The Saxon Shore

 

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'I am ... That.' Athdark, the 'plantationer' Saxon soldier loyal to Imperial Rome, discovers that he is a werewolf. Gerard Murphy: Almeida Theatre, London, 1986.

 

 

 

Play published by Methuen, 1986; ISBN 0 413 14100 4

 

 

Hadrian's Wall, 410 AD. For decades now, Rome has been transporting Germanic peoples and resettling them here to defend the Empire's Northern boundary against the Celts. These 'plantationers' have developed a protestant-like Pelagian ethos, and a culture of fanatic loyalism to Rome. One such community unknowingly become werewolves by night, and do murderous havoc amongst the neighbouring Celtic farms and villages. One of these werewolves, an upright young farmer by day, returns from such a raid with a stone axe-head in his side: this troubling wound awakens his awareness to his night-time other self. Ashamed, then in a delirium of agony, he wanders into Celtic territory, and is healed and cared for by the women of a pagan shrine. At first 'high' in joy at his release from pain, he soon reverts, and leads his werewolf-tribe in a massacre of the Celts in their hidden fortress, to which he now can scent the way. The Celts declare war on the Saxon settlers, Rome announces her withdrawal of the legions, and the plantationers are left without defence against the coming Celtic wrath.

Written 1982, to a commission from Brian Friel and the Field Day Company in Derry, this play has had a very unhappy existence. Given its origins, and its envisaged audience, I considered very carefully and from many perspectives what this play should be; but when they received it, Field Day rejected it with very little substantial explanation to myself. (see bibliography.)y Obviously the play is a refraction of the ethnic/cultural conflict in the North of Ireland: but Rome's 'Saxon Shore' is not a metaphor, it's a solid historical landscape, before which an audience's existing pre-conceptions could not so easily slot into place. Culturally loaded names and indicators are here working the opposite way: 'Rome' is not a Paisleyite Babylon, but the focus of a protestant-like community's intense allegiance; Latin is not the language of the Popish Mass, but a living tongue that the Pelagian young farmer toils with devotion to learn; the 'Brits' are not the detested forces of occupation, but the Celtic natives... With my own Ulster background I had sought to engage myself in the Irish discourse in a way that by-passed spectators' conditioned responses, and thus to shed some emotional light on dark places where there is only mythology and prejudice. So the play's rejection deeply hurt me, for I felt rejected politically too. My 'Irish string' has been silent since. But I did not want it ever dismissively and simplistically said that 'Ireland' had rejected this play; I sent it to the National Theatre, fairly confident that they would reject it too. (It transpired later that the National's then Literary Manager was unaware even that the play had been submitted.)

First production, at London's Almeida Theatre, 1986. We promoted it with no mention of the play's Irish origins or of its Irish reference. This production, by Pierre Audi, was more hexed than any other I have experienced or known of. It almost, in Hardyesque phrase, 'cured' me of writing for the theatre. No subsequent professional productions, though (again) colleges and universities have done it. Minimum cast 7: 4 m. 3f. with all possible doublings taken into account.