‘There’s always been people asking about the Fens,’ an old woman croaks, you’d have thought they’d know what it is by now, the amount that’s been written. As subjects for verbatim theatre, these inhabitants of marshy countryside are oddly unresponsive, ineloquent, taciturn. Choreographer and director Dan Canham’s beautiful hybrid piece splices recorded speech with live voices, motionlessness with an oddly fluid, suspended in air but still awkward style of dance, that stamps out the rhythms of East Anglian speech and life into muted poetry.
The stereotypes of the Fens – that it’s flat and bleak, its inhabitants strange, taciturn and hostile, or at least unwelcoming – are left to linger unchallenged, a thick atmosphere. There’s a sense that the Fens peoples’ often-expressed desire to be left alone, their intermarrying insularity, is part of the reason they’re so attractive by a media that desperately needs to be needed. The last eel catcher on the Fens has his head unturned by successive TV crews — you can imagine this show’s researchers, the theatre people from London, joining a litany of book writers and Japanese news presenters. He also explains – a word somehow too eloquent to recreate the sense that he’s digging his words out from layers of peat – the connection he feels going back centuries, through crafting the same willow traps as innumberable ancestors. Around him, the land is eroding, as the rich “black gold” silt soil is washed away by the Fens drainage systems that let it be farmed: these farmers, spoken to, create a bleak elegy for an utterly distinct way of life that’s wearing away with the environment that grew it.
The other characters are also “lasts”, in their own ways – the last proper horse breeder, or the final head of the family farm. Starting out informative, projecting maps and facts onto a wide screen, the four performers shift to acting out one-sided, verbatim conversations, then respond to them physically as the same words, recorded, loop in successively smaller patterns. The first break into dance is especially memorable; a man explains, fumblingly, that he sees himself as a Cromwell, and that there are other Cromwells in the Fens, his country of birth. His didactic explanation of what he himself admits to be a pet theory becomes a childishly military pattern of stamping and jumping – as utterly serious, and rhythmically mesmerising as splashing in puddles on a winter’s day. Tilly Webber’s evocation of the old woman also stuns; she’s crabbed and uncomfortable in her movements, but also filled with constant motion, every limb floating and winding together like underwater willow twigs.
The same themes pattern across all of this piece’s subjects; solitude, worry about the future, closeness to nature and history, resistance to change. Within them, the words “flat” and “low” – terms to describe a landscape, but also a style, a completely understated way of speaking. On land below sea level, this piece feels like a muted underwater cry from a disappearing world, diffidently compelling.