Production notes for "Bentwater Roads"
A Word from the Writer
It's been a while since Ivan and I first stood in the Hush House and wondered about writing a play to make the most of this remarkable space. 8 ½ years in fact.
Things started off quite smoothly. In a fairly short space of time I came up with an outline which Ivan liked, the play was commissioned and I retired to my desk to start work. Stanley Unwin had just died. Estonia was holding the Eurovision Song Contest. I looked at my watch. It was 2002.
Sometimes the process of writing a play can be refreshingly straightforward. There are twists and turns, good days and bad, but if the idea is sound and you can hold on to it then the journey to the stage can happen without too many unwelcome suprises. It soon became clear that the Bentwaters play wasn't going to be like this. Our difficulties began with a slight feeling of unease which deepened through a series of meetings over pub tables (the preferred method of collaboration which has served Ivan and me well for 3 previous productions). The story began to change, and then slowly but surely to unravel. Quite soon we were lost in a mire of infinite possibilities. Our promising play was increasingly starting to feel like a wrong turning. Which is the point where Ivan showed just how good an Artistic Director he can be. At the end of one of our meetings he sat back and suggested that we write off the commission as an adventure in development that was productive but didn't actually result in a final piece of work, and find something else that I really wanted to write.
For a writer this could have been a devastating conclusion to the enterprise. But in fact it was immensely liberating. I agreed gratefully with the proviso that I wouldn't entirely abandon the play, but would keep the file open, and see if in time I could approach things from a different angle. We had another glass of wine and that was that. It could have been the end of our Bentwaters play. But in fact, the journey was just beginning.
What happened next happened slowly and over an extended period of time. Bentwaters stayed with me. I revisited the site and spent some time doing what I enjoy most in this sort of situation, which is nothing at all. I wandered round stared at the hangars, the runways, the heavily protected bays where it was rumoured the Americans stored their nuclear weapons - and yet when I went away again it wasn't these things that stuck in my mind. Instead it was the tiny church of St John the Baptist at Wantisden which seemed to have washed up against the perimeter fence.
The airbase dominates the present day landscape, but in the longer historical perspective represented by a church which has stood on the spot for almost a thousand years, the life of the airbase is just a brief passing phase. Following this idea I began wondering what a biography of the landscape might look like. In particular what it might look like if instead of focusing on the obvious historical events you looked at the small human stories that make up the fabric of our daily lives and yet are rarely documented in the historical record. I thought of an ice core drilled in the Antarctic which has embedded in it details of the atmosphere thousands of years before in successive layers that can be isolated and read. What kind of play would we have if we took a core of our own, set on the same patch of earth, and looked at the stories of the people who had called it home over the last thousand years? Could it tell us something about our relationship with the past and what it means to have a sense of place?
There were some obvious problems we were going to have to deal with. I settled on stories from the present day, from the 1950s, the 1550s and from pre-Christian times. Four sets of characters from four different time periods. How do we keep an audience with us as we move between them? How do we avoid a clunking structure with four separate beginnings and four separate endings? But despite these difficulties it became apparent that by allowing the stories to emerge from the landscape we were going to generate some extraordinary echoes. And somehow by placing them in the flow of time these small domestic narratives took on a much larger significance. Yes, there were big challenges ahead, but Ivan and I had managed to get excited all over again. The Bentwaters piece had become Bentwater Roads and we were back on track.
And then suddenly Oslo was holding the Eurovision Song Contest. Ray Allen had just died. I looked at my watch. It was 2010...