Review: Unearthed and The Gift in the New Vic’s Hoard Festival

Is it possible to open a play with women dressed in long homespun robes dancing in a circle round a campfire, chanting invocations to pagan gods, tossing mysterious herbs into the flames and anticipating wild sex – without everyone assuming we’re at a Stonehenge free festival in the late seventies?

Review: Unearthed and The Gift in the New Vic’s Hoard Festival

The Gift. All pics by Andrew Billington

The answer is happily yes, thanks to the clever programming that runs through the New Vic’s month-long Hoard Festival which opened this week.

The first of the first pair of one-act plays on the main stage, Unearthed, is a documentary-style account of the discovery six years ago near Lichfield of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found.

It’s put together from the many interviews writer and director Theresa Heskins conducted with people connected with the hoard, from metal detectorist Terry Herbert who discovered it to historian Michael Wood who gives us the latest theory on its origin, via archaeologists, curators, contemporary metalworkers, art students and casual visitors.

Actors repeat their characters’ comments verbatim which gives the play a naturalistic, down-to-earth, local feeling. Visually stunning projections in a circular space at the centre of the round stage help thread the vignettes together and repeatedly hit us with the ‘Wow’ factor at the heart of it all.

This leading play of the many in the festival manages to leave us with an intriguing sense of unanswered questions about the hoard, while moving tentatively towards a theory which invests it with mythical qualities. It often feels more like being told rather than shown; that this is exposition, not drama. But it serves like a prelude to a Wagnerian opera, giving us a multitude of leads for the dramas which will follow. We hear of seventh century women having a democratic voice in the decision making of their clan; of the threat from ‘nighthawks’ desecrating the site; even why we have a West Mercia police force.

The second play in this double-bill opens with the women dancing round that campfire in a small homestead near Lichfield in the reign of King Penda’s son Wulfhere. Written by Jemma Kennedy and directed by Gemma Fairlie, it is not shy, in its sixty minutes, of tackling major themes.

A nation state is emerging, with a new religion at its core. But it is being built on the spoils of war and the clan women know what their Anglo-Saxon gods want – “They want blood.” The new religion may bring mercy for a Christian slave, but threatens a loss of freedom for the clan women.

It’s a bold, ambitious drama.  I was so convinced, rather than seeing it as inspired by the hoard I found myself picturing an early discussion where someone says “Fabulous ideas. Great set of characters.  All we need now is a narrative thread to tie it all together – something like a hoard of treasure that has to be buried…”

By John Hargreaves

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