The Eastern Angles touring theatre company, which has just turned thirty, already has a history of site-specific productions. This includes a disused airfield by Rendlesham Forest, an old engine works at Leiston, and now the famous Flag Fen on the outskirts of Peterborough. Sites do not come more specific than this, since the Dark Earth of the current show’s title is the very location of the ancient conflicts which it dramatises.
It is set at the end of the seventeenth century, when the great Dutch drainers were bringing their expertise to bear on the vast watery fringes of East Anglia. At the same time it is set many centuries before, so preoccupied is the local vicar with the age of the artefacts and arrowheads which the digging has brought to light. Just as these fuel his pre-Darwinian heresy about the age of the Earth, so they confirm the villagers in their resolve to retain their timeless community with its fish-and-reed economy, and fend off the developments being driven by the grandee Robert Warburton.
On your way to the temporary tent of the auditorium, you can see the old confrontations frozen into the landscape – the shallow rise of the old Roman causeway, the earlier timbers which linked Peterborough with Whittlesey Island across the waterlogged fens. Flag Fen was rediscovered by the leading archaeologist Francis Pryor about the time Eastern Angles was getting started, and it seems this patch of land had some religious or ceremonial functional. Appropriate, given that the English theatre came directly out of the church.
It did so, of course, by way of the medieval Mystery Plays, of which this community production, with its cast of more than forty, is a clear descendant, alive with ragged ingenuity. Its author, Forbes Bramble has excavated thoroughly, as you would expect from one whose main profession has been architecture.
He has come up with an account that is both passionate and even-handed. Passionate because the stakes are high and the ideologies ardently held. Drain these stinking swamps and reclaim the land for crops and prosperity. Even-handed because he acknowledges this is not simply a progress-driven class war; the greater threat has been the Earth itself, with its rising waters and its whimsically shifting configurations. As a result there is a lightly worn relevance to the countless collisions of subsequent centuries, whether it’s the very present battle in which the Norfolk coast is (very literally) losing ground to the North Sea; or to the English clearances of the Scottish Highlands, or Saddam Hussein’s draining of the Marsh Arabs’ habitat in southern Iraq.
Apart from the playwright, whose dialogue is both disciplined and poetic, the invisible star is director Naomi Jones, an Eastern Angles regular and veteran of several London productions for the Out Of Joint company. At her command a genteel drawing room vanishes to reveal a skating heaven of frozen fenland; in a flash a whole community is reassembled into a teetering island and a heroic witch is borne off on the floods. Nothing is fixed; not the time, not the place, not the people. Everything will go. Even the mooring posts of faith are being swept away. This has gone way beyond metaphor.
Some of the acting can get rough, for sure, but the main players are more than solid: Carl Perkins with the often thankless role of heartless toff; David Worth as the chilly technocrat Jacob de Vries and Emma Goldberg as his wife Cristeen; above all Lucy Formby as their daughter Katja, whose own life seems threatened by the duties of filial obedience, the sheer tedium of lace-making and the struggle for love to come and, well, sweep her away.
Well worth a trip to Fenland. It won’t be there forever.
Dark Earth is at Flag Fen, Peterborough until 22nd September 2013.
Sunday 15th September 2013