Unearthed and The Gift

Theresa Heskins and Jemma Kennedy
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
to

The cast of Unearthed Credit: Andrew Billington
The cast of The Gift Credit: Andrew Billington

Twenty-two plays including 19 new commissions over five weeks: a festival inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard—“a treasure trove of Staffordshire stories”—is underway.

The Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found. The New Vic received £198,000 from Arts Council England to produce the festival which has been developed in association with the National Theatre Studio.

The first two offerings, if you do not include “table plays”—five-minute monologues by members of the Hoard Festival Company at your table in the bar—are Theresa Heskins’s Unearthed and The Gift by Jemma Kennedy.

Heskins, the New Vic’s artistic director, is both writer and director of Unearthed, a play which, in the theatre-in-the-round’s celebrated documentary style, tells the story of how a man with a metal detector found the Hoard in a field next to the M6 toll road.

Heskins amassed 80 hours of original interviews, piecing together the story of the Hoard from Terry Herbert and others who found it as well as the views of experts who have tried to explain its significance.

What Heskins discovered was that every time something new was uncovered about the seventh century treasure, it led to more unanswered questions.

This is skilfully articulated in the play as one historian after another either gives it a different interpretation or admits ignorance about the find.

The production starts with an actress playing Theresa Heskins interviewing people about the discovery. They include members of a metal detectors’ club whose hobby is a social day out; they are looking for history rather than wanting to make a fortune.

There are some fascinating insights, including the revelation that there was so much activity going on in the field that some locals thought a murder had been committed.

Items from the Hoard look stunning as they are projected onto the floor of the stage; some of them might have mysterious origins but everyone is able to appreciate their exclusivity and indeed their beauty.

The play has pace and charm, Heskins directing it with her usual aplomb and steady hand. Only occasionally does it get bogged down in historical context.

The fact that so little is known about the Hoard means that Jemma Kennedy’s The Gift is somewhat contrived. She sets her play during the reign of Wulfhere, the first Christian king of Mercia.

The Gift starts with Mercian warriors returning after three months on the battlefield. They bring with them a gift of gold, taken from the weapons of their defeated enemies. They plan to use the treasure to build a new way of life and gain the king’s favour.

But their women are determined to hold onto the world they know, no matter what the cost.

Directed by Gemma Fairlie, The Gift is an interesting enough piece, with the ensemble lustily throwing themselves into it. But it seems unfinished, a work-in-progress that does not quite build up enough tension nor produce characters you can empathise with.

Having said that, the evening is a solid introduction to the Hoard Festival. It goes part of the way towards answering some of the questions it poses, such as how we define ourselves as a society and what we consider is worth fighting for.

Reviewer: Steve Orme