A remarkable literary event took place in Redenhall last week: through the diligence of a friend we were there. It might sound pretentious to say that this was a major event, the sort of thing which in London would be heralded by a fanfare of trumpets and celebrated in the media. Here in Norfolk however it was Corbyn-style modest, and no less wonderful for that.
The event was an introduction to, and part reading of, Arnold Wesker’s play Roots. The remarkable thing was that the performance took place in the front room of the actual cottage where Wesker wrote the play. For anyone who doesn’t know this fine play, it is peopled by Norfolk agricultural labourers and written in Norfolk dialect. This can be a problem: I listened to one BBC radio production in which the actors spoke assorted Loamshire (or at any rate, listened as long as I could bear it). On this occasion, however, it was performed in proper spirited speech: (some of the actors were native speakers), so it sounded like what you might hear in a corner of any Norfolk pub – only that it was rather clearer. We were told that the play is constantly in production: on that particular day there were 13 productions taking place elsewhere in the world, presumably translated into the appropriate agricultural regional argots of French, German, Korean or wherever, so the fact that it is not written in King’s English, or Buehnesprache etc, paradoxically makes it more, rather than less, available. So much for the Questione della Lingua: there does not have to be one central official language: we all speak and hear different language versions, and we can all perform in a variety of registers.
One way to describe Roots might be to call it a Norfolk Waiting for Godot, only with real people instead of archetypes, and with hope rather than despair. Beatie, the daughter of a farm-labouring family has been living in fabled London with East-End Jewish socialist Ronnie, the hero/anti-hero of the preceding play Chicken Soup with Barley. Here she is, back home, and bringing her family together to await the arrival of wonder boy-friend and intended husband Ronnie. Of course, as with Godot, he never arrives. But, and it is the point of the play, Beatie in a despair of abandonment suddenly discovers in herself an awakened ability to stand and deliver – Ronnie’s victory by proxy – a difficult transition for actor and director, but immensely moving in performance. Goodbye to the ‘ idiocy of rural life.’
It was great to enjoy the introduction to Wesker’s work, (I hadn’t realised how little he was taken to the heart of the British theatrical world), the warmly personal account by his old friend, the nephew of his wife Dusty, and sections of the drama performed, while we the audience looked out through the window, like Beattie’s mother, to see if the bus was passing. Wesker had looked through that window as he wrote the play. As if one could have sat in Dickens’ writing room for a reading of Copperfield, looking through the window from which he saw Miss Mowcher. It was that sort of amazing event.
I had forgotten just how funny, as well as poignant, the play was. When I gave a lecture on it to German students studying for a degree in English, in 1960 or ’61 (‘Contemporary British Literature’) I was worried that it was so much a naturalistic Ibsenite play, at a time when theatre seemed to be moving away from eavesdropping on the room behind the proscenium arch to a much wider and more flexible mode. But hearing it again now, that sort of concern seemed of no importance. Many flowers bloomed, in their own way. I was a bit sad also to hear that Wesker (you can hear him say it on the recent Desert Island Disks) regretted being bundled as an Angry Young Man. Contrariwise, I always wore AYM as a badge of pride. At that time, the mid ‘fifties, we were coming out of another ‘low dishonest decade,’ and there was plenty to feel angry about, and to denounce, and there is plenty of anger, as well as empathy, in the Wesker Trilogy
So rather more than half a century on, here we were, like Beatie, back in Norfolk, at last honouring a prophet in his own country, or at any rate a country he made his own. About time too. Thanks to all those who made it happen.