A STRANGE RESURRECTION, BETWEEN WARS
A red sun was setting beyond the trees as we gathered around a square, isolated house in the golden-hour splendour. Here the land rises above the river Deben, and with medieval man’s arrival artificially rose higher into grassy mounds. In the greatest of these barrows slept, for a thousand years, Raedwald the king: coffined in the long ship dragged up from the water and surrounded by treasure. From this quiet earth in the 1930s rose gold and jewels, a sword and helmet, intricate brooches and pins, platters and drinking-horns. This is Sutton Hoo, which was called “England’s Little Egypt”.
The story of its finding feels as domestic and workaday as the burial was extravagant and splendid. The house belonged to Mrs Edith Pretty, a Colonel’s widow, former suffragist and WW1 nurse with one small son born late in her life. Perhaps because her father had been interested in archeology, perhaps (so legend says) because one night she dreamed of Anglo-Saxon warriors rising from the mounds, in 1938 she recruited Basil Brown : a former farmworker and self-taught archaeologist from Ipswich museum ,. In 1939 the first ship rivet was found. The British museum moved in , and Brown was sidelined. By the end of 1939 the massive treasure was up; Mrs Pretty donated it to the British Museum, the largest ever private gift. As war approached, the trench was backfilled and the army used the site . Mrs Pretty was offered a CBE by Churchill, and refused. She died in 1942.
There is meat here for tremendous drama and personal interaction: the moment of discovery, the class-awkward relationship flowering between the rich lady and the meticulous, spiky Basil Brown, the long grief of widowhood assuaged by the marvel. There’s the sidelining of Brown by the London experts, and overarching it all the simple wonder of a king who slept in his treasure-ship thousand years below the Suffolk grass. To put on a play on the very site – as Stuff of Dreams has done – was always going to be special.
This is not quite a review, because it only had three nights’ run and is over, and also because, to be honest, what Karen Forbes has done feels like a work in progress: albeit one whose progress I would love to follow and see. The construction is odd: some things work very well, like the book-ending of it by Brown bringing flowers to her grave, and a rather marvellous dream sequence where Dawn Brindle as Queen Raedwald wanders in, pinches an apple, remarks that she never quite “got” Christianity, drops her brooch obligingly into the latest seed-tray or rubble which Basil is going to look in next, and vogues off bringing shivers to the spine with a folk ballad affirming, as the light fades, “He shall not dwell in darkness” .
Other aspects are sometimes frustrating. Forbes burdens her cast with overlong monologues, sometimes rhymed; when Kiara Hawker as Edith reads her late husband’s wartime letters it is useful in pinning down the period, the uneasy 30’s. and works well, but when he appears as a ghost in a monologue about the horse he took to war, the play grinds to a halt. Especially as we are by now interested in tantalizing details: as Ivan Wilkinson’s excellent, gruffly Suffolk Basil Brown explains how the soil changes as grains of bone or iron dilute it. We just long for a catharsis, for him to find something as he shakes out fragments in his seed-tray. Indeed the moments of first discoveries are almost prudishly ignored or underplayed: the great sword is simply mentioned in Brown’s presentation at the drinks party.
And so is the difficulty, which still rankles in Suffolk, of the local expert’s job being taken over by haughty Londoners. At one point Edith says how tactlessly she spoke to him, and how she regrets it, but we never see a moment of that, or know why, and remain a touch puzzled.
I wanted it to be better. But it may yet be. Wilkinson is good as Brown, and Hawker catches a mournful, determined, ladylike tone, suggesting depths in Edith it would be good to explore. And anyway it is a marvellous thing to have sat in the sunset on that hill above the river, thinking of Raedwald’s strange resurrection. I hope this is not its only outing as a theatre.