ONE hundred years on from the Great War, the echoes of military conflict resound across Salisbury Plain, where the Army still holds around half of the 300 square miles as training grounds.
The prolific and prodigiously talented Barney Norris, a Salisbury boy who writes plays and novels, teaches and co-runs a theatre company, has turned his attention home for his latest play, Echo’s End, on stage for its world premiere at Salisbury Playhouse until 15th April.
On an atmospherically beautiful set designed by Tom Rogers, five villagers meet up after a day’s work on the land, drink cider, eat cheese and sing, one by one, a verse from The Bold Deceiver. The oldies, Arnold the widower, Margaret the widow and the storytelling Jasper (who might or might not be celebrating his birthday on Midsummer’s Eve) drift home, leaving Margaret’s son John and Arnold’s daughter Anna, neighbours and companions since birth, alone to watch the light fade over the encampment below them. And in those few minutes, everything changes.
Subtitled A Wiltshire Love Story, Echo’s End is firmly set in a landscape we know, in a time when communications depended on the postal service and personal contact, and emotions were a private matter. Life and expectations were governed by the seasons and the harvest, and the international troops encamped on the Plain, waiting to go to war, were invaders into lives hardly changed in centuries.
Alice Hamilton, the playwright’s collaborator and co-founder of Up in Arms, directs with a keen ear for the rhythms and time passages that motivate the farming communities, but audiences should not expect an accustomed elegiac happy ending. Real life at the end of war is not pretty, but it goes on.
The six strong company includes Robin Soans, also seen in Barney Norris’s earlier Salisbury Plain play Visitors. Tom Byrne, a recent graduate from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, fulfils his student promise, making his professional debut as the charming and tentative John, with Oliver Hembrough as the wounded Anzac selling off camp supplies to the locals.
Sadie Shimmin is Margaret, with another BOVTS graduate, Katie Moore as Anna and David Beames as her father.
This beautifully observed and performed play is a none-too-gentle reminder of the inevitable effects of war, and of how communities in rural areas hang by a thread to the land that sustains them. It’s full of wry asides that might shock an urban audience, but are embedded deep in the heart of the county where the writer was born.
And the echoes never end.