“I’m rambling, you’re drunk, nobody’s talking.”
What do men talk about? Not their feelings, certainly – or at least not often or transparently enough according to Daniel Foxsmith’s preface to Weald, which invites comparison between a spiralling number of male suicides (averaging 12 per day in the UK in 2014) and a modern society that encourages increasingly insular, individualistic lifestyles. There’s a dark irony in the fact that theatre – in many ways an art form of dialogue – has historically been dominated by male protagonists. Perhaps it’s no surprise that when theatrical male heroes want to open their hearts, they soliloquise.
Or perhaps it’s not so much what men don’t talk about, but that they don’t talk. The first few scenes of Weald contain barely a handful of sentences longer than a half dozen words – and the first of those is “if you’ve got nothing constructive to say, then keep your mouth shut.”
Weald‘s would-be conversationalists are Samuel, a weather-beaten owner of a livery yard on the brink of ruin, and Jim, Samuel’s occasional employee, fresh-faced and in his 20s. They talk about the horses, mostly – about feeding them and grooming them, and whether Jim might return to help Sam with either – and about the farm and the fields and the fucker in a Range Rover who’s moved in next door. In the background a telephone rings and rings, unanswered; a conversation rejected.
Sam and Jim’s dialogue is ponderous, but not unproductive; their statements are considered, even if they – or perhaps their context – feel aimless: idle small-talk about stories from the local, or impressions of London, the city that never sleeps. When their dialogue broadens it’s often to talk about history, through some filter or other: what Sam knows of Jim’s (deceased) father that he doesn’t, or what might have been if they’d become farriers. Sam, quoting freely from Shakespeare, Marlowe and Cromwell, talks of battles and causes, of “men like us… On this same grass, surrounded by these same trees,” giving up life and soul in a fight. He talks of heirs and inheritance; he knows the livery yard is in decline (a stack of ominous envelopes follows the unanswered phone-calls), steeped in debt, its upkeep a burden, but it’s all he has, so he will hand it on, to Jim, the new generation, because that’s what men have always done – until the new generation says no, “fuck your legacy, Sam… This isn’t the Middle Ages. I get the whole ‘my father and his father and his father’s father stuff, but it’s… bullshit.” So with no heir to his throne, Sam destroys his kingdom.
Though filtered through a masculine gaze, Weald‘s subject matter reaches well beyond questions of male crisis. The decline of farming and implied rural poverty are a background to questions of history, both characters searching for actions as impressive as Cromwellian battles or objects as tangible as a yard, or a child, that might justify their existence. The power-balance between the two modulates beautifully across the fifteen short scenes, Jim moving from young lad scrounging work on the yard from his wizened old friend to young dad and carer for Sam, who turns desperately to Jim for help in the play’s closing moments. Throughout, what a behavioural analyst might call out as Sam’s depression and anxiety remain not only unaddressed but unrecognised; his sadness is a part of his character, part of his (rural) way of life – and not until he’s committed his horrific, kingdom-shattering act does he have access to services or support.
David Crellin and Dan Parr attack the two character studies with terrific energy, but there’s so much at stake that Weald’s whistle-stop 80 minutes seems barely enough to contain it; for once this is a script that might have benefitted from being longer, and its characters from more room to move from snapshot to detailed insight. Nonetheless, Bryony Shanahan’s staging is pacey, detailed and well-drilled, amplifying Foxsmith’s impassioned call to arms that, like Samuel’s phone, risks years of going unanswered.
Weald is on at Finborough Theatre until 27th February 2016. Click here for tickets.