Eastern Angles are making a big noise at the Hush House
Thirteen years ago, regional theatre touring company Eastern Angles did something very daring – they stayed still. For one production only they put down roots, in a huge converted potting shed, belonging to Woodbridge horticultural firm Notcutts, and mounted a spectacular site-specific work about the origins of East Anglia and its people. It was called The Wuffiings.
It was a large scale, large cast, hugely dramatic spectacular – an epic story, told on an epic scale.
Tied in with the people who created the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, it told of the origins of the East Anglian people and our local communities.
That was in 1997. Today in 2010, Eastern Angles co-founder Ivan Cutting has recovered sufficiently from the ordeal to mount a new site specific extravaganza, Bentwater Roads.
“At the time you say never again but give it enough time for the memory to fade then you say. Maybe we could do another one.”
Set and staged at the end of the main runway at the former RAF Bentwaters, the play looks at the life of the area over the centuries.
The play, written by Blue Throat author Tony Ramsey, tells the story of Charlie who arrives, in her camper van, at the family home after the death of her mother.
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She is there ostensibly to sell the house, believing she has no ties to the area but having arrived home she is surprised to discover how the memories come flooding back and how much she is affected by the landscape, by the area where she grew up.
Eastern Angles artistic director and co-founder Ivan Cutting, said the play entwines four distinct time periods into the plot, so the history of the area reaches forward from the past and becomes part of Charlie’s story.
“There’s a church right on the perimeter fence, close to the end of the runway. I have become fascinated by this church, Wantisden Church and wondered at what changes it has witnessed over the centuries. It becomes the one fixed point in our story. It’s the one constant that links all the different time periods together.”
The play has been developed by writer Tony Ramsey over about five or six years, going through a number of drafts before finally hitting upon its multi-layered story.
The production is being staged in Bentwaters famous Hush House, a hi-tech, sound-proofed jet engine testing facility. It has a dramatic looking exhaust port at one end of a vast hanger which Ivan is going to turn into a time tunnel bring back characters from the past. These are people who used to live in the shadow of the church on what would become Bentwaters airfield.
These echoes from the past include druids and Saxons from the early settlements, the farmers who built the church tower in the middle ages, then there is the construction of the airfield and the control tower during the Cold War and then Bentwaters as it is today.
“We heard some while ago about the Hush House and we came out to have a look at it about eight years ago and were immediately struck by the idea of doing something here. It’s a very impressive looking venue and we wanted to do something special here.
“It has the air of a recording studio – the air inside is dead because they tried to acoustically seal it. When first walk in, the first thing that hits you is the sound.
“There’s no echo, no reverberation. It’s quiet, it’s still. It’s silent. It gives the space a feeling of other-worldliness, which we felt we could harness.”
He said this means actors can be heard over vast spaces with no amplification.
He said that with any use of the Hush House the exhaust port is such a dramatic piece of the architecture that it has to be included in the overall design of the play.
“We’ve had endless fun talking about how we use it. Do we get it out of the way and introduce it right at the beginning, or we introduce it half way through and then incorporate it into the story or leave until towards the end, make it a surprise and unveil it with a tremendous flourish in a dramatic plot twist. We’ve had all these discussions and now we’ve got a feel for what we are doing, I think it’s going to work very well.”
Ivan said that Tony Ramsey was first commissioned back in 2003 to come up with a site specific play for Bentwaters and at first it dealt with the whole site, the hangars and the life of the airfield, before the focus shifted to looking at the history of the area around the church, the runway and a pair of homes called Bentwater Cottages which lent their name to the entire airbase.
“Also I loved the fact that it’s a church almost without a village. Wantisden? What is Wantisden, it’s a collection of farm buildings, a couple of cottages and a church, that’s it – which is bizarre in itself. Then you find that it has this crag stone tower, of which there are only two in the country and the other one is two miles down the road. It was built as a result of a bequest in 1445.
“So Tony has written this story about Charlie but has woven in the tales about the pagans, Staverton Wood, the building of the church tower and Bentwaters during the Cold War. So not only does Charlie get a sense of her place in the history of the area, so do we.”
They are using the Hush Hangar as a deliberate setting without trying to disguise it with sets or masking. “This is a Cold War base. It’s not an old World War II base and the design will reflect that.”
Tony Ramsey was taken by Ivan to the Bentwaters site in 2002 on a site visit and was swept away by what he saw. “It’s a very inspiring place. It really is quite something.
“It is like a ghost town. Lots of empty buildings, lots of empty hangars – and yet it all looks intact. The runway is still there, still serviceable. It looks as if ghosts from the past could come back and speak to us in the present.”
Having seen the space, having had his imagination fired by the area, he and Ivan agreed it would be good to write something specific about the site and make the work all about the venue it was being performed in.
However, the first draft became so complicated that the Tony and Ivan decided after a read-through to abandon the project.
“It was just so complicated. It was set in two different time periods and we were just going round in circles.
“I have to say that it was a huge relief because there were so many different possibilities by this point that we had just lost the story. But, Ivan said, keep the file open. Keep thinking about it because there is something in there, we just can’t see it anymore.”
The memory of Bentwaters continued to haunt him and he went back and wandered around the airbase and like Ivan found himself thinking about Wantisden Church nestled up against the boundary fence.
“I found myself thinking if that church could speak, what could it tell us about what had gone on around it over the centuries.
“In the lifespan of the church, the airbase has been there for just the equivalent of a blink of an eye.
“The airbase is a major feature now but the church has been there for a thousand years.
“Then I started thinking about how arctic explorers drill down and extract these ice cores and bring up layers of history embedded in these ice cores. This then quickly got me back to church and I said let’s just look at this patch of ground and explore the stories that relate directly to this spot.”
Where the previous story was overly tangled and complicated, the new version was liberated by the fact that they were four distinct stories from four different time periods and what linked them together was the location rather than the story itself.
“The more I investigated the church and the area around it, the more interesting echoes it threw up.”
He said that the play actually came together very slowly with Tony writing each strand separately without any real notion of how they were going to fit together.
“I was quite nervous. I couldn’t see how they were going to work. I sent the fragments of what I had written to Ivan with a note saying I think we should give up. This is never going to work. He phoned me up saying: ‘No, stay with it, I really like these.’
He continued writing but it was the introduction of the modern story of the young woman, Charlie inheriting her mother’s house, which provided the cement which would bind all the tales together.
“She thinks she has no links with the area but she meets the people who knew her parents and through them she rediscovers her own connection with the area.”
Ivan said what they were trying to do was bring a real sense of theatre to the place. “The place has an intrinsic atmosphere which helps enormously. Even the drive over, across the runway, is theatrical.
“I want the play to start as soon as people arrive at the gates. I want the audience to see the pagans making their way to The Hush House across the airfield – as if they are making a pilgrimage to a sacred site.”
He said the best way of accurately describing Bentwater Roads is what it is a contemporary play with resonances through time. “It’s not a complicated play, it is easily understood, these are just resonances, echoes from different time periods.
“Hopefully people will enjoy it because they will seek the links to our own time stretching back into the past.
“There’s a sense that the pagans are at the root of it all. The church is the one constant and there is a belief that it was built, like so many were, on the remains of an old pagan site.
“If you are building something new you make use of what is already there. You convert it, you adapt it, you build on it.”
He said that when developing this he was conscious that it shouldn’t be seen as ‘Son of Wuffings’ or Wuffings 2.
“Because The Wuffings was so successful everyone said what are you going to do next. How can you top that? I wasn’t really interested in topping it or doing Wuffings 2.
“For me commissioning Tony to write a contemporary play makes it sufficiently different.
“There are no mentions of Raedwald or the Anglo-Saxons but we’ve done that. This play is about joining up the dots and seeing how or present is shaped by the past.”
n Bentwater Roads is at The Hush House at the former RAF Bentwaters outside Woodbridge from July 1-18. Tickets and more information is available online at www.easternangles.co.uk or by phoning 01473 211498.