Dystopias are as telling as nightmares: just as students are haunted by night terrors of exams, so artists come up with future worlds whose horrors are firmly lodged in present day fears. Playwright Molly Davies’s striking pastoral dystopia is a play that’s completely of its time. The fear of technology which produced 1984 and Brave New World is waning, replaced by nature as a new adversary, terrifyingly unpartisan in its elemental violence.
“In 50 years, we’ll all be under water”, its three embattled future citizens warn each other. Davies has hothoused the global rise of nationalism, and of Scottish independence more locally, in global warming’s malfunctioning pressure cooker to show a Britain that’s melting down into smaller kingdoms. The play is set on the night of East Anglia’s independence from the rest of the country: the North separated long ago, and London’s been walled off to fight encroaching weeds and foxes on its own.
The partition has forced everyone to pick a side, reconsidering their values. People coming back home from London are called “returners”, and have to fight for jobs in East Anglia’s two key industries: chicken farming and bicycle manufacturing. But the humour is underpinned by an astonishingly subtle discussion of identity politics that simmers through this play’s every scene. Beth Cooke as the returning Layla is visibly hungry, wide-eyed and embracing a new life and its man-sized dangers. She’s enthralled by local chicken slaughterer Harry (Benjamin Dilloway) even as he mocks her accent and advances. Layla’s flirtation with him is an awkward, dangerous tour de force that mixes small talk and veiled threats of feather plucking and electric shocks. The performance is staged in the round: but if you can’t see her face, you can see her hands twisting impatiently behind her back with the frustration it can’t quite show. Steven Atkinson’s direction excels in powerful images of uncontrived symbolism: Harry silences Layla by slinging her over his shoulder like a chicken on a truss.
In this play’s fluid structure, other relationships scratch and peck around this pivotal moment. Josephine Butler makes an effortlessly human, spiky Lorraine who supervises Layla’s work, ready to move from stern instructions to unforced laughter. But Layla finds omens where she doesn’t, noticing that “The chickens outnumber us, 6 to 1.” Lorraine’s daughter Emily goes deeper into the country’s distinctive landscape, niggling holes in its endless flatness, “the kind of flatness that can gobble you up.”
Theatre company Eastern Angles bill their production as ‘Norfolk noir’, a tongue-in-cheek epithet that still reveals the closeness of their engagement with East Anglia’s history. Emily, stacking shelves in a supermarket, tells us that witches used to swing between aisles five and six, overlaying past with present with a perverse thoroughness to rival any bulldozing, concrete-spreading developer.
These characters dance around ingrained resentments that are as much part of the landscape as endless flat fields, but the resulting patchwork doesn’t reach as far as it could, unravelling rather than stitching up its eventual conclusion. This play is too wide, too sprawling to fit into one hour’s space.
We never quite glimpse the hinted-at terrors of the coming revolution: a new dark age, defined by a wide tempestuous sea and only the most fragile pockets of what came before. But even if the full folk horror of Molly Davies vision isn’t realised, what we’re shown is more than enough to set our eyes swimming.