Exit, pursued by a marsh harrier: why I wrote a play for nature reserves
Created deep in the fens of East Anglia, Murmurations is a new drama about conservation in the age of extinction
It’s not been a great year for playwriting. In March 2020 I was deep in casting for a revival of my plays on climate change, The Contingency Plan. Then theatres went dark, powerful venues shrank to a rump, buildings vanished, freelancers were left to their fate. Yes, the stage is creeping back to life now, but the visionary transformations imagined in lockdown have given way to the return of more or less the same in terms of where theatres are and what gets staged.
Or maybe we’re looking in the wrong place.
Perhaps there’s another story of survival and revival to tell. And that’s one reason I’ve spent the year deep in the fens of East Anglia, where theatre-makers fear to tread. Just as lockdown forced us to fall in love with the local, I’ve spent the year experimenting with a new sort of writing that doesn’t just speak of the environment but emerges from it. And my partners in this endeavour have been the wonderful theatre company Tangled Feet, specialists in the outdoor, avid for logistical challenges, can-do in a time of no-can-do.
Tangled Feet pride themselves in making theatre where it isn’t usually found, who believe art must be available and accessible to all; likewise I wanted to develop a playwriting that closely engaged with conservation in an age of extinction and had been lucky enough to receive funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to do just that. I talked two reedbed-based nature reserves in East Anglia – Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk – into allowing us to develop a site-specific work that would emerge from the past and present their sites. The result, a year later, is a new show, Murmurations, which goes live in September.
That all sounds rather straightforward but in truth I’ve no idea how I wrote this piece. As with all elements of life under the pandemic everything has been difficult. Even as the project began, the reserves themselves either closed or were hampered by restrictions; suddenly conservation itself – bird monitoring, path clearing, reed cutting – became impossibly fraught. Even getting on site took months. Once easily-visited destinations felt like far-off realms; meeting in person in Wicken’s car park last July was a euphoric moment.
But how do you write for a great outdoors that upstages every word with the glories of a glimpsed marsh harrier or swallowtail butterfly? Theatre is always a collaborative act but now I was collaborating with outdoor play-making where the set’s a horizon and the specific needs of a protected place; no bashing a script out in splendid isolation and tossing it at the director. So back we came to Wicken in the cold of December – again that euphoria! Being on an actual site with actual actors and directors. Yet here we were, walking in headsets into the fen, actors performing physical theatre impros under a wan winter sun.
Then came the mother of all lockdowns; once again the reserves retreated to a space in the imagination. In May we returned in an interval of sunshine, and I could feel the play emerge, realising it would be less about the environment itself than our hunger for it; that the Covid year had worked its way into every scene; that it should be a walk into the land out of a year of loss and restraint. Central to this would be headsets, providing a soundscape for the ears, live performance mixed in with recorded song, offering the audience the superpower of eavesdropping on both nature and human stories.
Now as this country achieves a semblance of normality, the curtain’s pulled back on the climate crisis. We may not be suffering like Greece or Oregon but we’re vulnerable; East Anglia is threatened by climate change-driven sea-level rise. Only a few surges of saltwater into the freshwater habitats of the Broads and dozens of species will be lost – yes, extinction stalks here too, in fluctuating insect populations, creatures at the edge of their range. And meanwhile the world of conservation, like theatre, is fragile, dependent on rickety funding, threatened by Brexit, sustained only by individual passion and sacrifice.
Yet the more you look into the land, the more you see the life remaining; and there are bold initiatives for rewilding up to 30% of the UK, with Wicken’s own Vision project foremost among them. Can theatre be equally bold – can we forge out of the ruins of the last 18 months a dramatic ecology linking audiences and places in a new settlement of access and resource and thereby make ourselves necessary again?
The first step may simply be to experience what we’ve missed, and Murmurations as it unfolds under the huge skies of East Anglia offers one possible route out of artistic lockdown.
Murmurations is at the National Trust’s Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, 17-19 September and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen Reserve, 24-26 September.