Directing Caryl Churchill’s Fen

First of all I have to admit that I am biased as a long time Churchill fan. I believe she is one of the most powerful and daring playwrights of our time.  In fact some of her plays outweigh the classics for me.  When it was announced that this year’s Master Playwright festival in Winnipeg would be ChurchillFest I knew that this was my opportunity to dig in as an artist.

I’ve been asked why we selected Fen as Sarasvàti Productions’ offering and there were many reasons.  It is a powerful piece that fits our mandate of transformative theatre. It explores issues of economic oppression, the exploitation of women as labourers and how we hurt others when we feel there is no hope.  In addition, the landscape held so many similarities to our own prairies.  Although we aren’t waterlogged in the way that the British fens are, the characters talk repeatedly about how flat the land is, how they can see so far and yet there is nothing coming – no hope, no future… They feel trapped by a land that is wide open.  Yet their little village is home and they can’t leave it.  I hear many echoes of Winnipeg in the script.

The last few months I’ve been buried in fenland research.  It is an amazing region with an even more extraordinary history.  From Roman times there is a constant battle with the water as various groups have tried to control the river ways and water channels to reclaim the land.  Ultimately the drainage, sluices and various other methods have only led to further flooding (another similarity to Winnipeg) and irreparable ecological damage as the peat dries out and shrinks.

Churchill along with the members of Monstrous Regiment spent weeks living in a cottage in the Fens as they created the play.  As a result the script captures the oral tradition of storytelling from that region, as well as the mix of despair and hope.  History is also captured in the ghosts of the workers on whose backs the landowners have profited.  In fact the original title of the play was Strong Girls Always Hoeing in an attempt to capture the reality of the women’s lives as they spend their days working the fields for surrounding farmers and the nights working to provide for their families.

So far rehearsals have been a very enlightening experience as we discover all the layers in Churchill’s writing.  With an amazing cast and artistic team, it is a rewarding experience for me as a director. It is ironic that working with so many characters who do not feel alive allows us as artists to feel alive.

-Hope McIntyre

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