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Ours Was the Fen Country (Bristol)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The Fens in Norfolk has been described as a manscape. The land has been transformed over 6000 years by the area’s inhabitants from dense flooded forests into land which has been drained and used for diverse but somewhat unstable farming. Over the years both nature and the onward march of modern life have threatened the livelihood of the families harvesting the lands and Stillhouse’s production explores the lives of those now living and working in The Fens through recorded interviews, slides, soundscapes and dance. The production also explores the unique wildlife and geography of the area, which many of the interviewees describe as simply ‘flat’.

The snippets of interviews are evocative and brilliantly chosen with some great lines – my favourite being “The only person more powerful than Mother Nature is my nan”. The show uses a mixture of simply playing the recorded dialogue but also has the performers miming along to and voicing the transcripts of the collected words. The latter techniques don’t work for me because it seems to dilute what is actually being said and, while admiring how skilfully it is done, it distracts from the actual impact of the words. The collected voices would have made an engrossing radio documentary and left your imagination to fill in the images rather than watching the actors perform them.

The production is most effective when the power of the words is mixed with the company’s robust and beautifully performed interpretive dance moves. From the opening dance representing the labour involved in working the land to the final moving interpretation of the resilience of both man and nature it is clear that Stillhouse works best when using their physicality alongside the authentic voices of The Fens rather than trying to vocally represent those interviewed.

The show though is a poignant reminded of how fragile and precarious it is when man is working against nature and a changing climate. The voices have stayed with me long after the production and are a reminder of a disappearing way of life and the hardy folk who continue to make their living from the land.


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