Theatre: Through a past darkly

Playwright April de Angelis writes about the stark rural realities that inspired her new work for the RSC
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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE RSC asked me if I would be interested in writing a play inspired by the history of village life in Warwickshire since the First World War, the answer that sprang to mind was "no". Unsexy adjectives like "worthy" and "interesting" swam about me. I had flashbacks of a video I had seen of a friend's community play where a lugubrious procession of Crucible-type extras trailed around a shopping centre singing songs about the local brewing industry.

The impulse seemed at least 20 years out of date. Back then it was fashionable to bring theatre to the community, empowering people with a sense of their own history, and the ones that couldn't act could do the costumes. Happily, it seemed to me, theatre had shrugged off that phase.

There was another spectre lurking in the wings, too: history as theme park. A stifling sense of "heritage" has swallowed up history in a thousand BBC costume dramas so that it is almost impossible to think of village life without bland cosiness creeping in. My head was stuffed with fantasised, decontextualised images insidiously gathered over a lifetime - cream teas, bosomy barmaids, quaint country folk, meadows and Maypoles - all the commercial fiction of rural England. In this territory there was only the lone flag of Dennis Potter holding out for sanity. So, rather reluctantly, I agreed to read the written or transcribed testimonies of people who had lived in Warwickshire villages since 1914.

The first thing that struck me was the fact that an exodus had taken place. People born in these villages could no longer afford to live there. Commuters were buying up the bijou old cottages and villagers were priced out. With their departure a community had disappeared and a sort of pseudo- community had taken its place. A real sense of anger and loss came through. Secondly the material was much darker than I, foolishly, had ever expected.

Retrospectively, it makes sense that a self-sufficient rural community would be powerfully connected to the cycle of life and death obscured from the majority of us living in cities. However, it came as a shock that death was dealt with so completely by the villagers themselves and, in particular, that the women were so accurate about it. They did everything. The dead body went through a highly ritualised process, the knowledge passed down from mother to daughter. All this is now repressed in life outside such a community; in comparison we are infants, helpless before death, and that profoundly shocked me.

The stories which emerged suggested a life a million miles away from that which I'd anticipated. It was crueller, with sad tales of suffocating restriction. It was weirder, with tales of pig killers called Darkie Mullins and kids jumping on dead pigs to get the blood out. And it was extraordinarily pertinent: the history of two World Wars were devastat-ingly at the heart of the rural testimony which surprised and moved me at every turn and forced me to rethink my prejudices.

What writing A Warwickshire Testimony showed me was that by substituting the reality of village life with a sort of chocolate-box England, we are denying that the recent history of these communities has knowledge to offer us. The sadness and longing coming through these lives seemed like the sadness of non-recognition. It came out of a kind of silencing, which is the opposite of good grieving. It doesn't suit us as self-consciously "modern", urban, career-obsessed individuals to ponder on the forces that our life plans will have to submit to, notably ageing and death. Or the fact that we are part of a community in every conceivable way.

`A Warwickshire Testimony' opens tomorrow at the RSC, Stratford (01789 403403)