Re-imagining the Akenfield landscape

Naomi Jones is a courageous young theatre director, who has helped bring Suffolk's Akenfield story bang up to date.

Andrew Clarke

Naomi Jones is a courageous young theatre director, who has helped bring Suffolk's Akenfield story bang up to date. She spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke, about the joy and the trepidation surrounding the project.

Akenfield is a piece of classic East Anglian literature - penned by Ronald Blythe and later brought to the big screen by Peter Hall. Both book and film are much beloved of East Anglian audiences as a rare, honest portrayal of rural life in East Anglia.

So any updating of the Akenfield story will be treated with a high degree of caution by local audiences. Thankfully, Return the Akenfield the book and the accompanying play by Craig Taylor have moved away from Ronald Blythe's fictional world to conjure up a 21st century reality based on interviews with current residents of Akenfield - the inhabitants of Charsfield and Debach.

Fears that a modern re-telling of Akenfield would destroy the magic of the original have been calmed with the news that Eastern Angles theatre company are the people who have been entrusted with bringing this slice of Suffolk life to the stage.

The play is the brainchild of freelance director Naomi Jones who came across Craig's book when she was working on a similar research-based drama Talking To Terrorists with Out of Joint theatre company, who brought the play to the New Wolsey Theatre.

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“I come from Saffron Walden, so although it's not local, local - it's local enough to have been aware of Akenfield as a concept. I was on a train going to one of the openings when Max (Stafford-Clark, the artistic director of Out of Joint) handed me a magazine with Craig's interview with Andy Youngman. This was while Craig was working this up into a book and I was completely fascinated and immediately knew it would make a wonderful piece of research-based theatre.”

She said that everyone who lives in or near the countryside thinks they know about farming and rural living but when you read first hand testimony, it quickly becomes apparent that the reality is quite different.

“For me this was perfect. Here was a man who obviously wrote drama from his own research material. I got in contact with Craig and got a copy of the book, which at the time wasn't published, then realised it was based on Akenfield, got hold of Akenfield and then it all fell into place.

“Somewhere in the depths of my memory I recalled that Eastern Angles used to come to my school in Saffron Walden and they were not only committed to new writing but were particularly keen on creating new works based on local subjects. So I got in touh with Ivan Cutting (artistic director of Eastern Angles), he liked the idea, was keen to develop it, and we started bringing this wonderful book to the stage. It was a series of happy accidents really.”

She said that when she had her initial discussions with Ivan, he had indicated that he had been in touch with Ronald Blythe several times over the years having vague discussions about one day, possibly adapting the original Akenfield for an Eastern Angles production but this was an opportunity to do something different, something contemporary, something relevant to today's audiences but not only had strong links with the past but the current story was directly influenced by the lives of those that had gone before.

Whereas Akenfield was a celebration of a world that had now largely disappeared, Return to Akenfield was a portrait of life in the present, a world of contrasts and change - a village and community in flux, forging a new identity for itself.

She said that Return To Akenfield could be viewed as a companion piece to previous rural-themed documentary plays like The Reaper's Year, Days of Plenty and Bone Harvest. “It fits well with Eastern Angles philosophy and it's important that it's Return to Akenfield rather than being Akenfield itself. It's the story of the next generation, the current generation.

“We have just been rehearsing the second half, and at the start we are looking at Akenfield as a concept rather than a place and you hear the voices of Ronald Blythe, Craig Taylor and Peter Hall. They acknowledge that Akenfield has become something more than the sum of its individual parts. It was a book, then it was a film, then it was a book again, now it is a stage play and yet is bigger than all the separate elements.”

She said that they have done their own research in order to bring this book to the stage and there are elements in the play that don't appear elsewhere. “Theatre by its very nature is a very collaborative process. I suppose the play has a more narrative feel than the book which is largely a series of interviews and life experiences but having said that much of the play is delivered by the characters straight to the audience, so it does have that interview/confidential quality. You do get that feeling that the characters are speaking to you - that they have gathered in this place to update the story.”

She said that although the book dealt with real people, the play deals with composites with fictional names, allowing them greater dramatic licence and a greater dramatic scope. “We are looking at specific types: farmer, estate agent, publican, school-teacher… they are people who are part of the modern community, people with stories to tell, they are our way in to the modern Akenfield.”

She said that the line that the actors and the director had to walk on any research-based piece was how specifically do you draw the character? “Is it going to be Bremner, Bird and Fortune and you end up doing an impersonation or do you opt for something more generic which tells a wider story and draws on the experiences of more than one person? We chose the wider option, creating composite characters because it better told the story of the whole community.”

She said that the biggest change between this contemporary Return to Akenfield and the original is the way that the Suffolk accent has virtually disappeared. The changes in village life, the reduction of long-term employees working on the land, the incomers and the dormitory style living has meant that the village population has adopted a generalised estuary English similar to that spoken across the southern part of Britain.

This is important as it suggests that perhaps there is no longer any such thing as a local or if there are, then they have attitudes and speech patterns which are drawn from influences far beyond the village or town boundaries.

“But, the most suprising thing is that on our visits to Charsfield and Debach we talked to a variety of people but many of them wanted to come to Suffolk. The young people in particular wanted to get away, wanted to sample other places, wanted to go to university, wanted to get jobs in big cities, but once they had 'made it', virtually all of them wanted to come back to Suffolk to settle down. It was clear that Suffolk still has an amazing pulling power. People are very reluctant to turn their backs on it forever.

“Which is interesting because my parents are Welsh, they wanted to get out as youngsters and they have never wanted to go back. They are happy where they are, so it's interesting to explore the differences in that situation.”

All of this is fascinating to Naomi and is what draws her to this type of theatre and what inspires her to work on first person pieces of theatre.

“Working with Out of Joint gives you experience of using research and weaving plays out of first person testimony. I worked on a play called Testing The Echo by David Edgar. That was researched by Out of Joint, the material was then given to David Edgar who chose to turn it into a fictional play - but it needn't have been. It's not a verbatim transcript of what was said and the chairs are turned inwards, so to speak, so the characters talk to each other rather than the audience, but the thrill of working from research-inspired drama is that you do get seduced by the research, by the facts and by unexpected - surprising pieces of information, intriguing characters and in the case of Return to Akenfield the blend of the personal with the political.

“For example, you have an orchard farmer, brandishing an apple, saying: 'Look at this apple, it's lovely apple, it's tasty, its sweet but the supermarkets don't want it because it's the wrong size.' It's using drama to reflect real concerns in real people's lives.”

For Naomi, this form of theatre combines drama with her love of meeting people and discovering different lives and experiencing different jobs.

“It's great because I get a window into a host of different worlds. I now something about a great many walks of life and I think if you are into theatre you are a naturally inquisitive person. I have always been interested in theatre. My mother is a drama teacher, my grandfather was an actor and I acted at school but in the sixth form I directed my first play, the Duchess of Malfi, and I was hooked.

“It was a rather pretentious thing to do,” she mimics her younger voice; “Oh let's do a five act revenge tragedy in the round.' It was probably terrible but it got me started. Then I went to Manchester university and did a little acting but it was mostly directing. Now I feel really weird on stage, very self conscious, so now I make sure I am this side of the footlights.”

Return to Akenfield is currently touring across East Anglia. For details on venues and tickets go to www.easternangles.co.uk