Thursday, 3 June 2010

Theatre: Beanfield by Shaun McCarthy directed by David Lockwood at Bike Shed Exeter and Tobacco Factory Bristol


Written by Sean McCarthy
Directed by David Lockwood
Produced by the Particular Theatre Company
The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter: 1st - 19th June 2010
The Tobacco Factory, Bristol: 24th Auigust- 4th September

It is 25 years since the Battle of the Beanfield, a confrontation between the police forces of several counties and a peace convoy of new age travellers on their way to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice, a fourteenth free festival that would have established the event by right. It occurred at the high watermark of Thatcherism and for many symbolises her government's strategy: to create enemies without or within, demonise them with the assistance of a right-wing press and then defeat them by force of arms. However, unlike the Falklands War and the miners' strike, it seems to have faded in the collective memory, despite being the police operation that led to the largest number of arrests in British history - 1,600 officers took over 500 citizens into custody, filling holding cells all over England with men and women, their children taken into care. Years later, the justice system begrudgingly acknowledged their innocence and police guilt but by then, lives had been ruined and a way of life erased from the landscape.

Why this anniversary has been overlooked when our media is usually hungry for the nostalgia of recent history is partly because of the lack of documentary footage of the event. Photographers on the scene were few and what news footage was filmed was mysteriously deleted or edited. In our age of internet media what has survived has surfaced on youtube, and can be seen by anyone, but back then were were dependent on the news barons of Fleet Street and Broadcasting house. There was something almost medieval about the confrontation as the police systematically destroy the travellers' homes and beat them into submission. What few independent witnesses there were on site still talk of their shock that such force could be deployed at so much cost to deal with what were mainly the refugees of recession, rogues by necessity but hardly potential revolutionaries.

The challenge for writer, cast and director is how to give the event context and reduce it from the widescreen to a small stage, telling human stories to capture a historic event from multiple perspectives. Shaun McCarthy looks to Shakespeare for his inspiration. The prelude to the Battle takes place in the Forest of Arden of a Midummer Night's Dream while the Battle itself draws from the history plays for lessons in how to conjure up largescale confl;ict with a small cast and a few props on a few boards of stage.

Key to success or failure of the endeavour of the venture is Steamer, the narrator and central protagonist played with energy, conviction and insight by Ben Crispin. This is his first major role since qualifying at Exeter's Cygnet Theatre drama school; it won't be his last. It is Crispin's charisma and drive that gives the momentum drama as Steamer steps out of his own tragi-comedy of a love story and into those of others, still seeking to understand what happened years on. Writing this review weeks after seeing the production, Steamer still lives in my dreams while the other characters have faded into the background; give him a chance, he might just find his way into yours.

The first act is one of setup and explication. If you are of that time and place, it may seem laboured, but no doubt necessary to situate characters and audience. The roles established are convenient to the development of several themes of the play. Steamer's girlfriend Annie is herself the daughter of a news editor, taking a break out of what has otherwise been a cosseted life; seeking purpose, flirting with danger. Katie Villa is well cast to walk a sometimes meandering line between innocence and experience and it is her character and gives many in the audience a door from their life into that of a band of vagrants who were more often choosing the convoy over sink estates and urban squats than slumming it for fun, although there was plenty of fun to be had along the way.

Diane is a west country innocent picked up by chance en route and Georgie Rennolds who plays her combines naivety and nous in a persona that becomes more layered as the drama unravels until it his her experience and its telling that you trust more than any other. She also plays the female half of a Midlands couple due to take a trip through the West Country and again gives her character development that becomes insight, however simplified the implied conflict between working and non-working class is represented as being. Again, McCarthy takes from Shakespeare that combination of cartoon characterisation and plotlines that depend on coincidence for credence with a quality of language that enables the actors to transcend and subvert audience expectations. 

The demands of the production mean all of the cast apart from Crispin have to play a variety of roles so the foot soldiers of the battle are in place when the action begins, whether police, council or convoy. Ben Simpson as Benny and as Eli Thorne as Lex are asked to represent the light and dark sides of both convoy and police and while these minor roles are more symbols than characters, they dodeliver their keynote speeches with gusto and bring enough energy to the stage in the battle scene that you feel you are seeing a telephoto view of a wideangle conflict. It is a credit to cast and David Lockwood's direction that the set piece scenes are conjured up by just five actors and a flexible set that is cunningly designed by Phil Wyatt to become any of the many settings the play demands while also saying something of a mobile life off odds and ends, its frammework and props something that could be constructed from the contents of any hardware store.

The second half of the play opens with the battle scene that is necessarily noisy and brutal but then takes us through the immediate aftermath and into the later eighties when bust has turned to boom and there is money to be made even by the more savvy of those like Steamer who were once left behind. In many ways, this is the most interesting part of the play. Leave travellers in their battered buses and you only see a segment of their lives because few except those born to the convoy began their lives on the road and, given the sequence of laws that were passed in the five years after the battle that the play relates like a magna carta of rights taken away, most have long abandoned the lifestyle or fled to southern europe where casual work is more available year round. Steamer has got off the bus but still has the light of life in his eyes while in others from the past he encounters by chance, it already seems to have died.

Veterans of the conflict - for this was just the largest of many battles that ended at Castlemorton in 1990, the last of the great free festivals when new age and rave cultures merged on common land for a week or two of fuck-you paryting - attended rehersals on a number of occasions but in the end it is writer and director who had to find a few stories among the many to make sense of what happened to a modern audience and say something worth saying today. In that, they largely succeed. Back then, I was flirting with the lifestyle myself, a weekend hippie and armchair anarchist hitching my way to free fesivals across southern England. But in just the same way as union laws were rewritten after Orgreave and Wapping, so the trend towards a progressive denial of civil liberties and ever-increasing surveillance began at the Beanfield. However confused resistance was in that movement, it wasn't futile although it was defeated.

As another young generation are dispossessed and see the life opportunities they thought they were born to evaporate, so a new movement will begin and this time it will be better organised, at once less visible and more effective. By looking back to Shakespeare, McCarthy reminds us that the English peasantry have a long history of rebellion. Any history play has to do more than describe a particular set of events if it is to survive. Yes, the play is one of archetypes playing out plot lines we've seen before in familiar ways but that is both its point and purpose. I have seen all of Particular Theatre's productions so far and rate this as the one most likely to have a deserved life of its own beyond the Bike Shed stage.

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