Ivan Cutting: Keeping East Anglia's history alive on stage
- Credit: Denise Bradley
To any East Anglian, the Broads is a magical, almost timeless landscape – a haven for wildlife, and a sanctuary for people looking to get back to nature. These low-lying waterways, flanked by fields and reed beds, weave their way across both Suffolk and Norfolk, from the coast to the outskirts of Norwich, attracting those who enjoy messing about in boats, or love a spot of fishing, or perhaps adventurous souls who love nothing more than heading out on their bikes and seeing where the bridlepaths take them.
One man who loves this part of the world is theatre-maker Ivan Cutting, co-founder and artistic director of regional touring company, Eastern Angles, who had a hit with Tony Ramsey’s play Tide Jetty in the summer of 2019. They are now emerging from lockdown with a new show about the broads, Booming Voices, which is based on the testimony of people who live and work in this natural wonderland.
Ivan observes that it’s one of the rare places where, because it is such a water-filled environment, nature has a maintained its command of the landscape and so-called civilisation has a hard time imposing its love of concrete and tarmac on the area.
“Many species of birds, which have become rare or have disappeared from other parts of Britain, have adopted the broads and thrive there. The same is true of small mammals which burrow and nest on the riverbanks or in the reed beds. There’s a whole vibrant eco-system there which is why it is so important and is now protected.”
In fact, the word ‘booming’ in the title is a reference to the bittern, a bird which is thriving on the Broads, nesting on the banks, hidden away from people and predators.
With the waterways snaking across the land and lying so low, they emphasise the majesty of East Anglia’s world-famous ‘Big Skies’ – particularly at dawn and sunset. It’s a world that Ivan has intimate knowledge of as he lives on the Norfolk-Suffolk border between Diss and Beccles and has the Broads right on his doorstep.
Both The Tide Jetty and Booming Voices are part of a project launched by The Broads Authority aimed at celebrating the natural landscape as well as man-made waterways, the windmills dotted on the banks and the marshland which covers much of the area.
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“This latest play isn’t a sequel as such but was always conceived of as a companion piece. Tide Jetty was very much about looking at the broads in a historical context – how they provided employment, how the people who lived and worked there were seen to be part of the natural eco-structure. It was a celebration of man and nature working together – although with a hint of changes that were to come.
“Booming Voices is very much in the here and now and has been drawn from a series of interviews with local people about what it is like to live there now and what the future is likely to be.
“In Tide Jetty we saw that employment was very much based on farming and milling, using the broads as a system of transportation, taking wheat to the mills to be turned into flour and using the waterways as a means to transport heavy goods and materials between Norwich and the ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
“Today, all that has changed. The Broads still generate a lot of employment, but it is now much more focussed on tourism and the leisure industry.” He added that village life had changed with young families being replaced with retired couples moving out of London or other big cities around the country. Those of working age tend to move into the area in order to manage the pubs, restaurants and the pleasure craft that use the waterways.
“The plays were designed to be complementary. The first was a drama written by local author Tony Ramsey and the second was always going to be a devised piece arising out of a series of interviews which was carried out by former staff member, independent producer, Karen Goddard.”
Right from the beginning Eastern Angles’ productions have always been anchored by the heritage of Suffolk, Norfolk and North Essex – Ivan said the company was created to celebrate local history, traditional folklore and local characters.
Ivan also pioneered the use of using actual dialogue of real people in his productions long before ‘verbatim theatre’ became such a high-profile device with productions like London Road at the National Theatre.
For many years in the 1980s, Ivan set out to record the memories of as many long-serving farmworkers as he could find, which informed a series of much-loved plays which captured the changes in farming over the past century. Plays such as The Reapers Year, Days of Plenty, The Bone Harvest, The Tithe War and Return To Akenfield were huge hits with both critics and audiences.
He also told the story of the local fishing industry in plays like When The Boats Come In and No Song, No Supper. Booming Voices is the latest in this very grounded form of local theatre and Ivan says the trick is to make the play work as a drama, as a piece of entertainment, while also being true to the people who were interviewed.
“It’s a play. It’s a fictionalised version of what has happened, but we work hard to make sure the voices of the real people still come through.” This is why Ivan either writes the plays himself or commissions local authors who have a real feel for the special nature of Suffolk and Norfolk.
“Booming Voices had a strange gestation period because it came together through a couple of lockdowns. I wrote a rough script, utilising as much of the original dialogue as I could from Karen’s transcriptions of her interviews, but it really came together in the rehearsal room when the actors got hold of it and we could hear it and could see what was working – then we could streamline it.”
Unfortunately, Ivan contracted Covid early in the process and was forced to hand over the reins to assistant director Ollie Harrington. “I was off for 10 days and when I came back, I saw that Ollie had such a wonderful grasp on the show, I told him to keep going. He understood it in a way I couldn’t because it had changed and evolved while I had been in my sick bed. He’s done a brilliant job.”
The play gets to explore the world of the Broads today, as seen through the eyes of the people who live and work there, while also looking ahead to see what the future may hold for this unique landscape as the commercial pressure that comes with increased tourism butts up against its protected status as a national park.
One of the things Ivan wanted to include was the findings of Joyce Lambert who was the first person to discover that the Broads wasn’t a natural phenomenon, but a man-made river system created by centuries of peat harvesting.
“I think that is an important part of the story and hopefully it will make audiences go: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ Because the Broads have be one of the largest man-made waterways in the country. The way that Joyce found out about this was because of the sharp corners and steep sides. She took findings from the bottom and found peat in some areas and mud in others which proved that the broads, one of the great geographical features of the region, wasn’t natural at all but the result of human activity dating back centuries.
Telling local stories to local audiences remains at the heart of everything Ivan believes in. They have told the story of Margaret Catchpole across two different plays taking in both the derring-do of the Suffolk story (tales of smuggling, breaking out of Ipswich Gaol and a shoot-out with Revenue Men on Shingle Street beach) before telling the story of her life in Australia in Margaret Down Under.
Ivan did a bit of time-travelling in Bentwater Roads, a site-specific play, based at the Hush House, a redundant engine-testing facility at the former US air base just outside Woodbridge, exploring the history of Rendlesham from the Anglo-Saxons to the present day.
Other successes include Ragnarok, which celebrated the region’s Nordic heritage, and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, bringing to life Arthur Ransome’s nautical adventure which took young kids on a sailing escapade up the River Orwell, round Landguard Point, and out towards the Netherlands.
The company’s biggest hit, The Ballad of Maria Marten, has only just finished its final national tour four years after it was first premiered on Ipswich Waterfront. “For many years I avoided what I call the famous stories or the big famous historic figures in favour of finding equally engaging unknown stories.
“I only started looking at Margaret Catchpole and Maria Marten when we could find a different way of coming at the story and finding something different to say. With Polstead and Maria Marten, it was writer Beth Flintoff gaining access to the court documents, examining the evidence given in court, ‘hearing’ Maria’s friends give testimony about her and that gave her a way of giving Maria her voice back. It made Maria into a person not a victim and that is why it has connected with audiences across the country not just in East Anglia – although it is a very East Anglian story.”
Margaret Catchpole was also a huge hit for Eastern Angles and again told the story of a resourceful, independent woman and how she was a product of Suffolk’s land-based society. The play demonstrated how an illicit ‘alternative’ economy that ‘corrupted’ Margaret was an important factor in making that society work.
Taking these tales to the people and performing in village halls and community is something that remains at the heart of Eastern Angles and something that Ivan is passionate about preserving. “We found coming out of lockdown when we did a brief, almost impromptu tour to reintroduce people to live theatre, that people were happier to come to the village hall and mix with people they knew, than go and mix with strangers in a big theatre in a town.
“Bringing theatre to the people, particularly theatre dealing with our local heritage, is incredibly important. Also to stage a play close to where events happened or legends are supposed to have happened is incredibly powerful. People still talk to me about seeing The Sutton Hoo Mob at Sutton Hoo. It leaves a lasting impression.”
As you would expect several dates of the Booming Voices tour are dotted around the broads in north Suffolk and south Norfolk. For a full list of tour venues and to book tickets go the Eastern Angles website easternangles.co.uk