Debates about fracking have proliferated in the media this week and the huge differences in perspective of those in affected communities have come to the fore. Similar concerns about the changing nature of rural life makes The Mysteries seem particularly timely.
A cycle of plays about six different places (Eskdale, Staindrop, Whitby, Boston, Stoke-on Trent and Manchester), The Mysteries is an attempt to make a “pattern out of the muddle” of our nation’s collective identity. The project is an interesting one, giving a platform to communities who might otherwise go unnoticed in the metropolitan arts scene. It seems fitting, however, that each play was originally performed in the place that provided its inspiration before coming to Manchester.
The Cumbrian village hall origins of the Eskdale play are skilfully recreated in the urban space of the Royal Exchange’s Studio. The staging evokes the feel of a school assembly or a local am-dram production, an ambience enhanced by the cups of tea on arrival and raffle in the interval. Do not let this lull you into a sense of complacency, however – this visual simplicity belies the true sophistication of the production.
With its knowingly-ironic countryside soundscape and ‘choice’ language, Eskdale is The Archers and Emmerdale gone rogue. The creators (writer Chris Thorpe and director Sam Pritchard) have carefully tried to create believable characters rather than archetypes, and for the most part they succeed. The dialogue sounds natural and the acting is convincing, but the poetic interludes from Andrew Sheridan’s pub landlord and the characters’ occasional breaking of the fourth wall stop it feeling too soap-y.
Nadia Clifford impresses as Ginny, adeptly using both her voice and eyes to convey the young Mancunian’s opinions on the Eskdale inhabitants. As another outsider, Gerry (Nigel Barrett) is endearing in his desire to be accepted by the locals – his awkwardly rambling monologue perfectly captures the stumbling, bumbling enthusiasm of a storyteller failing to read the signals of his audience. Even though he is inevitably left feeling sheepish, there is something touching in insider-turned-outsider, Amy’s (Hannah Ringham) assertion that “the fact they tell you stories shows that you belong.” Certainly, many aspects of the Eskdale play are rooted in the oral tradition and highlight the importance of shared stories in strengthening community bonds.
If Eskdale’s poetics give a nod to the rural vernacular of William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes, then the Manchester play fist-bumps the rhythms of Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh and John Cooper Clarke.
The actors sit amongst the audience throughout, sending a clear message that they are speaking for the people of Manchester. I’m just not convinced that it is in the Mancunian character to accept being told what to think or feel.
In sharp contrast to the warmth and gentle humour of Eskdale, the words in Manchester carry a satirical bite that sometimes seems cold and harsh – but, as a coffee-drinking suburbanite living in a decent catchment area, perhaps all that caffeine and helicopter parenting has made me just a bit too uptight.
Both plays make valid points about feelings of dislocation and the effect that place has on individual identity. But maybe collective responsibility can only be stretched so far. By incorporating details about the Manchester bomber into the fabric of the piece, there were hints that Manchester’s real and metaphorical architects have created a city that has helped terrorism to flourish. If individuals choose to shun their own sense of responsibility for others by murdering them, are we personally culpable as members of their community? Undoubtedly this piece asks important questions about place, belonging and the role of art in influencing collective response, but I am left wondering to what extent it is helpful or wise to give narrative shape to incomprehensible acts of terror.
For all its attempts to appear humble and unassuming, this is a significant piece of theatre that will get communities talking. Forget fracking, join this debate now.
This review is of the Eskdale and Manchester plays that form part of the six-part series The Mysteries, running at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 11th November. Other plays in the cycle explore Whitby, Staindrop in County Durham, Stoke-on-Trent and Boston in Lincolnshire.
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