Avenue Theatre, Ipswich – until 27 May 2018
Three children in the 1540s play in a hay-barn, built fragrant and real in the tiny theatre. One has found a pilgrim medal and they argue about grown-up matters like the “Popish trash” who might have dropped it, and the famous local statue of “Our Lady Gracious” which has been rightly (in the view of the censoriously new-Protestant boy Alexander) rightly sent to London to be burnt.
“The cult of saints is OVER!” he cries. “No one’s is ever allowed a pilgrimage no more.” The other lad, Edward, rather liked the statue. There is a fleeting mention of Ann Boleyn, executed four years earlier: “a whore, but – one argues “no friend to the Pope”. The girl Alice is as engaged as the boys, a forthright and confident farm kid.
The clever thing is that in this short, lively opening scene we easily believe that bright 16c children talked of these things: just as now they talk of global warming, refugees, Corbyn or – a dark parallel to come later – of jihadi martyrdom. The three local youth-theatre children carry the opening with conviction, and Joanna Carrick’s dialogue is faultless: naturalistic to a modern ear but with proper Suffolk accents riding archaic idioms and rhythms with ease. Thus when moments later their young adult selves are before us, we are aware both of their characters and their times.
For Protestantism caught light rapidly in these Eastern counties. Alexander, planning a weaver’s career and Flanders travels, has brought an English Testament to read scripture with them: the youngsters are enthralled by the new technology and the sense of holding the real original Word, not tired Catholic “superstition” of statues and ritual. Contempt for Popery has conspiracies being talked of even on the poorest farm. The seafaring town has heard a rumour that the statue of “Mary Gracious” was smuggled to Papist Italy (It’s still there! in Nettuno! Carrick as author-director went to visit it).
The trio are increasingly at odds. Gentle Ed challenges the ever-fiercer Protestantism of his friend with “Why must you be so heartfelt about everything?”. When Alice’s father dies her grief is lightened by pious Alex’s “Be strong in faith, be not bowed in spirit!” but rather more by Ed’s proposal. At which point I should mention that Isabel Della-Porta, Oliver Cudbill and Ricky Oakley deliver some of the strongest and most honest youthful performances I have seen. Della-Porta in particular carries the centrally tragic role of the real Alice Driver with remarkable dignity and fire.
The young pair work together, laugh and joke and matchmake (a very funny scene) for the earnest Alex. But the wider story is darkening. The boy-king Edward dies in 1553, Jane Grey lasts nine days, then Catholic Mary, Bloody Mary, has her five years’ terror. It bore very heavily on this region with its staunchly stubborn protestants. When the happy couple come in exhausted and covered in black soot from the stubble-burning, it is a brief ironic prefiguring of Alice’s end. For despite electric, passionate scenes where her husband tries to persuade her to take the sacrament, she will not do so, and finally in 1558 will stand alongside Alexander at the stake in 1558, her ears cut off and her living body burned for calling Queen Mary a “Jezebel! Papal whore!”.
The political is the personal. Ed’s cry to his friend Alexander is “leave us, with your liking of danger and darkness!” and to his wife “Alice, the fire will be hot and the terror great and the pain extreme. And life is sweet…”. She only says “We love God, that’s all..but do we love him enough?” . The heroism of it shakes you rigid: Alice Driver in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is recorded as saying of the chain holding her to the pyre “Here is a goodly neckerchief, blessed by God for it”. Della-Porta in her final prison scene makes that seem credible.
I think I will be haunted by this play. I was by Joanna Carrick’s last one, PROGRESS, and this is even better. That was about the aftermath for local people caught up in the intellectual thrill and dark savagery of the Reformation. – set in 1561, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ipswich and a fragile peace came to a nation so bitterly, dangerously divided that our current flouncing irritations over Brexit look like a nursery huff. What Carrick has done in both is tremendous: no Wolf-Hall aristocracies and political gaming, simply a sense of clear young voices speaking to us from a distant past, suffering and relishing seismic changes in the way a whole western world thought and believed. The ending has a quietly intense religious and personal force which leaves you silent.