changing the world one park at a time

‘This one’s for Wayne’

Elephants roaming.
Bands of hunters, wandering the tundra.
Hunter-gatherers, using flint tools.
Just another Sunday night in Dorchester!
(In the Paeleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages.)

It was around then, gave or take and age or two, that emmet wheat farmers crossed from the continent, (not along with two stag parties and a hen night on a Stena Ferry), way before that. The time when warrior aristocrats built stone circles like the ones at Nine Stones and Winterbourne Abbas and henges like our home and venue for the week – the wonderful Maumbury Rings.

Long after the Rings were first erected the Romans came and named the town Durnovaria. (Not to be confused with ‘Dunrovia’, which is a retirement bungalow in Minehead.) It was the Legio II Augusta under the future Emperor Vespasian who followed their imperial sat nav’s and ended up here. They probably only stopped here because there was a conveniently constructed henge just waiting to have a mini Coliseum built on top of it – an amphitheatre that could hold up to ten thousand people. (Sadly the wooden structure was condemned by a mediaeval health and safety officer and no longer survives.)

Thankfully, what does still exist is the venue for our Dorchester Parklife Show – The Maumbury Rings. We are set up in the middle of this ancient earthwork – a place that some history books suggest was originally a fertility site due to it being shaped (to use an Oprah Winfrey euphemism) like a giant ‘vajayjay’.

Whatever the origin of this Neolithic Grand Design this place has a brutal and ugly history but at the same time a simple beauty and a profound air of ‘specialness’. You feel this place. And with that feeling comes a sense of awe and responsibility to find a way to echo and honour what has gone before here. Forgive this diversion from the fun of circus but the grim truth is that this place has a long history as an execution ground: the catholic priest who wouldn’t recant and was hung, drawn quartered and beheaded here; young Mary Channing, aged 19, who, in 1705, was strangled and burnt here having been found guilty of poisoning her husband. (Her execution delayed as the court accepted her ‘pleading her belly’. She finally faced her fate three weeks after giving birth to her child.). Battles have been fought here, heads impaled on stakes and many poor souls sent to the Caribbean as slaves by Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes.

Parklife is a fascinating and challenging experiment in site-specific circus. Not only do we find local groups and seek out local talent to bring them into the show – we use place, people, tales, folklore, environment etc to inform the show. Dorchester is teeming with stuff we could draw on, from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Thomas Hardy to name but two. Hardy took time out from writing novels, short stories and poems to watch an archaeological dig at the Maumbury Rings where he saw Roman soldiers’ bones unearthed – mostly found ‘lying on their sides in a shallow scoop of chalk, like a chicken in a shell, his knees drawn up to his chest’. When Hardy went on to describe how the residents of Casterbridge (his fictionalised Dorchester) viewed these ancient remains, he said, ‘Imaginative residents who would have felt an unpleasantness at the discovery of a comparatively modern skeleton in their gardens, were quite unmoved by these hoary shapes. They had lived so long ago, their time was so unlike the present, their hopes and motives were so widely removed from ours, that between them and the living there seemed to stretch a gulf too wide for even a spirit to pass.’

One day, each of us here with No Fit State, will find ourselves in our own scoop in the chalk – knees drawn up to our chest. And perhaps, in 2000 years time, the new Thomas Hardy will watch our bones being excavated and feel the same thing as he did – that between us there is a gulf too wide for even a spirit to pass.
In writing spoken text to find its way into the show, all of the above and more needed to be honoured.

Here are some of the lines spoken in this ancient place:
In this place… feel the breath of time… moving / Feel ‘The Gods of The Underworld’, watching. / Within these earthen walls… Kisses have been stolen here. / Tears have fallen. / One tribe. / Another tribe. / Blood spilled. /
Life taken. / Deep beneath this execution ground… These actions… these choices, weighed in the balance. / Deep beneath this sacred place… Echoes of long ago… Released.

My own Sunday night show in Dorchester was affected by personal sadness: a friend of my daughter, a lovely young man in his early twenties, was killed by a drunk driver. As our show was about to begin I stood on top of the earthen banks, looking out over the huge crowd and knew how much he would have loved what we were doing here, and understood what our hopes and our motives are. I suddenly felt this was the perfect place to speak to the dead, that the gulf between us was not too wide for even a spirit to pass. I spoke five simple words aloud, ‘This one’s for you Wayne’. And the show was worthy of him.

Peter Cox. Writer In Residence. Parklife Dorchester. September 2010.

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