Before the late nineteenth century, the inhabitants of the East Anglian Fens lived lives shadowed by the threat of obliteration. The conditions that made the fields they tended so fertile, so good for growing crops, also made widespread flooding a devastating annual likelihood. Then the land was drained; made attractive to investors, profitable. But a community whose identity is rooted in hardship can’t be changed so easily. In this unsentimental and richly written play – here being staged for the first time in almost 30 years as part of the Finborough’s ‘In Their Place’ season – Caryl Churchill asks: what happens after the flood?
The waters may have long since receded but there’s not much sunshine to be found at the start of Fen, which takes place in the early 1980s. Our first introduction to the Fenlands is from a beaming Japanese businessman who makes it quite clear that this particular patch of soil is now really only British by virtue of its location. It’s been parcelled up and sold off to an absurdly long line of companies leading all the way to Tokyo. And it’s not just land that’s been lost; in the businessman’s patronising chuckle as he recounts local legends of men with webbed feet we hear the sound of a cultural heritage being drained away.
Next, we meet the women who work on the fields, bundled up in coats, scarves and hats as they harvest potatoes and clear stones with frozen fingers while the wind howls and the rain beats down. Among these is Val, who’s contemplating leaving her husband for Frank, a farm worker, and Angela, a woman so numb with frustration that she forces her step-daughter to drink mugs of boiling water simply so she can see someone feel something. The bleakness of their lives is as unremitting as the weather.
But it’s these grumbling, despairing women who, perhaps unwittingly, prevent the tide of progress from completely overwhelming their community while the men contemplate suicide or selling their farms. Whether squatting on crates bagging onions or celebrating a ninetieth birthday, they bring together the past and the present like pages in a book as they repeat the stories that have been handed down to them. These aren’t rose-tinted, bucolic tales – one involves a cuckolded husband’s elaborate and bloody revenge on his cheating wife and her lover – but they sustain their tellers as surely as the dank soil.
Under Ria Parry’s direction, the cast (each of whom plays several roles) vividly bring to life a society perched fearfully on the edge of change, holding its members in all-encompassing, often suffocating, embrace. Individually, though, some story threads are more successful than others. While Val’s dilemma has the most time devoted to it, Katharine Burford’s permanently wild-eyed performance turns it into a spectacle rather than something emotionally engaging. More compelling is the tale of Angela, the desperate housewife, chillingly played by Nicola Harrison with pinch-faced fury and quiet menace.
Elsewhere, Rosie Thomson is moving as the mannish May, spitefully described by the neighbourhood children as a witch and a hermaphrodite. Hulking about the stage, slamming drawers and downing pints, her sadness and befuddlement at her ill-fitting life are as raw as a graze. Alex Beckett, meanwhile, succeeds in making an impact beyond being the only male actor in the play by tuning out the histrionics and upping the pathos as the stricken Frank.
On the basis of this interpretation, Fen is worth the revival; Churchill’s dialogue is suitably earthy, enriched with colloquialisms and nuggets of folklore that turn the play into something more interesting and freestanding than the straightforward diatribe against early ‘80s capitalism it threatens to be at the start. This effect is only intensified as the play veers into non-naturalistic territory; the jarring shards of sound and the smoke that fills the stage as the “Green Mist” rolls in with the ghosts of the long-since dead create a powerful sense of place, of history steeped in legend. The production is marred only by the small space available to it at the Finborough. A bigger stage for the mud-filled traverse set would have conveyed more effectively the isolation and desolation felt by these characters as they move awkwardly between the past and an uncertain future.