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FEN is an thought-provoking piece, centering on a tight community in the fens of east England. The play suggests at being set in 1980's, and whilst it sounds very 'fluffybunny-lambs-buttercups-please close the gate' type of play, it is far from it. The play has a very dark side, and deals with issues such as child abuse, suicide, seperation, and first and foremost the plight of the farming economy and life in the country.
The playwright is Caryl Churchill, one of the leading feminist writers of recent years. Her most well known play is perhaps Top Girls, in which actress Gwen Taylor has performed in. Her style in many plays, including Fen, is often experimental, and to research Fen she spent a lot of time in the rural parts of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. This was with the theatre company 'Joint Stock' who you may have heard of. She got to know the people and way of life, and so it is possible that the characters and events in Fen were based on real people. Churchill is reported to have said that out of all of her plays, this is the one which was based the most on real people and what they had said. As a result, the play is succesfully realistic.
The two central characters are Frank and Val. She left her husband to be with Frank, and so is in a plight concerning the custody of her two children. She is desperate
to get away from her life on the Fens, and run away with Frank, but she is held back by her daughters Shona and Deb. The girl's characters add an iteresting childlike perspective on the lifestyle, with innocence in Shona (the younger) and teh traumas of growing up from Deb (the elder sister) with insignificant problems meaning the world to her. There is a song sung by the girls, which includes lines like: "I want to be a hairdresser when I grow up, but I don't really want to leave the village." They are brought up with no aspirations, and no opportunities to explore ambition. At one point Val is about to leave for London, but cannot leave her daughters when it comes down to it. Frank and Val's scenes are the only ones that require any sort of order, as the rest of the play is episodic and could go anywhere. Their relationship is dark and unstable. Val is a complexed character torn between Frank and the girls, and Frank is frustrated with his job, and with Val's indecisiveness.
Other strong characters are Angela, who is forced to be a mother to step daughter Becky while her husband is away, and takes out her frustration on Becky; Shirley, who hides a disturbing past by working herself too hard to forget her pain; and May, Val's mum, who will never sing, because she always wanted to be a singer but never had the chance to follow her ambition. The inner thoughts and stories of all the major characters are revealed in surreal, dreamlike ending, which if performed well can be outstandingly effective.
As a whole, the play deals with the hard life in the Fen, and how individuals deal with their pain. There is a haunting link to the past, with themes from 150 years ago, which Churchill brings into the 80's using characters such as 90 year old Ivy (mother of May, grandmother of Val, great-grandmother of Deb and Shona) and the ghost of an underpaid worker haunting the fields. The character of Nell, a wonderfully quirky character, is the one character who manages to overcome her pain, perhaps through her eccentricity, which means she is percieved by the other characters as a bit mad. She has the last laugh though, as in the final scene she is seen walking across the stage on stilts, symbolic of how she rides above the pain. This also harks back to her ancestors, who waded across the Fens on stilts in protest at drainage for commercial purposes. Other than Frank, the main characters are all women, as Churchill concentrates on the life of the women and their oppresion. All the workers in the fields are women, and men are largely seen in a negative light, for example Shirley's husband Geoffery, who works all day and expects his dinner on the table every night when he get's home. The fact that things have stayed the same through generations of women are displayed through Ivy's family, who all suffer from the same plight of being stuck in the village, unable to achieve their ambitions. As Churchill is a feminist writer first and foremost, she is skilled in writing about women and insights into their characters.
The script is strong, and the effects and lighting requirements are not lengthy, so it could be performed by a small low budget company. It deals with adult issues and contains strong language so I don't recommend it for children. It is a great ensemble piece, and despite the doom and gloom there are some amusing moments. This also depends on interpretation. There is also fleeting romance, as one scene is completely silent with just Frank and Val dancing together. Folklore is also apparent, and commercialism verses farming, wonderfully captured in a scene with Mr. Tewson the farmer and Miss Cade, a business woman trying to persuade him to sell his land.
I recommend this play to anyone looking for something different, but also has substance and gives you something to think about. I have only read it, studied and performed it so have never actually seen it performed, but I would still recommend a visit to the theatre if you see it around. I haven't heard of any performances recently though. Definately worth the read.