This Land

Sian Owen
Salisbury Playhouse and Pentabus Theatre Company
Salisbury Playhouse

It’s about fracking, the controversial technique for recovering gas and oil from shale rock, and the possible impact it may have on folk living in the vicinity of a fracking site.

Joseph, a science teacher (Harry Long), his wife Bea (Rosie Armstrong) and their new baby Dylan live in the country amid an idyllic landscape of farmland and meadows. But this is 2016 and the increasing world-wide demand for energy means that, when gas is discovered layered between the shale rocks near their home, there is a serious threat to their up to now peaceful lives.

But isn’t this progress? Aren’t oil and gas vital to our civilised existence?

And haven’t people always used the earth to support their lifestyle and bury their waste? Doesn’t Bea herself use the soil to grow her organic carrots?

We go back to around 800 BC. Joseph and Bea have become anonymous speculators—called X and XX—on the possibilities of their latest discovery, iron. That, and the flames produced by rubbing stones together, will enable them to dominate other tribes. Knowledge really is the key to both status and advancement, isn’t it? And that’s the important thing, never mind more benevolent uses that they might consider for their find.

Back to 2016, then, where Bea and Joseph (Dylan is now two) find a large hole with a rope attached, evidence of the fracking company’s incursion onto their land.

But is it their land? Do they really own what’s underneath and, if so, how far down do their proprietorial rights extend? And what about the noise? There are meetings, protest groups and offers of compensation, but progress can’t be halted, just as back in the eighteenth century, Bea and Joseph (now Applewood and his wife Bund) are contemplating the purchase of a Jethro Tull seed drill. But what’s wrong with doing what they’ve always done? Using their hands? Arguments are futile. They can’t stop technological progress.

And so we follow Bea, Joseph and Dylan through time, where they alternate their modern family roles with those of Martha, Bea’s grandmother, who buries her wedding ring in tribute to her husband killed in battle in 1941, a farmer, a fairy queen, a geologist and his voluntary helper. All this achieved with the aid of a number of large chests containing a collection of costumes with which the two actors transform themselves at lightning speed into the required range of different characters.

Much food for thought here, then, as the chests are emptied over the course of the play. But the action hasn’t really ended, has it? As the last one is revealed, we gasp in recognition. The lesson from science teacher Joseph has hit us hard. It’s not just the shock of exposure of that jumble of familiar objects, but the realisation that this is only the beginning of an unknown future. It’s not just about fracking but the whole future of our increasingly fragile planet.

But the question remains hanging in the air: should an apocalyptic play like This Land be as entertaining as this one certainly is? I leave you to judge.

Reviewer: Anne Hill