German Skerries weaves theatrical magic at Richmond.
Teach your children to ignore their sense of responsibility. Teach them to love you. They’re not the same thing.
Modern theatre is obsessed, largely, with big ideas, bold statements, confronting themes, “new” ground, directors making their individual stamp, alienation, celebrity power and events/epics. It is, then, refreshing, to discover, nestled in the bustling heart of Richmond, an intoxicating production of a play about ordinary folk and important, but everyday, themes – a stunningly beautiful play, directed with insight and precision, and performed with unstinting honesty and delicious skill.
This is German Skerries, Robert Holman’s 1977 play set in “an area of rough land known as South Gare at the entrance of the River Tees”, a windy place that juts into the North Sea. Teeside, a place of interest to the enemy during World War Two because of ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) and the steelworks, employers which dominate the local economy and threaten the local wildlife; a place where people who like a spot of bird-watching and communing with nature can indulge their interests.
Not far from the prime bird-watching spot, a number of dangerous rocks lie mostly submerged. These are the German Skerries – thus called because a German plane was shot down in the area and crashed onto the rocks. The Skerries are a natural occurrence, made notorious/important/significant because of external, random factors. They are a potent metaphor in the play – danger beneath the surface; the search for the safest path; obstacles, seen and unseen, which must be overcome for potential to be reached; inevitability.
Holman writes exceptional dialogue. Simple but direct, plain but lyrical, not a word is wasted. His characters are beautifully detailed, intriguingly real. Character traits are revealed with innocent clarity, deceptive ordinariness. It is as close to poetry as modern prose writing gets:
You know what I’m gonna tell my kiddies? About ambition? You see, it doesn’t matter if you do anythin’ about yer ambitions, so long as you’ve had ‘em. Then you’ve always got something to think about.
Simple things occur during the course of the play. There are no great or cataclysmic events. Just life: a new friendship, a young marriage, plans for holidays, a tragedy at sea, hopes for a promotion at work, a broken bicycle, love. But Holman weaves these elements into a glorious symphony, a refreshing reminder about the beauty of individual existence and the simple foibles and eccentric meanderings of the everyday. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, or at least things which have an extraordinary effect on their lives.
Holman deals with big themes in little ways. Director Alice Hamilton absolutely understands this and has overseen a production which is eloquent in its simplicity and effective in absolutely every way. James Perkins provides an extraordinarily remarkable set for the small Orange Tree space. The sense of the cliff top, the crashing waves, the sea birds dancing and diving around and in the sea, the salty air, the rudimentary nature of the environs, the dilapidated nature of a shed that locals use to store items – all of these things are cleverly conveyed. You can just about feel the grass the characters tread on, wipe the salty spray from your eyes.
Simon Gethin Thomas lights the small set with phenomenal ability. The sense of hot seaside laziness is clearly established and the extraordinary moment when the spot is host to a lightless night, wracked with blustery wind, crashing waves, and a flashing red beacon light, is chilling and intense. What is achieved by the creative team here is, frankly, extraordinary given what must be miniscule production budgets.
Hamilton has not only ensured that the design perfectly reflects and illuminates Holman’s writing, but she has ensured that his characters are enlivened by a quartet of faultless performers who, together, enchant and delight in exactly the right ways. What is most impressive here is how each of the four actors presents complex and wonderfully quotidian characters – people everyone knows, is or might be.
At the centre of the play is Jack, recently married to Carol. A local lad who was bullied at school and dropped out to work at ICI, he is an intuitive worker, gifted without understanding his abilities or promise. A genial, likeable, smart man, Jack enjoys simple pleasures, bird-watching chief among them. He adores his new wife, Carol, but worries that her family don’t like him and that he can’t make a career work which will see them, and their future children, happy and content. There is a child/puppy like friskiness about him, but it is tempered with deep insecurity and inherent disbelief in his own worth.
As Jack, George Evans is flawless. His sense of the ordinary, the normal, is unflinching, brutally raw, achingly truthful. He establishes the quirky adventurous side to Jack as comprehensively as he carves out the more child-like, laddish aspects. His passion for watching the sea and its users, human and otherwise, is infectious.
Most marvellously, Evans and Katie Moore’s exquisite, gorgeous Carol, depict young love in all its bickering, passionate, sexually charged and hopelessly devoted insecurity and strength. They are utterly convincing as partners, lovers, friends. Small things, the way they absently touch each other for instance, or the sense of each other’s limits and pressure points, are finely judged, utterly real. Carol is no ordinary wife – she reads Grahame Greene and can fix bicycles. She is radiant in every way.
Equally extraordinary is the way Evans’ Jack establishes an uneasy, new friendship with Martin, an older man he encounters at the bird-watching spot, who shares Jack’s passion for the sea and its treasures. At first there is light tension between the two, as each tries to work out the other. But over time and conversation an easy, but important connection is established, a kind of substitute father/son connection of sorts.
This relationship is central to unfolding events. Howard Ward’s diffident but quite perfect Martin is shrouded in a profound sense of regret and inadequacy; he is a teacher who tries to improve the lives of his students, a resigned husband, a man who holidays unadventurously – a philosopher, whose training has been living. He gets more excited by the activities of cormorants than his own summer holidays, but his sense of both the absurdities of life and its hopeless horizons is acute. Without any advantage to him or any request, Martin assists and helps Jack and neither of them really know it.
The fourth character is a friend of Martin’s son. Michael works for the steel works and he is involved in a tragedy centred on the Skerries. In one of the play’s most affecting sections, Carol does not tell Martin a key piece of information – this demonstrates the strength of her relationship with Jack (he tells her everything and she listens and absorbs) and her sense of justice given the budding friendship between Jack and Martin. Holman does not labour the point at all, but the realisation of the omission by Carol is both the climax of the humanity of the writing and the connecting point between all four characters. It is brilliant and subtle – and the actors make it sing.
This is a play about times and people being lost. Teewood before Thatcher is like a lost dimension – a place where nature, humanity and simple ways are valued more than profit or status. The ICI and the steel works, with their inefficient practices and Union solidarity, are no longer the cornerstone of the area – Holman’s play, written before Thatcher stormed Teewood, seems both prescient and fairytale. Most importantly, it preserves a way of life, a sense of honest communication that may soon be lost forever.
German Skerries is pure theatrical delight. There is no grandness here, just magical story-telling and spirited, graceful performances. It glows with the haze of remembered existence, innocent before times and the achingly gentle throb of times lived and lost. It also brims with hope and is propelled by honest, open affection.
It’s a triumph – for Hamilton, for Holman and for the four gifted actors. A better case for somewhere like the National Theatre staging a full retrospective season of Holman’s work could not be more astutely made than by this delicious theatrical treat.
Don’t go if you prefer form over substance. But if you like true, artful and engaging theatre, rush to Richmond or see it on tour.
Miss it at your peril.