If a field I lived near was famous for a bloody incident of police brutality and a load of students insisted they wanted to re-enact said incident in said field I’d probably want them to fuck off. The 1985 ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ is one such incident, where a load of police were carted across the country from policing the miners’ strike to suppress a load of New Age travellers from setting up the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival. It was proper brutal.
Breach’s The Beanfield is an elaborate kind-of-meta research presentation, punctuated with a narrative about going to a festival at Stonehenge in 2015. A group of students have done some research, including watching some videos which we are shown footage of them watching, and sending some emails, which are read out to us. They’ve also conducted some interviews, with a journalist, a retired police officer and one of the travellers, all of whom were present at The Beanfield in ‘85. Cut and edited videos of these interviews are played throughout, with members of the company filling in the gaps where the original interview questions were asked.
We learn about the acts of brutality committed. We watch the students trying to figure out where exactly this beanfield is. We watch them get really annoyed at someone who lives near the field and tells them they’d rather not drag all of that history up. We watch them decide to go anyway, at the behest of some compulsion inside them to make this show about making a show. The Beanfield really does a number on dredging up trauma as effectively it can, whilst failing to engage with any political discourse at all. There is the barest hint at the start of the show that perhaps there is something rotten in the system; that there was some moment of awakening in 2014 when police used tear gas on students at Warwick University. That there is a thread connecting the two incidents.
What happens is The Beanfield ending up monopolising on the misery created by an oppressive action without offering any commentary or attempt at a solution or alternative. The impression given is that it’s just one of the ingredients of the show, taking a back seat to serve a greater point that isn’t made clear. The side-story, of an uncertain festivalgoer having a sort-of mediocre time but feeling drawn onwards by the inevitability of the festival experience, feels like an analogue for the story of the show at large. The idea is introduced at the start: these people want to recreate The Battle of the Beanfield, and that forces everything forwards until the show finishes.
The delivery of the side-story is scripted with plenty of overlaps to give an impression of liveness and spontaneity which fails to appear onstage, with the performers strenuously attempting performing themselves. The whole thing feels like an act. Formally the show quickly settles into a pattern of alternating between interviews and side-story and doesn’t do much to shake things up. There is a single moment, towards the end, of beautiful metaphor. A riot-gear-ed performer whacking thin air, the parallel drawn between festival, mass behaviour, mob violence and the actions of the police on that day in ’85. That three minutes is the show I want to see.
What strikes me the most is the lack of sensitivity in the handling of the subject matter, as if the company threw aside concern for the show’s content in service of the creation of a piece of theatre. The lack of critical engagement with the history they’re recreating, and of self-awareness, left the show feeling overwhelmingly thoughtless.
The Beanfield was on at HOME, Manchester. Click here for more of their programme.