In 2010, Sian Owen broke onto the scene when she won the prestigious Oxford Playhouse Award with her drama Restoration. Her latest play, This Land, is an epic exploration of fracking told through the experiences of a young family, but also uses thousands of years of history and myth. Produced by ambitious cutting-edge rural theatre company Pentabus and Salisbury Playhouse, This Land is on tour now. Gary Raymond spoke with Sian as the tour began.
Your new play is on tour, produced by Pentabus and Salisbury Penthouse; what is the play about?
This Land is the story of Bea and Joseph, a couple in their thirties, who live in a village with their young son, and what happens when a company arrives to undertake fracking metres from their house. Threaded through their story the play also travels through thousands of years of history as we see what has happened before on this piece of land and meet characters who have previously left their mark there.
That seems a particularly ambitious idea; can you tell us a little about the process – from idea to stage?
I had another play in the stages of development with Pentabus when Elizabeth (Freestone-Artistic Director) called me and asked me to write a play for them about fracking. At first I was really nervous about taking on such a complex and controversial issue, but I was also really excited to be asked to tackle such a topical subject, by a company I hugely admire. So I began to research, think and write lots of notes and read and watched and listened.
Growing up in South Wales, the realities of our search for power and energy on people and communities already had a huge realness and resonance for me and, as I researched fracking, I began to find parallels that really struck a chord. My Grandma lived in Aberdare and when we would go and visit we’d drive past the Abercwmboi Phurnacite. You’d smell it before you saw it-a sulphur, rotten egg smell. And then we’d drive past and it was this mechanical beast of an industrial tower of dirt and soot and power and smoke. All the trees around it were dead. At night it would just be all fire out of the chimneys and I used to think it looked like a dragon. I thought about how a fracking site might look to a child and so there lay the spark of Joseph and Bea’s story. It also started me thinking about how where we live, and what we live on, can have such an impact – the lottery of geology. As I was researching I also kept coming across those pictures of a cross section of land and how old each bit is and where each era sits and so I also wanted some of the story to be about what is beneath the ground. I started to think about all the layers of the ground underneath us, what is in them, what we are built on and the play started to take on quite a mythological feeling too as I explored the idea of all of this history being uncovered as the digging and fracking takes place.
We had a research and development week early in the writing process at the lovely Salisbury Playhouse (who are co-producing the play) and, as well as further researching everything involved in fracking and all sides of the debate around it, I also explored lots of historical periods. It soon became clear to me that some of the things I was uncovering, historically, were particularly pertinent to what was happening to Bea and Joseph and to all the processes and stages of fracking. These are the history scenes that pepper the story of fracking in the play.
After gathering all that material the writing really started. Then the rewriting! The fabulous team worked their magic to bring it all to life – the set, lighting, costume, sound, music, directing, acting – it wouldn’t be what it is without everyone’s talents. Jo Newman, the director, has been brilliantly on board from the very start so she really knew what was in my head and what I wanted to try and achieve with this play.
How has it been working with Pentabus?
It has been a joy working with everyone involved at Pentabus and the whole crew and cast with Jo Newman, the director. Pentabus are a company who stand for everything I believe in – bringing bold, current plays to everyone. Elizabeth Freestone has been hugely supportive and encouraging me and my work. The whole team are wonderful, they provide an environment in which, as a writer, you feel you can be brave and that is a very special thing.
In some ways – some obvious ways – this is a political play. Do you think you have found your voice there?
I don’t think of myself as a ‘political’ playwright. I just love telling stories. Especially the stories of those that aren’t usually told. I like to tell stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Politics and policies can put people in these circumstances, but I think my voice just wants to tell the human stories.
Of course there is so much more to this play than the politics of it. Perhaps this is a cynical question – but how do you approach ideas of mythology through a play about such a political issue?
I was really aware that we would be touring to communities where fracking is a reality and I know that it is a very divisive, contentious and complex subject. So it was important for me that this play wasn’t one-sided. This isn’t a straightforward topic. It’s muddy, messy and it’s mega and at the same time microscopic and it uncovers all kinds of questions about how we have got here and where we are going and how we get there. So actually using history and mythology helped bring all this into the mix. I hope it has allowed me to explore this massive topic in a way that sheds new light, but also allows for surprises.
What have you learned from researching and writing about fracking?
I have learnt so much about the process itself, obviously, but also how we have got to this point; our energy needs, the history of energy and our needs, what other countries have done, how we get our energy, where from, how divisive fracking is and how we all really need to be talking about all of this much more.
We live in an increasingly secular, cynical, no-nonsense society, a place where Thatcher’s dismissive comments about art as a luxury seem to have become doctrine; what is the place of storytelling today, and of mythology in particular, do you think?
I think that makes it even more important to tell stories – so we can watch, listen and understand someone’s situation better, so we can explore, think, talk, delve, play out – see what might happen, see what does happen. Potentially we can go down roads we haven’t been before, and see where they may lead. They allow us to connect and start conversations with each other, that are maybe harder to have.
Mythology brings extra elements of magic, nature and history, also it tells us stories of what came before, who we are and what we are made of. It’s other worldly, isn’t it? But by using mythology, it can teach us about what surrounds us and, possibly, test our preconceptions about our world. That can a powerful thing.
You have put a quote at the opening of the script – ‘We do not inherit from our ancestors; we borrow from our children.’ Where did you find that quote?
Actually my Mum found it! I was researching the play and I had been talking to her about some of my ideas and she sent me this quote and I just thought it was perfect – we’re guardians really, and as a parent this really struck home. It had an extra impact because I had also been thinking about the Bea and Joseph story and how they might be feeling about the situation they found themselves in.
This is a play about family?
In part yes, it’s a play about a couple learning about how to become a family. Also it’s a play about what we leave behind for our families, what we want to give them, what we are made up of and what we stand on. I think it’s a play about the responsibilities and pressures you can feel, as parents, about all of that.
Is this a play with answers? Does it offer solutions or is it shining a light on the questions around fracking?
I hope this just shines a light on all the issues around fracking and gets everyone who watches it asking the questions.
To me it seems you see, and are working through, ideas about how the greyness of reality is intrinsically linked to the colours of our folk traditions. Would that be fair?
I’m not sure reality is grey! But I do think that traditions and history massively impact on the way we live and what we do – even if we don’t realise it. That has been fascinating to uncover.
What is your relationship with history? Has it changed through the writing of this play? Have your perceptions altered about where we come from and where we might be going?
I have always loved history. When I was little I was like a little history addict. I can still remember the little Usborne books on different time periods I got from the library – I especially remember the Roman one. Also we had this massive encyclopaedia in the house of 20th Century History that I wore the pages out of. There was that programme on too – that we watched at School – How We Used to Live – I loved it all. I went on to do A Level History and Classics too. Writing this play brought that all back out in me again. I loved all the history research and the reading, it was like being little again – me sat in a big pile of books. But weirdly I felt smaller! Maybe its because I’m a parent now, but I certainly felt the weight of it all, and saw the cycles of it all much more clearly. It also struck me how inventive and resourceful we, as humans, can be.
I read a lot about the history of place too and the history of our landscape – what struck me most was how the shape of the land, fields, roads can tell so much about the people who lived there before and even what they believed in. There are clues everywhere to how we got to where we are and what we were left. We are walking all over them – in every sense- and that was a big jumping off point in terms of themes and ideas for This Land. So, if anything, I have a deeper respect for all that came before, and I, for one, am going to tread more carefully.
At the centre of the play is young couple Bea and Joseph – how much did you draw on your own experiences when writing about their relationship?
You can’t help but draw on your own experiences can you? That’s not to say this is autobiographical. But when Elizabeth first approached me about writing this play I had recently become a mum for the second time and so those themes of parenthood and protection were very resonant.
What else influenced your work? The play, I think, is a bold departure from your previous work in terms of subject and outlook.
So much influenced this play. All the research, reading, listening and watching I did, all that reading I did when I was little, where I live, where I used to live, fears, dreams, lack of sleep, music (I listened to EInaudi’s Time Lapse on repeat while I was writing it) imagery (photographs especially often have a big part to play in my research), all the wonderful talented people I got to work with while I was writing it, all those involved in the show, all the help and advice and support I received, my family and friends. I do think, since becoming a Mum, I have got braver, and at the same time, absolutely more terrified, so maybe that’s part of it too.
Structurally, it’s a play that seems to be flexing its muscles – or a writer flexing her muscles – it has energy and dynamism. Could you talk about some of the decision-making process?
I just wanted to try and be brave and bold and tell this story that was epic and national and local and huge and tiny. That was quite tricky! But when I began to think about the layers of history underneath it, all the structure started to form. During the research and development week I was then really able to experiment, try, move and explore. I also had brilliant help from Jo and Elizabeth: they helped me talk it all through and iron it all out. The idea being that there is the lateral story of Bea and Joseph dealing with the fracking process and then there is the dig down through all of the history that they stand on. I also wanted to surprise, make people laugh and cry and think and talk. So I hope it does all those things.