This time next week, the first performance of Forbes Bramble’s Dark Earth will have been presented in a temporary space erected on an archaeological heritage site just outside Peterborough. And I’ll probably be heading back along the A47 to get a good night’s sleep, ready to do it all again the next day (and a few more times).
Dark Earth is a historical drama about the drainage of the Fens that is nevertheless entirely topical in its themes of love, community, progress, traditions and man’s relationship to the land and landscape in which we live. Set in the 17th century, it’s to be a site specific Eastern Angles production performed by a local cast at Flag Fen, an important Bronze Age site on the outskirts of Peterborough.
We’ve been rehearsing since July, but with a cast of over 30 characters and a number of scenes by turns complex, dialogue heavy, visual, musical and puppetry-reliant, it’s only quite recently that all these separate strands have been brought together and run as a whole. In fact, the first full run through was last night. With both the playwright and Eastern Angles’ Artistic Director in attendance, I’m sure I can’t have been the only one who was a little apprehensive. I’m pretty sure Naomi, our long-suffering Director, was holding her breath and willing us all not to completely suck. And in the middle of this lovely Indian Summer, it was hot work in a rehearsal space that was a bit too small – cast spilling out into the car park glad of some fresh air in between scenes. The energy levels could easily have dropped, but in fact it wasn’t bad at all, and the pace was already much better than the previous run-throughs.
One of my favourite parts of the evening was leaning over the balcony to enjoy the reactions of Forbes and Ivan as Peter Dade grappled with the pike (fish), one of our wonderful puppets designed by Polly Beestone. It’s one of the smaller scenes, but so delightful.
It’s interesting seeing the scenes in context, and getting a better feel for the contrasts in tone, pace and energy throughout the course of the play. One of the artefacts of rehearsing scenes somewhat in isolation has been a sense of reinforcing a separation between the villagers and the Partners; each group has its own identity, it’s interesting to see the extent to which their narratives are paralleled in some of the scenes, and how the differences in status and objective collide in those scenes where those groups meet.
On Sunday, we’re back with a vengeance at the start of a punishing run of technical and dress rehearsals before that first performance next Thursday. Only we’ll be on site at Flag Fen, working on the finished set and able to use the full width and length of the space – with lighting, props and costumes all in the mix. Given our setting, it will be hard not to feel some sort of connection to the environment, and those who’ve gone before. If the temporary marquee is a little too new and shiny to have acquired supernatural inhabitants (in the time honoured fashion of the more traditional peformance spaces), I’m sure that the magic of Flag Fen will oblige us; it’s nice to think of the ghosts of 17th century Fenlanders – villagers and landowners alike – watching over a bunch of soft actors who wouldn’t know one end of a punt gun from the other. Hopefully we’ll do justice to their stories whilst entertaining and delighting audiences over the two week run, before packing up and leaving the ghosts – and their land – in peace once again.
If you’d like to see Dark Earth – and I really think you should! – tickets are available from the Eastern Angles website. Performances at Flag Fen (Peterborough) run 12th – 22nd September Thursday-Saturday evenings, Saturday and Sunday matinees. The first Friday is SOLD OUT already, so book early to avoid disappointment!