“Our Big Land” by Dan Allum

at Ovalhouse, Thursday 20th February 2014

The relationship the ‘British public’ has with the Romany Traveller population is often, to put it delicately, unfriendly. Thanks to our lack of education and a slew of derogatory TV shows, most of us have very little knowledge of this ancient and complex people. Jerusalem may have touched on the travelling community very slightly, but never really interrogated the issue. Though Our Big Land may sometimes feel a little basic, therefore, and doesn’t quite give the intricacies of the argument you’d hope, it manages to give a genuine sense of how Romany Travellers live in the twenty-first century and excels in its use of authentic music and aesthetic.

The narrative of Dan Allum’s play is fairly basic, and focusses on the family of Oceania, whose roots travel back a long way through Romany history. Her son, Roman, falls in love with Sophie, an outsider who insists on using a computer when necessary. When the marriage ribbon drops during their wedding day, however, it seems the relationship may be cursed and that the family’s time in the forest may be limited. It’s a story of tensions between cultures and the inexorable march of so-called ‘progress’.

Allum imbues all three characters with a terse frankness, as they each remain stubborn in their beliefs and hold their history close to them. At the centre of the narrative, imbued with a symbolic and mythical power, is the storytelling shawl, or bauro diklo. This central prop is far from incidental, holding as it does the very fabric of both the play’s form and content; the telling of tales. This, arguably, is the site of the play’s key confrontation, as Oceania suggests that stories are the most important aspect of our existence while Sophie insists that “People are bigger than stories”.

Due to this focus on stories, it’s perhaps no wonder that the narrative Our Big Land sometimes feels a bit simplistic and never really allows ethical questions to be asked, but thanks to Amy Hodge’s smart direction it holds a quiet intensity all the same. It’s a kinetic staging which draws up rich images (one of which is reminiscent of London Road), and finds extra-textual ways of evoking Romany Traveller culture, using haunting music and an earthy design (takis) which permeate Allum’s language.

The three actors each manage to layer in as much emotion as they can in the short seventy minute running time, though you feel that an extra ten minutes could help to flesh out these fascinating individuals. Robyn Moore and Samuel Edward-Cook have a beautiful frisson as the mother-and-son duo, constantly getting on one another’s nerves but maintaining a quiet love beneath the surface, whilst Scarlett Brookes delivers the stand-out performance of the night as the young girl caught between two cultures, unsure where to go or precisely how to act. During one brash and bold scene, she questions her new family’s notions of freedom and their lack of knowledge of the world around them. “How can you know what freedom feels like if you’ve never had it?” comes the reply from Moore. It’s a chilling moment, and represents the times when Our Big Land is at its best, weaving story and context together so that they may interrogate both subject and object in a way which forces big questions to be asked.

Photo: Alex Beckett

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