Harvest – Louise Fischer and the problems of progress. (Theatre Review)
7 October to 8 November – You can grab your tickets here.
Roughly ten years ago, Harvest writer Richard Bean outed himself as a ‘Monsterist’, now defined as a playwright committed to large-scale works, with enormous casts, covering enormous themes and taking a (relatively) enormous amount of time. It’s a bold move in an age when we keep being told our attention span (and patience) is rapidly eroding due to the double-edged sword of internet assisted lifestyles, and a claim for theatre that pushes very directly against the idea that it needs to compete with film and television. A little over ten years on, we know that the preference for small-scale works over large isn’t about a passion for Pinter and an abandonment of Shakespeare, it’s all about cashola, time and the economics of a severely dwindling pool of free resources. However, there is an additional problem for large-scale productions that cover broad themes and a huge amount of time, emerging in the primary differences between theatre and the electronic presentation of stories. These stories can be told better on a television or in a film, at least at their face value. We have come to love theatre for its intimacy, the profound ability it has to unite an audience with each other and the production makers, while television and theatre, by the very nature of the lens, separate us and place us in our own little world. The challenge for the large-scale production then, becomes one of the audience’s essential distance in order to grasp the enormity of the broad themes, and technical aspects bent specifically to hold audience attention, as we see in grand musical productions all the time. And yet, as the current production of Harvest at New Theatre reveals, classic theatrical intimacy can be maintained in the face of an enormous story, when collaboration has become a key feature of the presentation, so obviously manifested by director Louise Fisher.
Harvest, if it is anything, is a glorious celebration of the breathing, heaving pleasure live theatre is in its heart. The story of William, his brother Albert, their land, their pigs, the sprawling family they feed and nurture into existence, is its own story of theatre, where the exuberance for the craft far outweighs its economic value even in the face of an overwhelming reality. William (Jeremy Waters) is the star of this mini “all the world’s a stage” and he suffers lost love, physical disability, economic success and failure, suffering at the hand of villainy, the tyranny of invisible oppressors, forgiveness, pain and all the other drama theatre has dared to evoke through its long dusty life. Most significant of all, William will not die, nor will he lose his spirit and his dogged determination, neither of which are dependent on his worldly success. And yet, what Harvest does so well is, speak to the enormity of theatre, and the fact that William is never alone, he is surrounded by like-minded souls, forcing that into existence which has long passed its financial usefulness. Are traditional farmers of any value when mass scale farming consumes everything? Is theatre of any value when the cost of a ticket can get you into the latest Michael Bay offering? What Harvest tells us is, that the value of the traditional farmer exists beyond economic usefulness and more importantly, as we see in the speeches of William and Laura to the thief at the end, beyond tradition and a lifestyle for those who refuse to embrace progress. Culture matters, history matters, and we find out more about ourselves in the remarkable challenge of hard work than we ever can in introspection or navel gazing. These speeches could easily be made about theatre. When William looks across the stage, and claims the most important things in his life happened in this field, Louise Fischer brings us dead center to the profound intimacy we all share as we understand, in the theatre they happened to us too. It is impossible – completely impossible – to replicate this in any other medium, and through very careful direction, Louise Fischer brings this intimacy to an enormous, sprawling work.
Part of the success of this production of Harvest lies in the way Fischer has focussed on collaboration in its smallest sense. Part of the sweeping gesture of Harvest is its attention to detail, which has eliminated boundaries that might have been accidentally erected should the production have focused on trying to “properly” represent time and change. The entire play is performed in the kitchen of the farm, a deceptively simple set by Bethany Sheehan that undergoes only one major transformation (flooring) and yet accommodates small changes in style, often provoked by Tony Youlden’s lighting and Alistair Wallace’s use of sound. The cast sneak in like spy’s to change the set between the seven scenes, as if they are the chaos of time themselves, visiting in the dark to make the alterations one expects and yet never sees coming. The set changes become part of the theatrical mash-up and work to further the poignancy of the correlation between the farmers plight and the theatrical predicament, jarring us out of the linear plot only to remind us we are all in this together. I can’t imagine Harvest having the same impact without these intrusive scene changes. Fischer’s direction in the dark brings a self-awareness to the stage, so that often there are more people on stage between the scenes than during the narrative arc. In this way she reminds us again, of our togetherness and of the importance of the collaborative whole theatre represents.
As with the set, so with the performances, as Fischer has allowed for the character of individuals to impact on Richard Bean’s portraits. Of particular note is Jeremy Waters’ William, who becomes an amalgam of the actor and the role. It must be an enormously difficult role to play, not only with the physical constraints of appearing nineteen at the start and one hundred and nine at the end, but the complex interaction within William between the performer, the performance and the farmer, that Waters pulls off in a powerhouse execution that is its own ode to Waters relationship with the stage. Because of the way that Waters is William, as we get to the know the long life of the farmer, we get to see the intricacies of the actor connecting with his stage, Waters manifesting a comfort with his surroundings that increases as the theatrical years move by. It’s another superb performance from Waters, assisted by Louise Fischer’s refusal to box him into a specific kind of characterisation, instead using his huge stage presence to extend the narrative into its other themes. Beyond the character of William are the thirteen other characters who revolve around him or rather, provide the core of the story around which William revolves. Standouts here are Sarah Carroll as Maudie and Bishanyia Vincent as Laura both of whom embrace their various ages enthusiastically and provide strong mirrors for the often acerbic nature of William. Overwhelming throughout the cast, however, is a sense of exuberance that impacts on the length of the production, keeping it light, funny and most of all engaging as one is left with the all important sense the cast are having the time of their lives with these wonderfully witty words.
The night I attended Harvest it got thumping applause and whistles as the audience awoke in the final third to the magic that was enveloping them. Harvest is a wonderful theatrical experience. One not to be missed.