This Land Drills into Fracking
New Pentabus Theatre Company and Salisbury Playhouse production is hoped to spark a wider debate around the 'muddy' subject dividing communities across the country
In the summer of 2013, more than 1000 anti-fracking campaigners gathered in the West Sussex village of Balcombe to protest against the energy company, Cuadrilla, carrying out exploratory oil drilling. The following year, the High Court ruled against the attempts of a village residents group to halt further exploration for oil and gas.
Fracking – so-called because the process involves fracturing rock – necessitates drilling down into the earth before releasing at high-pressure a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the gaps created, allowing any shale gas there to flow out. The government has granted over 100 licences to firms, allowing them to make exploratory tests in sites throughout the UK, although local councils must first grant planning permission.
While industry-funded bodies claim that shale gas could go a long way to meeting the country’s energy needs, and create thousands of jobs, the environmental effects are unknown. There are fears that ground water may become infected by the chemicals involved, and worries too that the process could cause earth tremors.
It was against this background that writer, Sian Owen, was approached by Pentabus Rural Theatre Company to write a play about fracking. Originally from South Wales, but now resident in Sussex, Owen was consequently highly aware of all that was happening at Balcombe, but such a commission required extensive inquiry, and ultimately concluded in taking sides.
'I did so much research and read and listened to both sides of the argument,' says Owen. 'There is no doubt we need energy solutions, but I don’t think fracking is the answer. I don’t think we have the infrastructure or enough information, and I think it takes us in the wrong direction.'
Despite her own views, Owen has no intention of preaching. 'We all urgently need to talk more about all of this,' she says. 'I hope it sparks lots of open debate and conversations. I was really aware that we would be touring to communities where fracking is already a reality and I know that it is a very divisive, contentious, and complex subject. So it was important to me that this play wasn’t one-sided. This isn’t a straightforward topic. It’s muddy and messy, and I hope this play captures all of that.”
Sian Owen won the Oxford Playhouse New Writing Competition for Restoration, and comes to this with an impressive body of work. Nevertheless, she found it a daunting task.
'Pentabus gave me the brief to write about fracking,' she says. 'At first I was nervous about taking on such a complex issue but I was very excited to be asked to tackle such a topical subject, by a company that I hugely admire, and I also wanted to find out much more about what, to me, had previously been just a headline in a newspaper.'
This Land tells the story of Bea and Joseph, a couple in their 30s, who live in a village with their young son. It explores their responses and reactions when a fracking company arrives in their village to undertake exploratory drilling, just metres from their home.
Just as the company drills down into the earth, so does the play, drilling alike through lives and ties and through thousands of years of history, uncovering stories and layers, questioning relationships between people, and between people and place, creating doubt about the surety of the land beneath their feet.
It looks at human roots, and how far they extend into the earth, and how your relationships with your home, community, property, and land change when outside agencies threaten. People cease to be mere dwellers, and start to become custodians and curators, concerned about the footprints they leave for future generations.
Like fissures spreading, Sian Owen found the nature of her ideas changing as she explored her commission.
'I grew up in South Wales, so the realities of our search for power and energy on people and communities already had a huge realness and resonance for me. As I researched fracking, I began to find parallels that really struck a chord. Because of this, I also knew I wanted this to be a very human story of what happens when that search for power and energy is happening where you live.
'I was obviously really keen to deal with what happens above ground, but I also kept coming across those pictures of a cross-section of land, how old each bit is and where each era sits and so I also wanted some of the story to be about what is beneath the ground. I started to think about all the layers of the ground underneath us and what is in them and what we are built on.
'The play took on quite a mythological feeling too as I explored all of this history being uncovered as the digging and the fracking takes place.'
Pentabus Rural Theatre Company commissions new plays about the contemporary rural world, and tours in places where the stories will have real resonance.
Directed by Jo Newman and starring Rosie Armstrong and Harry Long, This Land opens at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine on Wednesday, April 6 and goes to the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh on Thursday 7, Derry~Londonderry’s Waterside Theatre on Friday 8, before finishing its Northern Ireland tour at The MAC, Belfast, on Saturday 9. To book tickets visit www.pentabus.co.uk/thisland.