The language of loss is sprayed over us like disinfectant in Bea Robert’s play And Then Come The Nightjars. It’s about loss of love, loss of land, loss of livestock, loss of dignity, loss of every little thing that makes us human- and then whatever makes us up when that’s all gone.
‘Nothing makes any sense anymore. No one listens to me.’
My grandma says that when you get old- like properly old- people don’t touch you anymore. Your skin is seen as slightly repulsive as it gets looser and thinner. Your levels of intimacy decrease. You words don’t have so much gravity to them in other people’s minds. It’s as if your opinion counts for less.
‘Don’t hurt my girls.’
When 60- something year old farm owner Michael, played with such kindness and fury by David Fielder, is told that all his livestock have to be killed because of the spreading foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the English countryside, he rages as if he’s been told to kill his own children. These words matter. He matters. Michael has as many wrinkles on his face as years in his life. He grumbles and stumbles around the small stage but has complete ownership of the space and authority over his farm. This is his space. He was born in the house upstairs. ‘I went to Coventry once. It was shit’. In his strong Devon accent, half his words are gristle.
‘You’re a waste of space.’
40- something year old Jeffrey begins as a bit of a loveable posh twat. Played by Nigel Hastings, he has just the right levels of cockiness and sadness. He’s Michael’s vet, the only one he trusts. But when Jeffrey is drunk, emotionally damaged from his work and personal life- words spitting out of his mouth with a slur as if he’s just had a tooth out, blood dripping from his forehead- he’s a little bit vile.
‘It’s bad luck is Nightjars. It’s a bird o’death.’
Roberts’ play sings like the nightjars, only with a little more hope than their death call. We follow Michael and Jeffrey through broken homes, break ups and break downs. When the shots ring out on the farm they sting us. The light of the fire glowing through the back door of the shed. In the front row the steam rolls over us and the ash falls just in front of our feet.
Time passes in this play in the most beautiful way. Lighting designer Sally Ferguson has choreographed a sequence where the sun rises and streams through the wooden slats then runs across the room and gets warmer then colder, bouncing off the metal farm tools and curling round the piles of ropes. It streams in and out and jumps round and round slowly. It’s bewitching.
Paul Robinson’s production makes it an incredibly intimate piece of theatre. It’s just these two guys, talking about cows in a crumbling wooden shed with time passing and the world changing around them. It almost feels intrusive for us to be there, sitting in on their conversations- both mundane and fiery. The cobwebs and the details of Max Dorey’s set make it feel so real. The broken flickering lights. The rusty trowel propped against the side. The dusty hay strewn floor. My friend who lives on a farm leans in and whispers, ‘it literally looks like my shed’.
After the tragedy there’s a bit of hope for the future before we dip into depression again. Despite all this it’s an incredibly funny play, but the kind of funny where you’re laughing through your tears. Roberts catches the humour in everyday conversation and allows the characters to make fun of themselves and eachother even in the most desperate or depressing of situations. There are few things that make your heart swell as much as an old man talking about the woman he loved, even if he talks as much about her arse as about her heart. Nostalgia has a way of piercing your skin and digging into you.
And then come the sound of the nightjars. The lights begin to fade and you know it’s the end and you want it to hold on for just a bit longer. A little bit longer before it, they and this rural lifestyle all fade away into the dark.
Bristol Old Vic, Studio Theatre, 13/10/2015