Present (from top, left to right along each row: Kevin McMonagle; Colin Ellwood; David Whitworth; Rob Pomfret; Michael Warburton; Simon Jaggers; Simon Usher; Julia Winwood; Emily Essery
Concluding our Summer Season supplemented by Summer Sustained (click button below this post for accounts of that) and also as a bridge to out Autumn programme, it was a rich delight on Friday 9th October to be reading and hearing Simon Jaggers’s new play Breaking Horses with the writer present. A Faulkner-esque drama set on an a hill ‘somewhere in England’, featuring down-at-heel horseman and blacksmith Bill Brogan facing the prospect of his land being undermined – literally - by fracking, and inundated (metaphorically) by the slow-lapping tides of consumerism and suburbia. Enter his estranged half-brother Alan as the fracker’s emissary and, more sympathetically, his niece, fifteen-year-old Alice along with her almost-boyfriend Jimmy. Alice is half in love with history, tradition and ritual and very much in love with Jimmy and with Fergus. Jimmy is seventeen, disapproved of by Alice’s father, starved of affection by his own father, and about to join the army. Fergus is Brogan’s ailing old horse, very much a proxy for Brogan himself. As the frackers loom, Brogan is gearing up to put Fergus out of his misery, shooting him in strict accord with the horseman’s lore that has long insulated him against modernity and which may now in itself be a kind of madness (Brogan sustains this ideology while actually subsisting on mars bars and coleslaw illicitly scavenged from the local SPAR). Overall, the play maps the inter-generational father-son passing on of law and tradition, the fundamentally ruthless and damaging ‘breaking’ and ‘branding’ this entails and the pain it causes, and how it can be done well or badly. And, interestingly, the play's central ’shift’seems to imply the passing of this function in the contemporary world onto the female line, as if the men are becoming mere superfluous husks as the women grow in authority, confidence and expediency. That is where, if anywhere, the hope of the play seems to lie, with the ‘sap’ somehow passing to the female line. Brogan is not good at winning friends and influencing people, and he soon makes an enemy of the naïve Jimmy. Perhaps all good plays fundamentally enact a battle of inner with outer, intimacy with obviousness, and here the inner ‘glass menagerie’ of the lore of the horse offers a way of being that is felt rather than priced. Very much against the tenor of the times, the play also stands up for (old male) bastards while acknowledging their likely faults and even possibly something darker than mere ‘faults’. In doing all this it rather gloriously embraces the boldness of melodrama without ever quite falling fully into that form's overheated embrace (a delicate balance that of course Tennessee Williams - and indeed Faulkner - at their best maintained also). Some long buried secrets are revealed while others– including Brogan’s possible track record of sexual transgressions – are left tellingly unresolved; dark plots are attempted and foiled. Just when you think the play is about to settle into a relatively safe genre haven of familiar tunes, it moves up a gear to a weirder and more wonderful place in which the significance of the title becomes clear, complete with the clanking of the devil’s horse-shoe-shod foot. Will Alice herself take on Brogan’s mantle for the next generation and be able to enforce all the creative/destructive ‘breaking’ it entails?
Might the play benefit from a more specific geographical/regional location? The play very much offers an imagined rather than a ‘literal’ world, but perhaps any knowledge of the actual England, and the different relations between the urban and rural environment that tend to prevail in each region, slightly undercuts a whole-hearted engagement with Jaggers’s vivid imaginative synthesis. Are we in a remote outpost, or in the garden of England? The plays epic tone, its focus on horses, together with the extreme patriarchy and the actual rural/urban relationship portrayed, even at times seem to suggests something from, say, the US Midwest. Maybe that is simply an eccentric response, but the telling influence of classic John Ford era movie ‘Westerns’ is nonetheless surely present in the play's potent, heady mix
In the reading itself the actors shared and swapped roles, each drawing on their own accent and origins, creating overall a vivid mosaic of English/Scottish voices, all somehow converging and integrating at very visceral levels of experience and expression . And a good chat afterward. A great afternoon