All the world’s a stage

“THE past is another country – they do things differently there,” said LP Hartley at the beginning of his most famous book, The Go-Between. It is true, but history has also made us what we are. We can learn much about our lives and who we are from what has gone before.

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at our connection to the land and the lessons of history through three plays, two new and one adapted from the most powerful novel of America’s greatest writer.

History is writ particularly large across the landscape of Wiltshire – from Silbury Hill to the Fovant Badges. Barney Norris’s new play, Echo’s End, is set on Salisbury Plain, on the cusp of the cataclysmic events of the First World War, which changed lives across Europe and left indelible marks on a landscape that had been unaltered for centuries, perhaps millennia.

Wiltshire suffered less from the impact of the enclosures than other counties and more common land survived for longer there, particularly on Salisbury Plain. But by 1915, when Norris’s play is set, across such common spaces, where countless generations had grown their crops and run their sheep and cattle, drunk cider and told stories, loved, married, worked and died, there was a new crop of crowded tents, full of strange voices, from around Britain and across the oceans, from Australia and New Zealand and from Canada.

The land would never look the same again. And the lives of people who had hardly ever left their villages would be irrevocably changed. Barney Norris takes two families and an old friend at this pivotal moment – a widower and his daughter, a widow and her son. The two young people are expected to marry. They have known each other all their lives. They have never known any other place. This is their life.

But it is about to change – the son has signed up for the Wiltshire Regiment. And a stranger, an injured New Zealand soldier, has brought a glimpse of a world outside the village – particularly for the girl, for whom the predictability of life is claustrophobic.

“The collision that occurred here when the army flooded the Plain was elemental – the first cacophonous iteration of the machine age colliding with a world that hadn’t changed so much in all the millennia since we came to these islands,” writes Barney Norris in an introduction to the play, which has received its world premiere at Salisbury Playhouse in April.

Echo’s End examines that collision in an unsentimental, honest way with no easy answers and no romantic optimism. It is deeply rooted in Wiltshire but explores eternal themes, family, love, loss, duty, disappointment … our desire to protect those we love conspiring with our fears of rejection and failure,  our need for our place conflicting with the urge to push boundaries and take risks.

John Steinbeck was similarly unsentimental but much angrier in his greatest novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf company. The story is set in the 1930s,  another period of huge social change, this time driven by ecological catastrophe – the dustbowl on the Great Plains, part natural disaster, part manmade destruction. Ruthless banks and drought-stricken grasslands with soil depleted by intensive cropping combined to force thousands of share-croppers to abandon their homes and head west to the promised land of California.

California itself, the fruit basket of America, is just emerging from a five year drought which has depleted reservoirs, caused land to subside and left millions of vines and fruit trees dying on cracked and parched land. Now, after unusually heavy rain and larger than expected snowfalls in the Rockies, the drought is officially over in most affected parts of the state – but the damage is done … shrunken aquifers and sunken land cannot yield the crops of previous years.

Another recent play, No Finer Life, by Graham Harvey, agricultural editor of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, is set in the Cotswolds in the years immediately after the Second World War years when a returning soldier, George Henderson, wrote a powerful call to returning soldiers to make a new life on the land. The themes are love of the countryside, the need to protect it and ideas of national identity.

All three plays share a profound sense of place and a deep understanding of the bonds that tie people to the land. They remind us of the impermanence and fragility of our lives and the importance of maintaining our connections to our place.

Fanny Charles