The title of this short verbatim piece refers to the specific environmental conditions which make the business of farming possible. In a broader sense, it also nods to the people whose experiences are based on the social, cultural and economic climate which allows the land to be worked. Researched in the spring of 2017, A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains is born from conversations between the farming families of rural Perthshire, playwright Kieran Hurley and director Lu Kemp.
The pair’s investigations were essentially a fact-finding mission ahead of the opening of the redeveloped Perth Theatre in late 2017, where Kemp has been installed as artistic director. It was a way of understanding the culture of an area where farming and rural industry is an integral part of life, and for Hurley it was an opportunity to take a story of local interest and expand it with his customarily forensic intelligence into something which plants the roots of the farming industry within the way we live our lives today.
A welcoming, homely cup of tea is an essential scene-setter, whether offered to audience members as they enter the auditorium or from the china-adorned sideboard onstage by the cast to members of the front row. The style is loose and presentational at first, the actors introducing their aims before diving into the cast of characters, and the piece reminds of a pocket version of the classic Scots ‘ceilidh play’ The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, or David Greig and Wils Wilson’s more recent border ballad The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.
The latter comparison, in fact, is emphasised by the fact the two-member cast are well-remembered for their roles in Prudencia. Here, Aly Macrae is once more the guitar-slinging, folk-singing master of ceremonies, while the mesmerising Melody Grove brings a sense of emotional gravity, flitting easily between prim, tartan-wearing hunting host, earnest eco-housewife and wide-eyed-but-seen-it-all-before farmer’s wife.
Through drama and folk song the pair bat the wide cast of characters back and forward, with Hurley’s verbatim script building to a smooth crescendo of ever-deeper hopes and fears, and the gentle but truthful humour of ordinary people at their least guarded. If all of this sounds potentially a little too issue-based or local-interest, then it’s broadened out by Hurley to cut right to the heart of the matter of farming.
With an even-handedness which doesn’t sink into forced balance, his script reveals fears over Brexit and understandable concerns about the EU’s impersonal bureaucracy; the necessity or otherwise of subsidy in an age of industrial farming; and the effect of climate change, Scottish land ownership and governmental short-termism upon the nation’s food supply.
Within the space of an hour, the audience is challenged and enlightened by the piece, and finally warmly appreciative of the efforts and abilities of those involved in this ancient and rapidly changing profession. It’s a play which lives up to the quality of talent involved, and deserves to exist far beyond its short rural run as an important staged document of its time.
A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains is on tour in Perthshire until 19 May 2018. Click here for more details.