Worlds colliding on Salisbury Plain

Worlds colliding on Salisbury Plain
By Fanny Charles

The past is another country – they do things differently there,” said LP Hartley at the beginning of his most famous book, The Go-Between.

It is true, but history has also made us what we are. We can learn much about our lives and who we are from what has gone before – and in the West Country the past is all around us.

History is writ particularly large across the landscape of Wiltshire – from Silbury Hill to the Fovant Badges. Barney Norris’s new play, Echo’s End, is set on Salisbury Plain, on the cusp of the cataclysmic events of the First World War, which changed lives across Europe and left indelible marks on a landscape that had been unchanged for centuries, perhaps millennia.

The play begins with a timeless scene, a grassy hill, a family and friends picnicking under the shade of beech trees. It is Midsummer Eve – it may be the birthday of the oldest of the group, Jasper (Robin Soans), who does not know the real date of his birth.

Across such common spaces, where countless generations have grown their crops and run their sheep and cattle, drunk cider and told stories, loved, married, worked and died, there is now a new crop of crowded tents, full of strange voices, from around Britain and across the oceans, from Australia and New Zealand and from Canada. The land will never look the same again.

It is 1915, the war has been under way for nearly a year; Gallipoli has happened; injured Anzac soldiers are billeted in the camps around Bulford and Durrington.

Widower Arnold (David Beames) has been working with his daughter Anna (Katie Moore) and John (Tom Byrne). They arrive for food and drink with John’s widowed mother Margaret (Sadie Shimmin). They laugh at Jasper’s tall tales and they all expect that John and Anna will spend their lives here, together. They have known each other all their lives. They have never known any other place. This is their life.

But it is about to change – John has signed up for the Wiltshire Regiment. And a stranger, an injured New Zealand soldier (Oliver Hembrough), has brought more than just the camp food he smuggles out to trade with Arnold. He brings a sense of a world outside the village, particularly for Anna, who finds the predictability of her life increasingly claustrophobic.

“The collision that occurred here when the army flooded the Plain was elemental – the first cacophonous iteration of the machine age colliding with a world that hadn’t changed ever so much in all the millennia since we came to these islands,” writes Barney Norris in an introduction to the play, which received its world premiere at Salisbury Playhouse in April.

Echo’s End explores that collision in an unsentimental, honest way with no easy answers and no romantic optimism. It is – like Barney’s play Visitors and his novel, Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain – deeply rooted in Wiltshire but exploring eternal themes, family, love, loss, duty, disappointment … our desire to protect those we love conspiring with our fears of rejection and failure,  our need for our place conflicting with the urge to explore and take risks.

This beautiful, deeply moving play, which is elegaic without being nostalgic, confirms Barney Norris’s status as an important voice in the theatre, a major talent putting Wiltshire squarely on the national cultural map.

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