Caryl Churchill’s 1983 play, Fen, represents the British feminist playwright at her best, even though the play is rarely produced. In this revival at London’s Finborough Theatre, director Ria Parry (Iron Shoes Productions) and a top-notch cast offer a thrilling reminder of Churchill’s theatricality and her incisive Marxist/feminist analysis of the politics of gender, sexuality, and class.

Like many of Churchill’s earlier plays, Fen addresses the interactions among a community of people, rather than singling out one or two individuals for dramatic treatment. Here, Val, one of the women who work in the potato fields, stands out from the rest, but only as the catalyst for the story’s investigation of the social constraints dictated by the economics of labor. At the play’s beginning, Val decides to walk away from her job, to the surprise of her co-workers and their boss, a woman nominally more powerful than the field-hands, who stands on a low bridge above them, watching them work.

Played by Katharine Burford—the only cast member who doesn’t perform multiple roles—Val is a bit of a dreamer, convinced that her love for Frank (Alex Beckett) is more important than anything else in her life, including her job and her two young children. Val is the play’s most determined idealist; she establishes one pole of ambition against which the other women and Frank are measured. Val’s hopeful investment in the power of love doesn’t release her from her straitened circumstances. In fact, by the play’s end, her only way out of a deadening life is to beg Frank to kill her. Val’s trajectory represents Churchill’s bleak view of the options for those without economic agency.

In the small Finborough Theatre, which seats perhaps 50 spectators on two banks of facing risers across a small, narrow playing area, director Parry creates a rather environmental production. The two sides of the theatre are connected by a low bridge that spectators on the far side use to reach their seats, and that actors use to represent the play’s ever-changing locales.

The rectangular central playing area, which extends from one wall to the other, is covered in rich, dark dirt, which represents the fens, the potato fields where the community labors. Even when scenes move to various characters’ homes or other social settings, the dirt remains, a palpable reminder that these people are always mired in the manual labor that provides their only livelihood.

To establish the stultifying, physically challenging effort of potato farming, Churchill sets the first scene in the field, where the workers bend over metal buckets, pulling potatoes from the earth, wiping dirt off their skins, and dumping buckets of them into bins. The workers murmur among themselves while the forewoman watches from above, until Val, her face open and alive, declares that she’s leaving. None of the other workers know where Val intends to go, but they respond with a grim understanding that she’ll no doubt be back.

In fact, when Val presents herself and her two young girls, suitcases in hand, to Frank, and begs him to go to London with them, he instead persuades her to stay. He doesn’t know what he’d do in London, and although she seems game for a romantic adventure, willing to move into an unknown world to free herself, Frank is differently stuck in the local and thwarts what turns out to be her last chance to escape.

He suggests they live together, which requires Val to leave her children with her ex-husband (who’s never seen) and her mother, Mavis (Rosie Thomson, who’s excellent in each of the four roles she cycles among). The girls are just old enough to resent Val’s absence; they punish her emotionally when she tries to visit them. Val’s choice to give up her children’s love to gain Frank’s demonstrates Churchill’s unsentimental view of motherhood, which is still refreshing, given other playwrights’ tendency to valorize women with children.

Family relationships in Fen never provide a haven for this community. The play tells parallel stories of a group of women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who work in the fields, and a group of young girls, perhaps eight, ten, and twelve, who are still growing up. One of the girls, Becky (Elicia Daly), has been left in the care of her cruel stepmother, Angela (Nicola Harrison). Angela taunts Becky with brutal antipathy and begins to beat and abuse her physically, finally putting out her cigarettes on Becky’s arms. Their relationship signals a kind of horizontal violence among people in such desperate straits.

In one of her few moments of contrition, Angela asks Becky how she can continue to love her, since Becky tolerates Angela’s abuse with a peculiar yet moving, quiet generosity. Angela explains that she hurts Becky so that she can reassure herself that she’s alive at all. Brutality becomes Angela’s only agency; without being cruel to Becky, and seeing the marks she leaves on her skin, Angela has no evidence that she exists.

Churchill interweaves public and private spheres in Fen, so that the women’s domestic worlds are always formed in relation to their field work. Across the set from the low bridge, a dirty, worn kitchen unit stands against the wall. An ancient sink, with cabinets above and below it, and an old ironing board nearby, frame the women’s domestic labor as clearly as the tin potato buckets on the fen ground their contributions to capitalism. These spheres aren’t separate, Churchill suggests, but thoroughly interpolate their subjects in both.

The play’s first monologue, for example, is delivered by a Japanese businessman (also played by Thomson), who describes the genealogy of ownership in which the land is entwined. This global investor, with a camera slung around his neck, can only see the fens through the dividends they accrue. The local landlord, Mr. Tewson (Beckett, playing both Frank and Frank’s boss), on the other hand, is caught in an economic bind, trying to make ends meet by negotiating a sale with a middle-person sent to buy out Mr. Tewson’s share.

In these scenes and the others in Fen, the cross-casting illustrates that none of these characters are villains and none heroes. In Frank’s first monologue, he practices a speech in which he intends to ask Mr. Tewson for a raise. When Beckett later plays Mr. Tewson, Churchill clarifies that the man Frank thinks has so much power actually has very little in the scheme of the corporate, global capitalism that’s squeezing him out. Churchill doesn’t lay individual blame, but constructs a social constellation in which each character is interdependent with the others, even if their access to power and wealth differently marks their experience.

Gender, too, is determining in Fen. In one of the production’s most effective scenes, the young girls make up a song and dance to a disco tune—the music of the 80s poignantly punctuates the production—that describes what they want to be when they grow up. They dance and laugh to their music, singing that they want to be nurses or hairdressers. But because these pre-teen girls are played by the same actors who perform the middle-aged women characters, it’s obvious that their fates are pre-determined. Like their mothers, aunts, or neighbors, they’ll work the fields, gathering potatoes and onions just like everyone else, and will never achieve their dreams of other, more glamorous-seeming occupations.

The dirt on which the whole story plays out is a constant reminder of the characters’ gritty lives.And because it pulls the production away from realism, the dirt, like the other singular, totemic objects brought out to help the story signify its themes, becomes itself a kind of currency. Most of the characters wear tall rubber boots necessary for mucking about in the often wet fields. Those boots remain constant, underneath other changes of clothing accessories that help the actors signal their various characters.

Every implement they use—a rake, dragged across the brown dirt; a dart board, at which the characters play in a rare moment of dingy leisure; a basket of laundry—has a place on stage, hanging from a hook or revealed inside a cupboard, waiting. The scene design evokes the furthest thing from plentitude; there’s no outside in which a wealth of other things might be gathered. Every object that exists is to hand; there’s no more. Everything on stage, then—whether prop or gesture, word or image—becomes a Brechtian gestus, emblematic of a set of social relations forcefully captured. Nothing is wasted. The acting and direction mirror the economy of means that the characters require to survive lives of blistering emotional and physical scarcity.

The six actors perform beautifully, capturing the feminist Brechtian acting style that Churchill’s plays demand to be effective. They don’t play the characters’ psychology, since Churchill doesn’t fill in individual backstories to excuse or even explain their behavior. But the actors make clear performance choices that center each character in the action of the scene, whether they’re gathering potatoes, making up dances, caring for a baby, or ironing a shirt. The actors flesh out the characters without writing them into a personal narrative. The story they collectively tell is an intensely shared, social story about people whose every move is dictated by economic necessity rather than personal desire, dreams, or choice.

And yet, Fen is wrenching because even in the midst of such lack, the characters do dream. Val isn’t the only woman with desires; they’re all simply at different stages of reconciling to the fact that they’ll never be fulfilled. After Val, finally hopeless, asks Frank to kill her and he complies, the play ends with Val’s mother, Mavis, left with the children. In earlier scenes, the girls have asked their grandmother to sing to them, as Val did, but Mavis can’t seem to produce a note. At the play’s end, we learn that Mavis can’t sing because she wanted nothing more than to be a singer. In Churchill’s final, ambivalent and ambiguous imagining, Mavis stands alone on the bridge, her face lit with hope, lip-syncing to a beautiful melody. She’s singing, but not really, moving her mouth, just as she moves her hands, in the service of someone else’s production.

Ultimately, no escape is possible from lives that offer few options. One of the characters describes how people take out their rage on animals, which, sadly, calms them down—they have nothing else to do with their feelings. Val dies because she can’t see any way out of her predicament, but it’s more a function of the play’s sense of over-riding destiny than it is her own psychological dictates that determine her choice. Love isn’t escape; the best Frank’s love can do for Val is to direct the ax he finally uses to kill her.

Yet in such a bleak landscape, this production of Fen ends as oddly hopeful. The intimacy of the ensemble’s acting; the subtlety and sureness of the direction; the tactile, evocative set design; the haunting soundscape; all these choices create a theatrical experience that’s alienated in the positive, politically inflected, Brechtian sense of the word. They also paint a rich world with very specific brush strokes and a grounded, humane perspective on the wages of economic determinism in a social scheme where laborers toil hopelessly.

Fen deserves to be revived often, as it continues to resonate across the global social landscape.

The Feminist Spectator

FenFinborough Theatre, London, March 13, 2011.

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