scholars of the Anglo-Saxon period scratching their heads. The juxtaposition of brutal Anglo-Saxons with a sophisticated musical Welsh slave-girl, and a Roman-loving, Latin-speaking eunuch seems a deliberate attempt to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm for the Anglo-Saxons (and particularly Mercians) as a civilization; -unwashed savages compared to their predecessors and contemporary cultures, who presided over a ‘Dark Age’. 

The Mercians, as depicted, seem to have been afforded almost no redeeming features (with the possible exception of the likeable Teon - Romayne Andrews), which jars uncomfortably with the appreciation shown elsewhere for this period and culture as (to quote showrunner Theresa Heskins) “not relentlessly brutal, harsh and crude, but [a time of] delicately detailed beauty and breathtaking craftsmanship”. There is no question that Christianity is depicted as morally superior to the community’s pre-existing pagan faith, although the male converts are strongly implied to have converted for the wrong reasons and therefore also ‘lose’. 

There is as much Latin and Welsh in this play as Old English, although the inclusion of the latter at-all is a tall order in comparison to the former and deserves significant praise. The aforementioned Latin-speaking eunuch’s very existence is hard to explain in the context of the historical times in question, and he seems to exist mainly as a vehicle to allow the famous ‘inscribed gold strip’ of the Hoard to be read; its fearsome Christian inscription hinted as being a curse that could explain the misfortune which unfolds for the pagan characters.

The story of “The Gift” seems to squeeze every ounce of drama that it is possible to cram into a story written for this context, and although it strays far beyond what is evidenced for the historic culture concerned, in a way which at times will be bewildering to those familiar with the period, the play overall is thought-provoking and powerful. Playwright Jemma Kennedy has certainly latched on to an interesting untold story dating to the time of the Hoard; the reluctant and perhaps painful conversion of small rural Anglo-Saxon communities to the new faith.


Overall then, these two plays (representing less than 40% of what’s on offer as part of this huge unfolding festival) represent two extremes; one a light-hearted celebration of the Hoard and what it offers to the people of Staffordshire and the Midlands, and the other a hard-hitting exploration of themes including identity, superstition and prejudice which perhaps has more to say about our own lives than the lives of our ancestors. We very much look forward to seeing the remainder of this stunning festival unfold, and would encourage all theatre-going readers, those interested in history and in stories of the Midlands not to miss an opportunity to savor what is on offer at the New Vic Theatre this summer. 
The Staffordshire Hoard grips the imagination because history has the ability to give value and meaning to the present.”     - Michael Wood 

 'Unearthed' and 'The Gift' on show from Sat 20 June – Sat 25 July alongside other Hoard festival performances. The second double-bill; "The Throne" and "Larksong" runs from Fri 3 July – Sat 25 July at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme, Staffordshire.

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