Hefted - North Devon survivors gather on Lundy Island...
An ensemble of North Devon survivors is gathered on Lundy Island in 2075, looking back on the folklore of their land and the environmental collapse that swallowed it. They’re also getting put through their paces in the Old School Rooms in Swimbridge, in 2018. These are the rehearsals for Beaford and Multi Story’s production of Hefted, now gathering pace ahead of December’s premiere.
Multiple bodies are being sculpted into strange shapes and contortions, as they represent the transformation of a wild hedgerow into a team of soldiers. Later, the bodies take the place of the low hanging boughs and shadowy copses of a wood in Dalton, as other performers leap and bound through the branches playing hide-and-seek.
Next, they form a circle of mourners, each throwing earth to the ground to mark the passing of one of their community, before breaking into a beautiful folk song that resonates hauntingly in this intimate Swimbridge rehearsal space.
I’m watching the storytellers of Hefted come to life in their own unique configuration, as Gill Nathanson and Bill Buffery of Multi Story – supported by professional actors Ben Stretton and Laura James – shape their presence with subtlety and nuance, searching for theatrical and arresting images that will linger in the audience’s imagination.
Gill develops a physical language for this ensemble, pushing them to play with commitment: exploring the limits of one another’s physicality, getting to know one another’s dynamic of movement and energy, letting their bodies do the talking and trying to think instinctively and freely. These are techniques that will translate directly to the staging of scenes, giving them a shorthand to make harmonious choices, communicating clearly with one another and the audience.
They work hard vocally too. As well as the singing, pages of loose verse writing that looked more like poetry on the script is suddenly transformed into fifteen individual voices, each with their own attitudes and agendas. This is now a complex community of characters, only suggested in the script but now brought fully to life through the rehearsal exercises.
Gill pushes them to think in detail about the words they’re saying, transforming them into intentions, desires and needs rather than just pretty language, activating the dramatic urgency to draw spectators deeper into the story. They might not say much, but their lingering presence – and their relationship to this 600-year cycle of myths and tales from the North Devon landscapes – is crucial to the play.
Bookending this rehearsal with the ensemble is some intensive and more detailed scene work with two or three characters, guided forward by the inquisitive directorial eye of Bill Buffery as he encourages the performers to think in terms of actions and intentions not words. We spend as much time discussing the silences between the lines as the words themselves, searching for what isn’t said and how to build that subtext into the energy of the scene.
As writer I offer back some research to help frame the origins of the scene for the performers, showing James Ravilious’ photographs from the Beaford Archive, and sharing recollections from the oral histories that emerged in response to these images and then informed the play.
You practice patience as a writer at this stage too, allowing space for the creative team to make their own choices, even when you have your own ideas of how things might be played. More often than not, you’re surprised and delighted by their discoveries, which bring unexpected colour and interpretation to the writing without diverting from its overall purpose.
The level of detailed understanding being sought by Bill, Gill and all the performers through their questioning and discussion is impressive. As writer you’re suddenly aware that they need to get a handle on these creations as real people, moving through time and space just as we are. They’re getting deep under the skin of their characters now, allowing them to play the scenes with a level of dramatic truth which is genuinely compelling.
This is only the mid-point of rehearsals. To be this far, this soon, leaves a tantalising flavour of the vision this finished production will stage in Swimbridge in December.