And Then Come The Nightjars – The North Wall Arts Centre, Summertown, Oxford – 5/10/16
Bea Roberts ‘And Then Come The Nighjars’ is a play, in her own words, designed to “draw attention to this devastating period in our countrysides history”. Set before, during but predominately after the Foot and Mouth outbreak which ravaged its way through rural England at the turn of the century, the play follows the lives of two much affected protagonists, Michael (David Fielder), a very local and frumpish farmer and Jeffrey (Nigel Hastings) a vet with a drink problem and deep lying domestic issues. Through these two much conflicted characters, Roberts addresses the chaos and panic of a time when whole farms and generation old cattle were, almost without prejudice, destroyed and burned as government legislation demanded a solution to what was considered a national health disaster. Michael and Jeffrey represent two contrary ideologies that would have been a recurring theme during the outbreak, Michael determined and resolute in his refusal to back down to government pressure and Jeffrey, whose pragmatic nature understands the widespread danger of the situation even if he dislikes the methodology.
However there is far more at stake than just the killing of cattle for Michael and his loss is desperately palpable, seeing the culling as a threat to his entire way of life and a lot like Irish playwright Brian Friel’s work, Roberts highlights the inevitable modernisation with aching sadness and great cultural loss. Both charters live on a knife edge, their bravado and camaraderie hiding inner turmoil and confusion and the catalyst for the veneer to be removed is the invasion of Michael’s farm by the government officials with extensive consequences for both lives
There is however, amongst the anguish and bitterness, a touching and uplifting platonic love, beautifully presented by Fielder and Hastings, which although present throughout the production, visibly strengthens with adversity and at the heart of Roberts play is in fact the story of two people who rely and draw strength from one another. The two unlikely friends give hope to the notion that the things that hold us together are far stronger than those that tear us apart, even in the wake of uncertainty and devastation.
The call of a nightjar mythically alludes to troubling times and comes with great foreboding but also represents a knowledge that is lost and forgotten in the modern world. Michael easily identifying such a birdcall shows a man who lives in his world as apposed to on top of it and despite Jeffrey being an avid general knowledge buff, it’s a knowledge which cannot be learned academically. This is mirrored in Roberts play as perceived science and political policy appears to engulf intuition and traditional values. The fields which Michael grew up tending to now have a commercial relevance greater than preservation as the utilitarianism of modern life sweeps through the English countryside. It’s a case of modernising or dying and where as Jeffrey sees opportunity, Michael is happy to do the latter and cling on to what is left of an increasingly forgotten way of life.
And Then Come The Nightjars is beautifully performed, directed and filled with great humour and geniality but is deeply focused on the loss of a whole subsection of society and with this the loss of knowledge, language and culture in return for kitsch overnight stays and function rooms for businessmen. Roberts creates two incredibly likeable characters to formulate her point and the play is pleasingly executed with just enough sadness to allow the audience to question our modern pursuits but an abundance of all encompassing love and friendship which ultimately conquers all.