Theatre: Plough Plays
Ella Griffiths on a dreamlike beginning to the May Week theatre programme
by Ella Griffiths
Friday 15th June 2012, 16:22 BST
Strolling into the favourite village of Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf, we are greeted with the magical sight of what seems to be a congregation of rainbow-hued jesters lounging amidst the apple trees of Grantchester Orchards. After joining a sprawling circle of deckchairs hazy with the smell of grass and tobacco, the jaunty notes of an accordion ushered us into a self-consciously pastoral landscape. Performed by the Marlowe Society and written by John Kinsella, the award-winning Australian poet and playwright acting as the Judith Wilson Visiting Fellow, The Plough Plays fused traditional folk elements from Medieval Mummers’ plays with jarring aspects of modern urban existence to great effect.
Blending three short plays set in Grantchester and Western Australia, each creation was characterised by an endearing roughness complementing Kinsella’s earthy, archaic language, with slashes of red wine upon a sheet mimicking the English flag and smears of jam symbolising bloody wounds. Opening with a surreal tableau of barefoot picnickers in black tie swigging wine from plastic cups, the first of these sketches involved a harvest of crops sabotaged by a plantation of dope. With James Swanton’s grotesque facial contortions vivifying the outraged farmer’s argument with Fred Maynard’s bullish foreigner, the scene descended into a ridiculous plastic knife fight before melting into the next play. Inspired by when Kinsella saved the orchards from development with the help of Robin Callan, the second composition saw Daniel Unruh as a virile and blustering St. George using what seemed to be the Maori Haka dance to defend idyllic Grantchester from villainous London builders. Following a slapstick, pantomime tussle with these “modernisers” resulting in a carnivalesque stabbing of the charismatic Georgia Wagstaff, Juliet Cameron-Wilson made a memorable appearance as a drunken quack doctor, clattering a box of pills and smeared with garish red lipstick.
While the farcical quality of the drama already had the audience feeling vaguely intoxicated under Fergus Blair’s subtle direction, it soon became clear that this dreamlike sensation was only going to be increased. As figures clad in lavishly colourful patchwork filtered through the trees, the ensuing interlude from these traditional East Anglian Gog Magog Molly dancers began to lend a potent authenticity to Kinsella’s surreal creation. Indeed, the twinkling of bells and the stamping of feet created a mesmerising pastoral spectacle reminiscent of The Winter’s Tale, making it only appropriate that the third play opened with an enthralling pagan fertility ritual. Proclaiming to “help things grow and make things glow”, the players enacted a final absurd scene involving a sultry Marika McKennell battling an aggressive industrial CEO, Swanton portraying a pompously intellectual doctor and Maynard as a comically masculine soldier.
Despite this initially bizarre content, the rugged physicality of Kinsella’s language, exhibited by his use of hypnotic repetition in Ryan Ammar’s refrain praising Grantchester, gave the plays a distinctive rustic force. Similarly, the almost allegorical characters and playful fusion of abrasive realism with pastoral conventions ensured that dissonant shifts between the urban and natural environments gained maximum effect. With only the debris of scattered cups and crumbs disturbing the renewed peace of the orchard, a fellow audience member was overheard asking what exactly had just happened. It is this feeling of enchanted confusion that made Kinsella’s inimitable May Week plays in a beautifully intimate setting such a unique experience.