Kieran Hurley didn’t know what to expect when he hitched up in a tiny car and embarked on a road trip around rural Perthshire to talk to the local farming community about creating a new play. With Perth Theatre artistic director Lu Kemp also on board, writer and performer Hurley’s intention was to weave together assorted voices representing those living on the frontline of communities often marginalised from political discourse. It is they, however, who will be forced to square up to the consequences of recent decisions, with their already parlous livelihoods potentially at stake in whatever new landscape emerges out of an increasingly fractious post Brexit referendum climate.
Initiated by Kemp, the result is A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains, an evocatively titled piece of verbatim theatre performed as a ceilidh play by actor/musicians Aly Macrae and Melody Grove. Rather than presenting the show in Perth Theatre itself, Kemp has opted to tour it around a network of village and community halls that go beyond the city and out to the less well-travelled places where material for the play originates from.
“The concept started with Lu,” Hurley stresses, “with the idea being to make a new piece of work about and for people in rural Perthshire, and to take something out of Perth as an acknowledgement and recognition of audiences that exist beyond Perth itself. In terms of making a piece of verbatim theatre, we wanted to set up a platform where we were able to respond to current issues in an immediate way. In Perthshire, there are issues about agriculture and food production, and how farming has changed or is likely to change.”
With a background in writing and performing solo works such as Beats and Heads Up, plus similarly styled ceilidh plays such as Rantin, Hurley is more than well versed in creating theatre that is more intimate than a traditional play. Where Rantin and others had a polemical aspect to it, A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains provides a voice for the people whatever their views might be.
“It’s quite a funny one,” says Hurley. “Verbatim theatre is often used as a platform for marginalised voices, and that’s true here as well, except we’re talking to farmers and land-owners as well as activists and land reformers. That’s made for a much wider set of conversations about how these communities are affected by various things, especially in light of Brexit.
“What was great was getting this entire range of voices. There were quite a few people who were pro-Brexit, and there were others who voted to remain in Europe, but who were still optimistic about everything that’s happening. We also spoke to young people who were trying to do things in a really interesting way in terms of bio-diversity, and who were running farms as co-operatives.
“We also learnt about how much land use is connected to land ownership, and how that has a relationship to how land is used in terms of food production. But our audiences will already be more well versed in these things than we will. Part of the process was me and Lu driving round these rural parts of Perthshire on roads that weren’t really built for cars. We were a right pair of townies.”
In this respect, Hurley and Kemp’s researches inevitably threw up a few surprises.
“All of our conversations were done anonymously, so no-one is identified in the script,” says Hurley. “But as well as speaking to farmers, we spoke to activists, experts and politicians. One thing that was perhaps surprising was how some people who you might expect to be dismayed about the direction things are going in terms of what Brexit will mean for sub-cities and land ownership were more optimistic than you might expect. We also spoke to several migrant workers, and again, you might expect these people to think that Brexit will be a disaster, but that wasn’t the case. Then you’d speak to people who you’d expect to be traditional Tory farmers, but who had quite radical ideas. In that way it was an interesting exercise in having your pre-conceptions shattered.”
As well as some of the conversations the project threw up, the process of creating A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains from scratch in the way it was done was itself something of an eye-opener for Hurley.
“It’s funny doing a verbatim thing,” he says. “You have to try and sniff things out like a detective. You can’t put an ad in the paper. You have to follow a few leads, send emails out and gradually build up some kind of trust with people, so you eventually build up this informal network of good will. That makes for a really long collaborative process of research before you’ve even started doing interviews with folk. Then once you’ve done the interviews, you’ve got reams of stuff, and from going through that you have to find out who’s missing. It’s the most labour intensive play I’ve ever worked on.”
The wave of verbatim plays that have developed over the last decade or so has been more than just a fad, but has pushed writers, directors and actors to engage with drama in a different way. Ultimately, however, it is up to continue that engagement as they square up to dramatized conversations that reflect ideas they may not have heard before.
“For theatre-makers, verbatim work is something that’s long established,” says Hurley, “but for some audiences it might be quite a strange thing. That’s why we’re doing it the way we are, with two performers who you can look in the eye as they welcome you into the venue. Aly and Melody set everything up so it’s a series of conversations by the people of Perthshire, and break that up with a few songs along the way.
“What you get from that is a range of characters and voices that talk about Brexit, the environment, climate change and all these other things that came out of the conversations. It’s about what to do if we’re going to have to live together in the world, and is put together as an hour of informed story-telling.”
In this respect, both the construction and intention of A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains appear simple. In truth, the ambition of the show is vast.
“The aim of it is to start a conversation with this specific audience about these big issues, and to recognise how they affect us all,” says Hurley. “Here we are at Perth Theatre having this conversation about current issues, and that’s what it’s for. Perth Theatre is you. It’s everybody, not just in Perth, but around the whole area, and to be making work that is relevant to that community, and for that community to have its voice heard through something like this, that’s everything that Perth Theatre’s about.”
A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and the Fact it Rains, Birnam Arts Centre, tonight; Strathearn Artspace, Crieff, tomorrow; Blair Atholl Village Hall, May 16; Alyth Town Hall, May 17; Blairgowrie Town Hall, May 18; Loch Leven Community Campus, May 19.
The Herald, May 10th 2018