David Rudkin has been out of fashion for some while now, his fibrous, mythopoeic works having fallen out of favour as actual performance pieces; like Edward Bond (in this respect at least), he has become a writer to be respected in theory but largely shied away from in practice. Now, as the film opens of Rudkin's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, Theatr Clwyd has revived his first stage play, Afore Night Come, which originally brought him to wider attention in 1962.
The texture of a Rudkin play in the flesh is distinctive even to those, like me, who have known his works only by way of the page and the screen: this is a world in which ordinary people, speaking in often defiantly unpolished language, inhabit the same space as ancient forces and impulses which are sometimes themselves personified, and all are alike regarded with the same detached, unblinking vision. In this case the "here and now" folk, so to speak, are fruit-pickers in the West Midlands, conversing in a babel of dialects (where the solitary speaker of Received Pronunciation admits that it is not his native tongue) as they try to fill their quota of 600 boxes of pears during the single day on which the play is set. At different times, the characters assume various alignments – communities, factions, cliques, groups of initiates, cowards and outsiders – the latter comprising, according to context, Larry the college boy (Jack Waters), "Hobnails" the simpleton labourer (Oliver Ryan) and/or Roche the malingering Irish hobo (Frank Grimes). By the end of the action, Roche has been decapitated, Hobnails put back in his straitjacket for return to "the colony", and Larry left in little doubt that, one way or another, he will not last the full three weeks in Mr Hawkes's employ.
What binds the men, and what separates them, are rituals: rites of work, social rituals... even the murder of Roche has undertones of a blood-sacrifice fertility rite; this being Rudkin, however, nothing is spelt out – we are left to absorb these possible currents through the soles of our feet rather than by any process of intellection.
Dominic Cooke elicits strong ensemble work, in which no relationship is ever stable, from his cast of fourteen; designer Georgia Sion and lighting designer Johanna Town create a satisfying thunderstorm between them, and Gary Yershon's score divides individual scenes with brief glass knitting needles of quasi-feedback. In one perverse sense, Ryan's excellent Hobnails is the easiest character to relate to, in that he is the most straightforwardly incomprehensible. When Larry presents him wth a fountain pen, his enraptured cry, "It'm wondrous! I want to break it and then weep my eyes out for not havin' it no more!" is a perfect example of Rudkin's skill at recording the truth beneath wild irrationality.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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