The last two pieces of David Rudkin’s Placeprints cycle are the longest and most developed of the ten but continue in the same vein as their predecessors. Rudkin’s initial conception for the cycle was actually quite different from the outcome as he had thought to make them into the sort of audio guide one gets at a museum or gallery. The piece would act as a both entertainment and commentary setting artifacts/pictures, etc. into some sort of context. You can hear a short interview with the author explaining how these plays came into existence on the New Perspective’s website.
Of all the very many plays I’ve watched and listened to online, the ninth piece in this series comes closest to having the most contemporary relevance to the situation we are in now. Pure coincidence, as Here We Stay was not written recently, neither is it about recent events. The play is actually set in 1665 when the Great Plague visited the Derbyshire village of Eyam and stalked its streets killing 260 members of 76 families. In the Plague Year this was not an unusual occurrence. What is unusual is that the townspeople took the selfless decision to quarantine themselves rather than let the plague infect the surrounding countryside. It is thought that had they not done so the disease would have got an even stronger grip on population centres such as Bakewell and Sheffield. The village of Eyam has been known as the Plague Village or the Village of the Damned ever since.
Rudkin’s Placeprint features an intoned roll call of the 260 who died scattered throughout the narrative which is told from two different angles. Firstly, from that of rector William Mompesson who was largely responsible for persuading the villagers to take the action they did. The other key voice is that of the Plague itself commenting on its own progress as it cuts whole families down, delivering an outline of its effects on humankind and particularly frustrated by a hermit which it cannot reach. Giving a voice to a silent killer is a masterstroke and Charlotte Cornwall delivers the lines in a passionless and totally chilling way that keeps us fixated on the unfolding story. And we are only too familiar with some of the detail today. For here are the attempts at social distancing (12 feet in their case), the masks (though here soaked in vinegar), the hastily arranged and sparsely attended funerals and, most concerningly, the fact that after the first spike of deaths there was a short respite until an even more virulent form suddenly returned to wreak greater havoc. In all, the Eyam villagers’ experience lasted over a year. Further comment is superfluous.
Bringing the cycle to a close is Poison Cross in which Roman, a Polish HGV driver, experiences flashbacks and visions of bloody events from the past as he attempts and fails to deliver his cargo. By this stage in the series we are more than used to hearing anthropomorphised voices from the unlikeliest of sources. In this play one voice is that of the lorry itself (Tyrone Huggins) and another that of a hectoring sat nav (Maria Louis) which the driver nicknames Maggie because of its vocal similarity to a certain politician. The third key voice is more difficult to pin down. It seems to be a hidden alternative sat nav voice while in the latter stages it could be Roman himself. Perhaps it is both at the same time and also at once something far more elemental. Whatever you decide it has the bulk of the narrative in the last third of the play as Roman (whose name becomes suddenly significant) abandons his broken-down vehicle and is confronted by terrifying intimations of the long-ago bloody past. It transpires we are near the crossing point of two ancient Roman roads in Warwickshire. In other words, the series has come full circle back to where Place Print 1 occurred. This pleasing circularity is reinforced by having the narration spoken by the voice of that very first piece, Richard Lynch.
Artistically and aurally this is the perfect decision and gives the cycle structure and a sense of completeness; strong directorial continuity is provided throughout by Jack McNamara. During the course of the ten plays listeners have been transported to all parts of the British Isles and heard from truly silent voices about the landscapes they inhabit. These places are timeless and so the series will continue to provide a valuable guide to these locations and the circumstances in which they find themselves. I think I found Place Print 3 and 9 the most engaging. The first because it features some truly great voice actors and the second simply because it turned out to be so relevant to our current circumstances. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you only listen to one audio drama this year then please make it Here We Stay and reflect on what it tells us for our lives in 2020.
Place Prints 1 – 4 reviewed here
Place Prints 5 – 8 reviewed here
Place Prints can be found on the New Perspectives website. Click here
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