There’s nothing new under the sun. Seneca said that, but of course he was copying someone else, and they were copying the book of Ecclesiastes, and the idea was already old by then anyway. Life has a habit of settling into habit. Some of those are pleasant – like pursuing a hobby, birdwatching, going to the theatre; some are necessary, like brushing your teeth, voiding your bowels, eating. The rest is misery in the making. Job, money, house, death and taxes. On a headland near Redcar a young man meets an older man and they talk about practicalities and they talk about dreams, and then the young man and his wife talk about trivialities and they talk about love. And their world – our world – is on the brink of change. Because when is it ever not?
Even change comes in cycles of repetition. Originally set in 1977, this production of Robert Holman’s play erases any sense of time and the anxieties of the past are brought to bear on those same ones today: the impossible clash of industry and nature; the dream of escaping a small town, of living a life that’s as big as one’s dreams. A power plant has opened, and its outlet pipe feeds into the sea around the German skerries – a cluster of rocks that provides comfortable roost for birds. The plant provides jobs, of course, but it’s destroying the bird life too.
And so all those words that have been endlessly battered and elasticated and drained of meaning by those out of touch with reality, the go-to point-scorers of the political classes, all of them are made meaningful again in Holman’s play. Education. Jobs. Aspiration. Environment. Environment, in fact, most of all.
The little promontorial bluff on which the play is set is as much a character as any of the people who tread and trample on it. Bumpy and turfed, James Perkins’s design is a literal, physical chunk of headland, but it’s more than the topography that makes it seem so real; it’s the geography too. The way the actors look out through telescopes, squint their eyes, the way it’s made clear that the German skerries are in that direction, the plant is in that direction. We know where we are, and we know where everything else is in relation. We see this headland when the sun shines and the grass seems to grow greener, we see it on cold nights when there’s nothing but murk and the slap of the sea.
On this secluded, abstracted spot the characters have their conversations and encounters. At one point, the stage is empty and lit for maybe thirty seconds and this character – the land – fills the silence with its presence. On this turf Jack and Martin, fellow bird-watchers, indulge in humanity – and does anyone do cross-generational encounters better than Holman? More than simply humanising these characters – these dull people living their dull lives (they’re bird-watchers for god’s sake, could Holman have picked any more precise an epitome of boringness?) – Holman makes them beautiful and extraordinary. The excitement Jack experiences in seeing a cormorant is infectious; the pregnant promise of a happy life for him and Carol is palpably within reach.
Kaleidoscopes of symmetry reveal themselves in endlessly peeling layers. While Jack is desperate to be accepted onto a course that can secure his future, Martin is a loving but jaded teacher. One teaches, the other is desperate to be taught. But education spills outside of the formal structures too: Martin and Jack educate each other about love and history, an intergenerational dialectic.
This rock, ever so slightly removed from the world at large, sees Jack and Martin and Carol indulge in a dreamworld of triviality, silliness and fantasy set against (or alongside) the grinding necessities of life as lived. It’s a sweet song of simple, lyrical beauty, sometimes blurred at the edges by heat haze, sometimes doused in sepia. It’s a conversation that’s forty years old but equally and potently ancient, and present, here, now.
German Skerries is on at Orange Tree Theatre until 2nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.