After the cull

Yorkshire has not forgotten the agony of foot and mouth. Now a play about the crisis has local farmers enthralled. By Lyn Gardner

Wednesday February 12, 2003
The Guardian

The road from Hampsthwaite in North Yorkshire is picture-perfect. It takes you through rolling dales, past mile after mile of stone walling, into hamlets and villages. On a bright winter's afternoon, it looks peaceful. But two years ago a battle was fought here, as it was all over rural Britain. The enemy - the foot and mouth virus - was vanquished after months of combat, but for those who live in Nidderdale, the scars remain. Thousands of cattle and sheep were slaughtered, the countryside was closed down and livelihoods - in some cases, lives - were lost.

Stories of that time are told in Silence of a Dale, a remarkable docudrama based on interviews with local people including farmers, vets, landlords and butchers. As foot and mouth took hold, the countryside was declared "closed" and farms were "taken out" as livestock were shot. A farmer's wife recalls walking down to the village after the cattle on her farm had been culled. "It was so quiet. People said it was like after the war; there were no cars or nothing about. The village was absolutely stunned."

Silence of a Dale has been produced by Harrogate Theatre's outreach department. Its director, Alice Bartlett, is an associate director at the theatre who took up her post two years ago, just as the foot and mouth crisis began. Last year she worked on another community show, Portrait of a Dale, a rather more whimsical piece that drew on local people's memories of the queen's coronation year. But that show employed a writer who created a piece based on the interviews, an approach that Bartlett felt was not appropriate in this instance.

"I didn't feel that I or anyone else had the right to write a play about something so close and painful to these people," she says. "So often when I go to the theatre I feel it is a lot of artistic wank. People are saying, 'Look at us. Aren't we clever?' I wanted to create something with this piece that acknowledges and engages with the audience, and recognises that it is the most important element. For me, the play works best when it succeeds in making you feel that you are sitting at a table with these people as they tell you their stories."

At the show's premiere last Friday night at the Hampsthwaite village hall, in front of an audience who had lived through the crisis, that was exactly how it did feel. The non-professional cast have had only minimal rehearsal time, which gives the production a rough-and-ready quality. That doesn't diminish its effect, however. In fact, the lack of "acting" only adds to the piece's power and the sense that what you are witnessing, rather than a mere performance, is a genuine dialogue between stage and audience.

A murmur of sympathy ripples through the hall when a farmer - played by a local whose own brother lost his farm as a result of foot and mouth - tells of having barely slept for 10 days and nights during lambing, only to have all his animals shot. Another recalls finding the army sergeant in charge of the cull on his farm hiding behind the barn and crying: "We've been trained to go to war, to kill people, and do whatever we're supposed to do. That's fine. But no one ever told me I'd have to shoot lambs." I look around and see that tears shine in many eyes.

There is no doubt that the interviews that form the show have been cunningly shaped, but you never feel that Silence of a Dale is being deliberately manipulative. People say what they think and stand condemned or not by what comes out of their mouths.

That is particularly the case with the politicians. The audience laugh derisively and with evident enjoyment when an actor in a mask re-creates Tony Blair's statement, delivered in May 2001, about how the government was dealing with the crisis, complete with Blair's verbal tics. I can remember hearing that speech and the subsequent quizzing by reporters on the radio, and thought at the time that it sounded a perfectly reasonable response. In this damningly effective piece of agit-prop theatre, it sounds like the bluster of a desperate man who knows he hasn't got anything under control and an election is looming.

The rolls of toilet paper littering the stage, representing the endless and sometimes conflicting directives issued to farmers during the crisis, add to the sense of a situation that is completely out of hand. So does the story of the wool trader who rings up the ministry of agriculture to ask whether the ban on the movement of sheep has any effect on his trade, and is asked in all innocence: "Has the wool been anywhere near a sheep?"

Silence of a Dale is touring villages in the Dales before ending up at the Harrogate Theatre studio. One of its venues is Skipton Auction Mart, the local livestock market, which was shut down during the foot and mouth crisis and still requires those who enter and leave to pass through disinfectant points. This is a rare case of a piece of theatre springing from its community and speaking directly to that community.

It is also one of the few occasions in my theatre-going life that drama has seemed essential, rather than primarily entertainment. Interestingly, two other such occasions were also docudramas: The Colour of Justice, based on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and The Laramie Project, based on interviews with residents of the small Wyoming town where gay student Matthew Shepard was murdered in an appalling homophobic crime. Perhaps documentary and the voices of ordinary people deserve as honoured and regular a place in our theatre as the fictions of Tom Stoppard and David Hare. Perhaps Silence of a Dale shouldn't just be playing Skipton Auction Mart, but also the House of Commons.

It will be intriguing to see what happens to this show, which so clearly underlines the divisions between town and country and the way each misunderstands the other, when it leaves its community behind and is performed in the more formal surroundings of Harrogate Theatre. While Silence of a Dale will be playing in the studio, Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests is being staged in the main auditorium. Which production will the people of Harrogate choose: a matter of life versus art, or matters of life and death?

7 Silence of a Dale is at the Skipton Auction Mart tonight, Kirkby Malzeard Mechanics tomorrow, Grassington Octagon on Friday and Pateley Bridge Playhouse on Saturday. It then plays in the Harrogate Theatre Studio from February 19. Information: 01423 502116.