Horses! Horses! is a new show from Wassail Theatre and Theatre Orchard, taking a tale of a rural pub under threat to rural (and less rural) pubs around the South West. It uses its space to create a gloriously cramped collage – half hyper-realistic collapsing pub quiz, half mystical exploration of the connections between people, and between people and the land.
As a life-long city dweller it was difficult for the show not to trigger in me the limited and specific cultural references I have of a mystical countryside, which I’m not sure if anyone has ever visited but I definitely haven’t. Flashes of Blake’s Jerusalem and Butterworth’s, of Chris Wood songs and the Imagined Village and to be honest probably most folk gigs I’ve ever been to. And with its pub setting and occasional verse speech and mix of karaoke and folk songs it is very difficult not to compare it to The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at times – and while the verse doesn’t always have the same moments of sparkling delight as Greig’s text there is definitely much of the same magic in the mixing of the worlds, and Horses! manages to be even more intimate and involving in its setting.
There are points, especially early in the show, where it really does feel like we could be doing a real (if flawed) pub quiz; few people seem uncertain whether the technical glitches are accidental or part of the play and call out advice about speakers and feedback, the participants make jokes as they answer the questions: we react more like a pub crowd than an audience, GROANING at the bad puns of the quiz master. And this of course is all topped off by a priest (I’m pretty sure an ACTUAL PRIEST) flicking the Vs at the quiz master when referred to as a drunken regular. This intimacy is partially to do with the space – little room is cleared for the action beyond the set up of speakers and a karaoke screen, and the actors weave between us – it feels as if the show could have started at a moment’s notice in most pubs. The other reason is how long the show gives us to settle into this world, this game, before it changes, giving us only the slightest hints of story among the trivia.
This set up means that when the scene does change, when we see the mysterious moment of a woman looking for her horse, it is truly magical, transforming the space and the atmosphere completely. The harmonium and the smoke and Kesty Morrison’s voice weave the enchantment all the more effectively for the fact that I cannot tell where amongst this crowd the smoke is coming from, and the everyday, enclosed space makes it all the more otherworldly.
The slow, exploratory pace of the beginning continues for most of the piece. Rina Vergano’s script doesn’t twist itself into knots trying to create twists and conflict at every turn, meaning it manages instead to perfectly set up the two different tones running parallel through the play – the mystical world of the farm, and the disturbingly real world of the pub quiz. And it also produces thrilling and lovely theatrical moments, especially where the two worlds intersect, including the most beautiful and tragic use of Mr Brightside I have ever seen. Music is used to great effect throughout, and it is a credit to the team that the original folk songs blended so seamlessly with the traditional.
The only place where narrative convention feels like it suddenly crashes into the play is at the very end – stakes are raised before all the loose threads are tied off, the two worlds coming back together and all the issues being resolved. But it feels like the play knows the too-neatness of its conclusion, with its farmer finally completing his transition into an almost fairy-like granter-of-wishes and shower-of-paths. Outside of the fantasy happy ending, the two parallel worlds are much more likely to rumble on without ever coming to a resolution.
After the end of the play our table talked about what the play was saying (read: they said very intelligent things that I desperately tried to copy their words down). There is quite a lot of evidence in the play that its message is an odd one for something that tours to rural pubs, many of them (as the play details) potentially under threat; a message that there are more important things than the pub, and it should be given up. But another view was that the play was in fact calling on community effort to save local pubs, showing the strain put on an individual when they are the sole person responsible, rather than a group effort to save a group resource.
Somewhere out there, there is an essay to be written (already has been written probably) about the use of native Americans in (especially rural) British narratives as a stand in for purity and spirituality and connection with the land and absolute suffering and the loss of land and livestock and property. This play would make a fitting case study for it. It simultaneously uses these tropes and questions its characters’ use of them (at one point the dreamcatcher that one wears around his neck from a pilgrimage to America is pointed out to be made of plastic) – always balancing precariously between subverting clichés and using them.
Although much of the content in it is dark this is a completely joyous theatre experience (and a great night out at the pub). I would thoroughly recommend buying a pint and playing along.
Horses! Horses! is touring the South West until 21th October. Click here for more information.