Hefted - The land is always watching

Half-human half-goats surround a family farm in their bulldozers, engines revving. Wind turbines send magical and prophetic messages through the undulations of their blades. A child born with earth in her bones is preparing to leave her home forever, ignoring warnings that the land is always watching…

In less than a fortnight, these stories will come to life in Swimbridge Jubilee Hall. The professionally-led community cast of Hefted, directed by North Devon’s multi story theatre company, will process through the audience as survivors of the great collapse, take to the stage, and remain there for the evening until their stories have been heard.

Today it’s another full-company rehearsal day: a chance to keep ‘gluing’ together the separately-rehearsed moments, physical sequences and ensemble work with the razor-sharp direction of the nine individual scenes. 

The atmosphere has shifted slightly now production approaches – work is undertaken with even more focus, the awareness of a public audience is dawning, tiny details and transitions are worked over multiple times. Some moments of staging and design just don’t work out yet – solutions are proffered and mulled. There’s an impressive confidence in the things that may still change, despite the first production night looming. The company has huge trust in one another. 

New harmonies and riffs on the production’s central song are played around with – a traditional English folk number becomes a jazzy New Orleans scat track, a backing jingle for a glitzy game show, a song from the siren-like turbines sending their messages across the fields. These new harmonies are taught and sung back, acapella, the ensemble supporting one another with these fresh departures. 

As I watch the rehearsal progressing, I’m reminded of the sheer force of will and energy driving the majority of the cast, volunteering their time to bring Hefted to the stage. Real life is still happening around these segments of rehearsal – it’s one of the biggest challenges of community theatre. 

There’s not the luxury of four full-time weeks to prepare a show, but instead the added challenge on top of the work itself, of retaining instruction, direction, the cohesiveness of the company and the minutiae of the show’s detail whilst coming in and out of rehearsal periods fitting around the pressures of day-to-day life. It’s no mean feat. Yet the immense concentration and commitment to the performances, even just in rehearsal, would never betray it. They’re here to work. 

The four scenes being rehearsed today take me back to the fundamentals of the play. The unruly world of nature, myths and history, the transformative impact of the land, the politics of commercialism colliding with family farming, the economic pressure on the landscape in relation to energy needs, the deep desire to feel like you’re making your mark by maintaining or developing the land – or making your very absence from it felt.

The characters begin to weigh up the rational and logical with the supernatural and the unknown, tussle with their need to boil everything down to the understandable, but remaining aware throughout that something doesn’t quite fit. The land appears to be watching. It has its own agenda, tethered to millions of years of history. It knows. 

One particular vocal and physical warm-up exercise has the cast on their hands and knees. They gather in small groups like lowing cows, arching their backs and letting their voices come out as pure sound, without constricting their vocal cords. It has some of them in stitches, but I enjoy the visual metaphor hugely. 

It’s because the hopeful parts of Hefted are in it: allowing something of nature to momentarily blend with the human. When the divisions between those elements are dissolved, in the space that’s left, something unexpected and transformative can begin to happen. And only then do we genuinely see new possibilities for the future.

David Lane, writer of Hefted

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