Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 21: Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral (2013)
It would be rude to say this is Jerusalem mark 2. Indeed, there are similarities with this short play, first performed in a co-production with Soho Theatre and Hightide Festival, and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, but Eccleshare does something very different. The result is a darkly comic, strange and fascinating play about an ecological catastrophe where nature fights back.
The elderly Moll is sitting in her flat in the south of England, leaves stemming through the windows and grass shooting up through the floor. Her flat is surrounded by chain stores and restaurants galore: Boots, Tesco, Wagamama’s, Zizzi, Costa, Game, Paperchase. It could be anywhere. In the second act, having been too slow to evacuate, her and her grandsons (although that’s not made quite clear) are still there. They have been joined by a young boy (Arthur) with a penchant for cigarettes, and the wildlife has all but taken over. A tree has shot up through the floorboards and the square is now a canopied forest. The army have been sent in but it could be too late for them. Cats have become feral and there have been bear sightings.
The idea of an environmental disaster is fascinating: why is the UK turning into a wilderness and what is the extent of it? It reminded me of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi with the floating island which feeds upon itself and is so green and pure because of it. There’s a vitality to this idea of the country reverting back to nature but Eccleshare writes it in such a way which is scarily believable. He grounds the action with Manz’s and Hardy’s reality checks of how a government might act in such a scenario, sending in the troops and building walls around the newly-sprouted jungles. Eccleshare also conjures how a group of people might act when their survival instinct kicks in – there is a seemingly fitting moment with an Ocado deliveryman!
The echoes with Butterworth, as I read them, play out on several levels. There is the juxtaposition of an English landscape filled with uniform towns and chain stores paired with an English landscape which is wild and unpredictable. Furthermore, in Jerusalem Butterworth prompts you to reflect on and really believe in a mythical England. Here, in Pastoral we see an England with princesses (real or otherwise) and forests and bears and a brave boy called Arthur, akin to the medieval England that Moll talks of with lions and princesses and forests and King Arthur. It’s an incredible debut play with well-realised characters and some very funny and raw dialogue. Arthur’s evocative memory of his first love offers a particularly Philip Ridley-ish speech.