Tides of time: The Return of the Wildman, Thea Smiley

“A merman was caught at Orford in the thirteenth century, and kept for some time; he could not be induced to take an interest in the services of the church, nor indeed to speak; eventually he escaped. The authority is Ralph of Coggeshall.” This succinct account of the legend of the Wildman of Orford, by renowned Medieval scholar M.R. James in his iconic Suffolk and Norfolk (1930), is almost as short as the original source itself. Suffolk playwright Thea Smiley, in an act of superb creative sensitivity, has taken this scrap as the starting point for a romantic legend which spans the centuries, and questions how we treat the Other: particularly, pointing out how cruel we can be when we arrogantly assume that any foreign visitor must surely understand our language, our customs and our way of life, when in fact they have no clue as to any.

In Smiley’s vision, the Wildman has learned to speak in the many years since his adventure at Orford, and he tells us his tale in lyrically rich prose: from delicate rhymes, “I whispered with fish,” to poignant observations: “The first word of yours I learnt was HELP. I thought it was a greeting….” While remaining resolutely inhuman, the Wildman is characterised by a humane and generous attitude to the world, as well as his ecstatic delight in the freedom implicit in nature’s wildness. However, his love and his anger can be equally roused, and Smiley uses this to give us an aetiological myth for the creation of Orford Ness, as well as to bring glorious depth to her powerful central character. Smiley’s delicate genius with language impresses throughout, but the piece also flows with fresh simplicity: so, as the Wildman considers escape for the first time, he explains to us that he caught sight of his human love on shore: “One look at her, and the open sea seemed empty; so I swam back.” Smiley conjures danger, joy, pathos and revenge into a taut balance, drawing us into the Wildman’s plight, and commanding our attention, with effortless grace.

Director Alys Kihl creates a dynamic production with very little props and no scenery, relying mainly on her cast, a chorus and the Wildman, to suggest action through choreography: so, chorus members suck breath in and out in unison to suggest the rising waves, ‘drown’ in the sea by twisting slack bodies slowly across the stage, slap their thighs in scattered rhythms to suggest a rainstorm, or lift their arms to create the Gothic arches of an ancient church where the Wildman refuses to pray – because, of course, he has no idea what the church is, or why he should kneel. Costumes are the kind of battered maritime wear (washed denim, thick cotton, and linen in mainly muted blues, greys and greens) that you can still see worn in Southwold, Aldeburgh and other coastal towns in Suffolk today: this has a certain timelessness, but when topped by contemporary haircuts, the effect is rather specifically modern. A few more woollen hats, or headscarves, might have allowed the chorus to be as time-travelling as their astonishing visitor.

The chief glory of this piece, apart from Smiley’s words, is Martin Bonger’s charismatic and brilliantly imagined central performance as the eponymous Wildman. Bonger’s beautiful diction and intelligent, sensitive delivery makes him the perfect vehicle for Smiley’s narrative monologue, while his expressive face – and highly articulate control of physical gesture – keep us emotionally hooked from first to last, whether he is caught in a net, is tortured in Orford castle, or descends into delirious abandon when brought a bucket of longed-for seawater in his prison cell by the woman who inevitably, and tragically, becomes his passion on land.

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Martin Bonger as the Wildman. Photography by Mike Kwasniak

The problem of the production lies in its musical element. Many of the sea shanties chosen by Sylvia Hallett are so simplistic that they detract from, rather than illustrating, Thea Smiley’s finely honed script; the only one that feels like a decent pairing is “Lowlands away”, set by Hallett with beautiful harmonic depth and compulsive, lilting phrasing which the Wonderful Beast Singers convey with evident joy, and which fits Smiley’s layered, subtle aesthetic well. Other shanties and folk songs, however, get a much more basic treatment, sometimes to accordion accompaniment, and the amateur chorus – particularly blest in their male voices – tend to give each song a ruggedly straightforward outing which, though reasonably charming on its own terms, can sit awkwardly against Smiley’s altogether more sophisticated emotional landscape. Kihl’s ambitious choreography for her chorus (and the absence of any conductor) can also affect their timing, while dramatic focus often isn’t settled on stage, too many chorus members smiling at us, or at each other, during the piece.

If all the shanties had been polished up to the level of “Lowlands Away”, and sung with more dramatic poise and vocal control, this would be an unnervingly compelling piece of drama, interweaving coastal folk culture and elegant contemporary poetry. As it is, it’s still an enjoyable and imaginative evening’s entertainment: the old-fashioned pleasure of a local story told by local people.

Rating: Three

Presented by Wonderful Beast

Reviewed at The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on Thursday 2 November 2017

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Martin Bonger as the Wildman, with members of the Wonderful Beast Singers behind. Photography by Mike Kwasniak

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