Categories: Theatre; Pilot Theatre; ARCADE
Ever since humans discovered the element of fire with its powers of comfort and protection, or danger and destruction, they have used it to communicate. By day, there were the smoke signals from the beacon network along the Great Wall of China, the towers of the Vatican and effecting the coded language of Native Americans. By night, there were signal fires, lit to warn the approach of an enemy, or to send a call to arms.
Signal fires burned in tenth-century Constantinople, in Jerusalem and Babylon, and in the Isles of Orkney to share the news of war or victory. In myth and fiction too, the use of fire has been well served. In 458 BC, a Greek tragedian wrote in Agamemnon of a chain of eight signal fires that alerted Argos to the fall of Troy, hundreds of miles away. In Lord of the Rings, signal fires called to allies when Gondor’s cities were under siege.
England relied on signal fires as a defence network from the reign of the Roman Empire, to Saxon times, into the early 1800s.
For hundreds of years, they were simply signalled by fire--signum per ignem—rudimentary bonfires on hilltops, but over time, signal fires evolved, first appearing by name in England’s royal decrees and municipal records in the late 1300s as beknes. Beacons became more sophisticated - stone-block beehives, stone towers, or iron baskets on top of wooden or iron poles. They were fuelled by shrubs—gorse and broom—that the citizenry was paid to gather and tend. If not for its vast, mapped, centuries-old county-by-county beacon networks, splaying out like spiderwebs from the most vulnerable points of its coasts, our island may have been taken by Norse raiders, by France, or by Spain.
Nineteenth-century English poet, Thomas Babington Macaulay, recounted their critical role in his fragment The Armada, about the night in August 1588 when Spain’s King Phillip sailed a massive war fleet on England. That night was as bright as day, Macaulay wrote, the entire country lit by beacon fires at every visible point,
For swift to east and swift to west the ghastly war-flame spread,
High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone; it shone on Beachy Head.
Far on the deep the Spaniard saw, along each southern shire,
Cape beyond cape, in endless range, those twinkling points of fire.
And after the enemy was defeated, they lit fires for another purpose: to celebrate.
For a century, the memory of fire beacons in England was all but lost to time. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the networks eroded, the maps were mostly forgotten. A renewed interest flared up with archaeological pursuits of the twentieth century, and today, beacons nod to eternal flames, honouring landmark occasions: The Millennium or days of national significance. Yorkshire still has a string of beacon baskets scattered across its breadth, and it is a very special thing to first feel the heat on your face and then to spin in circles on the hillside, staring into the distance as the shouts go up one by one, “There’s another one”; to see the line of orange flickering dots that convey connection and belonging.
It is this concept of the signal fires that has drawn together the arts and culture community in these pandemic days, when events have had to be cancelled, theatres closed and funding support for job and venue viability has been shaky. At least two of the major national arts festivals are basing their future programming on the themes of signal fires, and it is also the nationwide initiative for theatre companies during October and November to warn of the threat to the theatre industry, to provide connection and support to those who may feel isolated, and to celebrate the richness of vibrant touring theatre by taking it right back to its storytelling roots – that of telling a good yarn around a roaring fire. The full list of the participating theatres can be seen here.
Newly formed Community Producing Company, ARCADE, is Scarborough based - a coastal town where historically beacons have played a significant role - so it was immensely fitting that the Northern Girls production should be held here and, in the main, use actors and writers based within the borough. Scarborough has an incredible pool of creative talent and it was good to see a light being shone upon some of them. Pilot Theatre, based in York, co-produced the show and the venue was Scarborough's brilliant YMCA, whose own productions are legendary in the locale. This was a truly Yorkshire owned production then.
The beacons were provided by fire baskets situated around the YMCA car park, and though the socially distanced seating was limited by space, the intimacy of a collective theatre experience was achieved through the focus of the tree wound around with lights, with actors appearing from, and disappearing into, the darkness behind it, as if they were entering and exiting the stage in conventional format; a clever device that lifted the experience immediately from informal storytelling to the theatre community making the clear statement, “We’re still here, we’re still professionals who do things properly and we’re not going to compromise all that we stand for.”
Erosion, written by Charley Miles and performed wonderfully by Holly Surtees-Smith, tackles the importance of place and belonging, setting the premise perfectly that Northern people – in all arenas - should not have to adapt accent or move location to succeed, but have a uniqueness and treasure that is to be celebrated, right where they are. Rach Drew of ARCADE, in the run up to the Northern Girls production, had spoken in The Guardian of her own battle to find place in the theatre industry, and Miles’ piece added immediate depth and weight to the argument. ’Home’ is a powerful concept, attached to the area we live in as much as to the family and community we live within, and much of our creative work is nurtured by the specifics of place: flora, fauna, geology, weather, the tides and tales of the coastlines, and the folklore attached to all of these things. It is shaped by the people we are, now, in this landscape and not another.
Shannon Barker is well established as a Scarborough writer; her piece First Date was very ably played out by Siu-See Hung, bringing out themes of loss and pushing through the hard times to new beginnings. It was in turns, energetic and moving.
Asma Elbadawi both wrote and performed the thought-provokingly poetic The Girl Next Door, a piece full of grace and quiet dignity, sketching out the differences between culture and heritage, the sadness that comes from ‘not fitting’ and the prejudices of others, eloquently calling for acceptance as someone who is as hefted in Yorkshire as the sheep on the moors, but also understanding of the roots she is fiercely proud of. Elbadawi is stunning, her voice frequently switching to the beautiful Arabic language that lifts across the cold air like a musical adhan; with wonderful writing and heartfelt presentation this is my favourite of all the pieces.
Kat/Cassie, written by Zoe Cooper is outstandingly composed, taking up the mythological Philomela and Procne to tell the story of a rape by a teacher, the tapestry of threads replaced by a collage of bird photography. It is powerful, brings a deep communication that abuse by those in authority should not be tolerated EVER, and is such a complex, demanding and accomplished script that it needed an actor who was experienced enough to deal with it. The actor chosen is RSC's Laura Elsworthy – a Hull lass; northern through and through.
Rant by Amy Kay-Pell and performed by Holly Surtees-Smith, was the ideal light-hearted monologue to follow Kat/Cassie, questioning how much we have actually moved forward in equality for women; executed with comedic verisimilitude and giving a welcome breathing space to the programme.
Ariel Hebditch has been part of the Scarborough arts scene since she was tiny, and it is truly lovely to see her emerging as a competent writer. Her monologue Yin and Yang is based on the experiences of a friend, dealing with prejudice, verbal abuse and juggling the demands of combining helping out in the family restaurant with studying. Siu-See Hung performs it with an understanding that relays the frustrations well.
Waves by Claire Edwards is a very tender, gentle piece that tells of the emotions of full immersion baptism in the sea. Performed by Laura Elsworthy, it is a welcome contrast to the other items, revealing an altogether different relationship to the ocean. Slower, more measured, Edwards’ work conveys an understanding that writing doesn’t have to be constantly loud and composed of sharp edges to be successful. Edward’s words ebb and flow as softly as the waves they speak of, and, in their graceful beauty, they carry a gift of confidence to the quieter writing styles that they too have place, belonging and a very special gift to bring.
The Scarborough Porpoise scripted by Maureen Lennon and performed by Laura Boughen is in turns funny and brave, shouting out for a moving through imperfections and opinions to owning self as something uniquely our own, that empowers and gives strength of equilibrium. It is a fitting end to the programme that gathers up the threads that have gone before and ties them together with positivity and joyous hope.
On the surface, it may appear that staring into the flames of a firepit in a YMCA car park is not the same as looking at the horizon to see the line of other fires, their flames rising higher and higher into the dark skies. In these challenging times, things have to be done in a different way, but the Signal Lights project through live outdoor performance, digital performance and social media has provided a way to see those beacons of connectivity glowing; a row of fiery, determined dots stretching the length of our nation that proclaim theatre is still here, still programming and still putting out a light for the arts. Staring into the fire-pit beacon flames, the Northern Girls production brought history, the present and future intention sparkling before us, sharing footsteps with those other creative communities throughout this land; sharing the trajectory of a rapt gaze that lights up the darkness and provides the promise of hope for the arts.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.