Death and the Ploughman at Arnos Vale Cemetery Bristol

Death and the PloughmanDEATH and the Ploughman was written in 1401 in Bohemia by Johannes von Saaz, who penned the text, so the story goes, the day after his wife died in childbirth.   Refusing simply to accept this turn of fate, von Saaz (as the Ploughman) and Death lock horns in an epic journey.

Saturday’s performance was given by the Bristol-based Mechanical Animal Corporation in association with the Tobacco Factory Theatres and the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust, and took place within the atmospheric landscape of the cemetery itself.

Visually, this site-specific production was an absolute treat, with many of the scenes reminiscent of images by artists as diverse as Samuel Palmer, Antony Gormley, the Pre-Raphaelites and, in particular, Stanley Spencer. We were blessed with a perfect evening, too, the various locations providing a series of ideal settings for the action to unfold.  As we were led along the muddy, winding paths of the old cemetery, it felt as though we were joining the Ploughman on his pilgrimage, initially sharing in his rage at the loss of his wife, and then, as the play progressed, with the various stages of his grief, until, together, we reached a satisfactory conclusion; when, in von Saaz’s words, “Man has the honour and Death the victory” and when, together, we can hope for the “strength to say ‘Amen’”.

If all this sounds a bit heavy and terribly worthy, then it must be said that there was much to enjoy that was on a significantly lighter note.  Following on from the somewhat harrowing opening scene in the chapel, for example, we were treated to a delightful dance of resurrection and reunion (very Stanley Spencer), this being followed by the first of our walks through the cemetery where we encountered various people curiously engaged in digging the earth and tending the gardens – some close to us, others almost magically half glimpsed in the distance.

In the demanding roles of the Ploughman and of Death, Paul Rattray and Helen Millar were utterly compelling.  Rattray’s performance as the grieving husband, with its mixture of anger, guilt, longing, despair and the rest was a real tour de force, while Millar’s gradual metamorphosis from the grotesque and terrifying to someone / something graceful and elegant, not to be feared and maybe even welcomed was measured and wholly convincing.  They were joined by a chorus of actor-singers who commented upon the action at key points, rather in the way of a Greek chorus, as well as interacting more directly with the drama from time to time.  They were also the musicians (most of the music was live), the unaccompanied singing and other vocal effects adding greatly to the atmosphere of the whole.

The 15th century text was not written as a play as such, but as a dialogue between a Ploughman and Death.  It was clearly a fine piece of writing, the complex human emotions it sought to convey sounding just as relevant today as it must have done when it was written.  Although the translation, by Irish writer Michael West, was beautifully crafted, the production itself was, perhaps inevitably, rather wordy – irritatingly so in the opening scene, where the very resonant acoustics of the chapel made for real difficulties in hearing.  In contrast, the outdoor dialogue was much easier to understand – the cold stillness of the night air enabling the words to come across with crystal clarity.  More of the dialogue could, perhaps, have been given to the chorus in such scenes, but this is to quibble.

playsarnosWith Death and the Ploughman, director Tom Bailey and designer Chris Gylee gave us much to enjoy.  I personally would have liked to have lingered a bit more as we walked from one scene to the next and to have enjoyed the detail that had so obviously gone into every aspect of the production.  Some, like the little representations of grief or the symbols of familiarity that would have constantly reminded von Saaz of his late wife, were deliberately staged of course.   Others though, I am sure, must have arisen by sheer accident, such as the rich smells of the vegetation and of the earth itself, and the sight of primroses, symbols of new life, peeping up along our path.

22nd March 2014

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