When human remains were found in Durham, archaeologists from Durham University discovered that they belonged to the long lost ‘Scottish Soldiers’ – prisoners of war from the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.
Developed in partnership with Durham University alongside their Bodies Of Evidence exhibition (which runs until 7th October) Woven Bones is a new play from Cap-a-Pie theatre company, which brings to life the untold stories of these soldiers, offering a unique chance to walk in their shoes as it follows the route that these men marched, from Dunbar to Durham.
Walking into the the performance area of the Alphabetti Theatre, it was hard to know what to expect from Woven Bones. Charming in its own slightly ramshackle way (with jumbled bookshelves lining the plywood-looking, pop-up style walls) Alphabetti Theatre instantly gives off an impression of haphazard nonchalance, and a small, square stage, adorned with only three chairs and a scattering of props (no fancy velvet curtain) didn’t quite seem to measure up to the emotional and historical magnitude I’d expected from the story. But the performance delivered in the most surprising, exciting and powerful way.
The cast of Woven Bones consists only of three (immensely talented) actors, who took to the stage together at the beginning of the performance and remained onstage until the end. Embodying the only fixed role in the play, Greig Adam brought young soldier Joe to life with heart-wrenching effect, while Gemma Stroyan and Paula Penman shared out every other part between them – diving from modern-day archeologists to 17th century mothers, grandmothers and soldiers with admirable deftness. A play of this nature really hangs on the quality of its actors, and the performances from Greig, Gemma and Paula completely entranced, enthralled and enveloped their audience in the emotion of this once-forgotten story.
Woven Bones follows a dual narrative throughout: that of the archeologists at Durham University as they uncover, analyse and identify the remains (though not necessarily in that order) and that of Joe – a 17-year-old boy from a small rural town in Scotland, who was just one of the thousands called up to join the forces marching against Cromwell and the English at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Language entwines these two narratives (an artful testament to the ingenuity and shrewdness of playwright Laura Lindow) with certain words of dialogue overlapping between past and present in a brilliant, subtle yet effective reminder that it has been the work of archeologists, and of the play itself, that has given back a voice to these forgotten men.
Visually, the stage was stark. Without backdrop or any set design, there were few props used (just a football and three walking sticks, alongside the chairs that never left the set) and a smart choice of costume meant that the actors could believably hop from soldier to archeologist with ease. Sound and lighting effects were used sparingly but to great effect, and often silence was the most powerful tool to strengthen the poignancy of the action onstage.
Woven Bones was a comprehensive reimagining of the story of those Scottish soldiers who were marched to, and then imprisoned in, Durham. Three-dimensional in every sense, the play made the audience laugh, cry, hope and hurt for these men and their families, in an artistic mirroring of the fleshing out (both literally and figuratively) that archeologists have been able to achieve on the remains they have found.
While I expected a play that was heavy, both in its content and its handling, I came away fully invested in the stories of these forgotten men – hurt for their loss and disgusted at their treatment while, at the same time, grateful for their eventual discovery and inspired to learn more about them.
Woven Bones will continue to tour the North East until 7th July.
3rd July – The Customs House, South Shields
5th July – Arts Centre Washington
6th–7th July – The Gala Theatre, Durham
To buy tickets, visit: www.cap-a-pie.co.uk