Of the Hoard: Rediscovered plays that I’ve seen, Inscribed may be the boldest, and most contrarian.
The monologue from the wonderful Lemn Sissay MBE follows Mary Stone (Bryony Pritchard). She has lived her whole life close to the buried hoard – spending hours in the field above the treasure. She’s been chased through the field and out of it, and even had her first, torrid sexual experience there. All the while oblivious to the riches underneath.
While many of the Hoard: Rediscovered plays are focused on the unearthing of the Anglo-Saxon artefacts that inspired this series, Inscribed is far more concerned with the act of burial – of concealing things below the surface. It connects to Mary concealing parts of her own history, and how people in general are forced to bury things about themselves to avoid rumour and prejudice. This results in a painful response to the hoard. Mary is a wounded character, and Pritchard allows the scars a visibility and vulnerability in her performance.
Since this monologue is written by Sissay, it’s unsurprising that it contains a sense of lyricism throughout. Repetitions dance through Mary’s speech, turning her idioms into quasi-mantras that help to emphasise her world-weariness, and the resentment that is rooted in pain. This builds to the ending, where Mary falls into poignant recitals of the inscription on one of the artefacts, a passage from the bible used to banish demons: ‘Rise up, o Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee be driven from thy face.’
This piece is supposedly set inside a museum where the hoard is on display, but this is not necessarily clear. The set design (Mika Handley) is designed to be as café, that could be in a museum but could, equally, be elsewhere. There is nothing in the text or performance to suggest that the treasures of the hoard are so tantalisingly close, teasing Mary with their promises of wealth and escape. Maybe there was an opportunity here for director Gemma Fairlie to make this proximity clearer, although admittedly that is challenging with the creative restrictions from Covid.
There’s a strong feminine energy coursing through Inscribed, that resists the glitz of the golden hoard and points out that none of the discoveries are related to women, and nearly all of them are martial in some form. It’s a fascinating choice to focus on this negative interpretation of the hoard and contrast it to the sexual oppression and limitation that Mary has faced. It leads to natural questions on what has and hasn’t changed in the 1,400 years between the hoard’s burial and rediscovery. What do we value and celebrate, what do we condemn?
Inscribed is a thoughtful response to a subject that categorically belongs in the 21st century even whilst gazing into the past. Gorgeous writing from Sissay allows a delicate and layered performance from Pritchard. This is an important and worthwhile counterbalance to some of the more sentimental monologues in the series.
Inscribed is streaming online until December 1st, for tickets and more information see the New Vic Theatre’s website.