Mixing rage, tenderness and humour, Bea Roberts’ Bristol Ferment-developed play And Then Come The Nightjars charts one farm’s struggle to survive the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis.
As disease ravages the South Devon countryside, Michael desperately barricades his farm and home against a tide of devastation. Only his friend Jeff can clear a way through the falling ash as Michael prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve all that he holds dear.
And Then Come The Nightjars was developed through Ferment in 2012, and was selected last year from over 1,600 entries as joint winner of the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award.
What made you want to tell this story in particular?
I grew up in the dark depths of Dartmoor, surrounded by dairy farms and farming families: so when the ten year anniversary of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) came round in 2011, it provoked a lot of memories and discussion between me and friends who had also grown up rurally.
For us, the memories were vivid and often painful, as they will be for many people who lived in the countryside in 2001: but, nationally, it seemed to be largely ignored. That made me want to write about it.
How did the piece come together?
I did a lot of research. I was a teenager at the time of FMD so it was quite eye-opening to revisit the subject as an adult and to better understand not only the politics and controversy, but also the huge emotional impact on farmers and rural communities. In particular, one friend’s dad had been a vet during the crisis and had to perform culls for farmers whom he knew well, so that was the genesis for the two characters of Jeff, a vet, and Michael, a farmer.
That research process continued with Theatre503 as the director, Paul Robinson, and the team visited a farm in Okehampton where the family had lost some very rare pedigree cattle. Within minutes of speaking about the events of 2001, the farmer was in tears.
Did your research make you feel optimistic for the future of farming?
I don’t know about ‘optimistic’, but it certainly deepened my respect for the resilience, stoicism and dignity with which the farming community handled an incredibly devastating blow. Sadly, FMD was just one episode in an ongoing line of difficulties for farmers – just look at the recent dairy protests in the UK and in Brussels. Farmers face an extraordinary range of challenges and hardships just to stay in business. There are now less than 10,000 dairy farms in the UK. Unless we start demanding that farmers are paid a fair price, I don’t know how the industry can survive.
Do many of us fully understand the heartache undergone by farmers, and farming’s pivotal role in all our lives?
I think most of us live in a world where we’re very divorced from the means of food production in general – it’s so easy not to give much thought to it and not much attention is given to the plight of farmers. I didn’t see the dairy protests featured on the national news once! Having said that, I think there’s definitely a sea change. People want to connect to where their food comes from, and Bristol is great for that with its farmers markets, a big ‘eat local’ movement, edible gardens etcetera.
The story is very moving. Is that partly because farming is less a job than a way of life, and when it is harmed the impact is much greater than it is in other professions?
Absolutely, and even though I grew up rurally I don’t think I’d ever given that much consideration until I started work on this play. Part of the reason FMD was so devastating was because people had to live quarantined, often with the carcasses of their animals nearby, because their business is also their home. There were also lots of cases where the livestock killed represented a bloodline – sometimes stretching back centuries. Farming is not just a job for so many people, it forms an essential part of your identity.
What would you say is the tone of the play?
I hope the tone is bittersweet. It has some moments of heartbreak, moments of real love and moments of joyous dicking about. Like life, really.
And why the reference, in the show’s name, to an elusive, crepuscular, vaguely cuckoo-like bird?
You’ll have to watch it to find out.
And Then Come The Nightjars is at Bristol Old Vic Studio from Tuesday, October 6 to Saturday, October 17. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/nightjars.html