WHEN Woody Guthrie wrote what would become one of his best-known songs, “This Land Is Your Land,”, he was protesting against the jingoistic patriotism of the song “God Blessed America” and supporting the rights of ordinary people to have access to the beauties and riches of the country.
Sian Owen’s new play literally digs deeper into the idea of “This Land,” touching on emotional and philosophical questions about our sense of ourselves, our place, our attachment to the land, and the marks and memories we leave.
It centres on the contentious issue of fracking – drilling deep into the earth and directing a high-pressure water mixture through the rock to release the shale gas inside.
The Pentabus-Salisbury Playhouse co-production, at Salisbury’s Salberg Studio until 30th April, asks: How far down do you own the land beneath your feet? How much does where you live inform the person you become? What happens when someone else comes along and stakes their claim?
If this makes it sound desperately serious and even worthy (as one audience member suggested at the interval on the press night), it isn’t. It is not a heavy-hitting polemic (whatever the fears of the local authorities which would not allow the play to be performed in their arts centres or theatres).
It is thought-provoking, it does ask serious questions, but it is also touching and funny, emotionally engaging and scientifically stimulating, poetic and magical.
Two actors, Rosie Armstrong and Harry Long, play a young couple Bea and Joseph, in 2016, and some of the many people who lived and worked on their land, their garden and the surrounding fields, from the late Stone Age to the 23rd century.
We meet two people preparing to fight for their land against the invaders with their iron weapons, a Roman road builder and a feisty British farmer, medieval grave-diggers trying to survive the Black Death, an 18th century peasant resisting the winds of change blowing through agriculture, a young widow in the Second World War, working the land just days after hearing her husband is dead, a jobsworth geologist … and the Fairy Queen.
Throughout, the main story follows Bea and Joseph, as their peaceful, happy life with their new baby is shaken to the core – fractured – by the arrival of the fracking crew and their vast panoply of equipment.
Directed by Jo Newman, who is assistant resident director at Salisbury Playhouse, This Land makes us think about what matters and how we must endure, as Bea says “things we can’t do anything about other than hang fast and try and stand our ground because this is a good place. This is an old place. This is our place. This is their place. Whoever came before.”
Designer Jean Chan has created a wonderfully flexible set of wooden boxes, with props that range from picks and spades to an iPhone and a laptop, by turns a Stone Age camp, 2,000 years of working fields and a 23rd century archaeological dig, and illuminated with excellent lighting by James Mackenzie.
This Land is a play that asks us to dig deep into our sense of place and ourselves. That’s important.
Photos by Richard Stanton.