With “staycations” looking like the best bet for this summer, David Rudkin’s series of ten audio plays for New Direction, which take a deep hard look at locations around the UK, couldn’t be more timely. According to the writer a place print is “a brief sighting one might have of a moment from the past, somehow printing through into the now” and the stories the plays tell are full of a mystic even mythical sense of these islands as they once were and as viewed by a writer who is known as a poetic dramatist. It didn’t seem feasible or desirable to try and listen to everything in one fell swoop as these are pieces which are meant to be savoured. So, as I did recently with Talking Heads, this is the first of three reviews in which the subdivided cycle will be appraised.
The first play River, Of Course is also one of the shortest and straight away Rudkin breaks his own ground rules by having the voice from the past doing the talking and observing. The monologue spirit (rather than character) observes the progress of the Romans across his people’s territory – somewhere in modern day Warwickshire – and aids them in their quest thus changing the course of local history. He subsequently observes how they build one of their famous roads – constructing layers (strata) which echo the layers which will be put down by history. In the present day he invisibly observes what has become of the place he has helped to create. I’ll not name it here as part of the fun of the piece is winkling out the clues which reveal the place’s modern identity though, truth be told, it is not that difficult. Rudkin’s lyrical prose is marvellously evocative and well delivered by Richard Lynch; the piece sets the tone and style for what is to follow.
The main voice in Off The Motorway is that of an 11th Century church (no, that’s not a printing error), also in Warwickshire, which the unnamed and unheard protagonist (i.e. the listener) decides to visit on a whim after repeatedly glimpsing it from the M40. In what amounts to an audio tour of the building we learn much about its history, particularly when a second figure appears and gradually reveals himself to be the spirit of a Crusader/Knight Templar who suggests that a certain religious artefact has been hidden away in the vicinity. A quick bit of research revealed that this is not invention, well, not Rudkin’s anyway; local legend has it that such an object was hidden there by the Knights Templar at the time the church was built. It’s all very spooky and made more so by the pleasing tones of Josie Lawrence as the voice of the church and Toby Jones as the apparition.
Jones also appears, rather more successfully I feel, in the third piece Grim’s Ditch where he plays an unsympathetic lecturer due to speak about the titular location which is to be found in Berkshire, though here it is referred to as in North Wessex. The lecturer doesn’t really connect with the place itself; it is merely a device he wishes to use to make a point and the spirit of the place quietly takes its revenge. As the writer freely admits, the tale is an homage to M.R. James and Rudkin captures the tone and typical atmosphere of the Victorian ghost story writer very well. In this he is aided by the consistently strong delivery of Juliet Stevenson who, in an interesting casting coup, is the voice of the location – of course, she is one of those actors who could read the telephone directory and make it interesting.
There is something otherworldly and properly ancient about her voice which takes the piece to another level. Jack Wilkinson plays the ghost proper, a young farmer called Jude who comes from the village of Fawley. If you’ve already wondered about the reference to North Wessex, this last statement will almost certainly confirm for you the other literary influence on this piece (answers on a postcard please … or in the comment box below).
The last of the first four pieces is actually two separate plays which more or less follow one another chronologically and which have the same central character. This is schoolgirl Kerry who, with her somewhat less committed friends, is on a research trip on the Sussex Downs for a project they are supposed to be completing. In the first section, Cave Girl, Kerry climbs a hill towards a castle but starts to have visions of a Neolithic society; she becomes more and more drawn into their world. Her friends keep finding her in a state of collapse, but Kerry continues upwards and the vision/apparitions become stronger and more dominant. Rachel Summers plays Kerry and although I was a little surprised by the character’s apparent articulacy it became apparent that was deliberate on Rudkin’s part to show more starkly how the girl’s language regresses as she becomes ensnared in an earlier era.
Given the events of this first section, I thought the second title, From The Stone Age, made it all too obvious where things were going; but Rudkin is a subtler writer than that. The action picks up with Kerry and her friends still “researching” and while the others try and fix the broken-down car, she finds herself walking down a deserted lane towards a house. Here she sees an elderly couple sitting in their garden and the discussion Kerry listens to reveals what a beautiful piece of wrong footing Rudkin has sprung on us with his title. There is a short coda to this second piece which has Kerry reflecting on both her encounters with the past – they have changed her in ways she can only begin to imagine.
And that is one of the general points which Place Prints makes. The past is always acting upon the present even if it is not the regular past presented to us in history books. And there are certain locations where that sense of the past is much stronger than in others. These places have their own stories and voices and Rudkin tells them with a sense of lyricism from which contemporary writers might well learn. The pieces are lovingly directed by JackMcNamara and I look forward to continuing my tour round these isles with he and David Rudkin as my guides.