Unearthed is the centre piece of the Hoard: Rediscovered series from the New Vic Theatre. It is a 40-minute show telling the story of the Staffordshire Hoard — a chance discovery of Anglo-Saxon artefacts near Lichfield that changed our understanding of the time period. Thousands of gold and silver objects were unearthed, dating from the dark ages (possibly the 7th century).
Writer and director Theresa Heskins shows us this tale in the form of a verbatim play (made from the direct words of real people). We the audience take the place of Heskins as she hears from a wide range of real people connected to the event, all played by actors. There’s the man who made the initial discovery with his metal detector, various museum experts, locals who have unknowingly lived by the hoard their whole lives, and more. They combine to create a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the discovery and following excavation.
The result is that Unearthed is often more documentary like than theatrical. One character even hangs a lantern on this — a historian helpfully explains that an artist shouldn’t become bogged down by details. There are parts of the piece that feel sterile due to the mundane register of the people’s words, and some facts and information get lost due to the inarticulacy of real, natural speech.
However, Heskins does display real craft by overlapping the interviews to create conversations and conflicting viewpoints. This is very well executed throughout and Heskins deserves credit for blending the disparate elements into something more holistic.
This also adds a fun layer of detective work to the story as various figures try to establish the reason for the hoard’s initial burial. Was it a ritualistic? Possibly war spoils, or perhaps an attempt to stop an enemy army obtaining the valuable pieces? This is a mystery still being unravelled, especially since the hoard contains Christian iconography despite Mercia (the Anglo-Saxon kingdom where Staffordshire lies) being pagan at the believed time of burial.
Unearthed offers suggestions but does not deliver a definitive answer, which feels unsatisfying. It is an unfortunate circumstance of its documentary nature – there is only so much information available now, since the dating process and research still continues. The questions posed in the piece do not have answers yet.
This leaves Unearthed at risk of fizzling out as we get up to date with all the currently known information. However, Heskins does find an elegant way to end the show by pivoting away from the more academic story. Instead, we focus on three young students viewing the hoard in the museum, leading to a discussion on memory and the potential legacy of our own time. This could be trite, but due to its authenticity and earnestness it isn’t. Rather, it serves as a poignant place to leave the story.
This is an ambitious and unique project, and for that, it is likely to be more memorable than a simple drama. And the accompanying series of monologues also provide some of the narrative that this may be lacking. There are frustrating elements to Unearthed, but for the most part Heskins does a good job at compressing a story that spans 1,400 years into a comprehensible, one act-play.
Unearthed is streaming online until 1 December. For tickets and more information see New Vic Theatre online.