Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Blue Remembered Hills - Remembering the "land of lost content"

Dennis Potter's brilliant "Blue Remembered Hills" now on tour - this week at Richmond Theatre - reminded me of Michael Apted's extraordinary documentary series which began with "Seven Up". That series, you will recall, was designed to test the truth of the Jesuit maxim "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". The children in Potter's play are seven years old - but as they are played by adults you also get a sense of what they might become. Physically they are mature adults - but their language and behaviour is juvenile. Potter is essentially saying to his adult audience "Remember that within you the seven-year-old you once were still exists. You might have sublimated the fears and the confusion (etc.) you felt then but you are essentially still the person you were. The child was the father of the man."

Northern Stage's production of Potter's play is exceptional. The actors adopt the personas of the seven-year-olds with conviction. You know that if you could roll forward every seven years, as Michael Apted did, then a logical progression would ensue. The personalities that will characterise the lives of the children as they become adults and progress through the seven ages of man are firmly in place. That should make us pause for thought. Will the lives of the members of the group (there are seven of them) be forever affected by the dramatic event that happens to one of them at the end of the play? Or is that merely a rite of passage - a brush with the reality of the human experience that is brutally different from the childishness and the fantasies of play?

Housman's "A Shropshire Lad", from which the title of the play is taken, includes the line "That is the land of lost content... [which] cannot come again". Certainly if we define our progress through life by seven year gapped segments then the age of seven is the only one firmly in childhood. You are likely, God willing, to be an adult for a very long time. The children in "Blue Remembered Hills" would be aged adults in their late seventies now (it is set during the Second World War). Would they see the days when they were seven as contented times - the only time in their lives when they were gloriously free? And is there a metaphor working here which suggests, as Housman's poem does, that the only "happy highways" were the ones that once we walked a long time ago? Those were the days before (as Wordsworth put it) the "world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers..." . The idyll of childhood is brief and can be occasionally harsh - as it is ultimately in "Blue Remembered Hills". Round the corner is the unknown territory of adulthood when getting and spending and living and dying our lives unfold. Is childhood only a rehearsal for this?