Spoon River is a dreamy, intimate production. It gives you the feeling that you are being led down a tangled fairytale path. You’re following Minerva, the village poetess. If you keep following her, you think, you’ll probably make it out of the woods – just don’t get too close to the ghostly figures looming on all sides.
Based on the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River is a radio play introducing you to the dead inhabitants of the town. They make their complaints about their life and each other, and the show is accompanied by a physical journal of art, with one piece for each character. As one finishes their story, you turn the page, become familiar with the next. It was a delight to spend a little time with each in turn. I particularly loved Abi Watkinson as the glamorous Aner Clute, and the luring, whispery tones of Cora Bullivant as Trainor the Druggist.
The stories of these characters at times intersect – we hear from Aner Clute’s former lover, Lucius Atherton, for example – but what really holds the play together is the careful sound design, a scattering of noises that make us feel at home with the characters along with a series of beautiful melodic interludes by Michael Freeman. The fizz of Lucius’s lighter, the bell above Trainor’s shop door, the motif of a bird taking flight – all give the world of Spoon River imaginative depth. But our introduction to this world comes from Freeman’s folky music, intricate repeating guitar and a voice that sits just outside the narrative, who sings of being asked to take Minerva’s poems to a printer, and whose own story we never quite track down. Immediately the tone is set for Spoon River’s drifting stories, its out-of-time characters.
Having the journal of art grounded the experience. It kept your eyes away from screens but still had all the detail of a stage set. I found my eyes moving over each page, hunting down details, so that as an audience member I was able to shape my experience of the piece in a way that is difficult in Zoom theatre, where your gaze is usually carefully controlled. Resonances between image and sound would emerge in a pattern that would be slightly different for each audience member, but for each of us, the act of turning the page, of enacting a scene change, would straight away give us information about the new character introducing themselves to us. The choice to have multiple artists working in different mediums reinforced the vibrant and often conflicting personalities presented to us, stylistic differences between artists held together by a treacly darkness of tone throughout.
There was something not quite catchable about Spoon River: I delighted in its strange characters, but felt they were just barely held together by the frame narrative of Minerva, the village poetess collecting epitaphs. I’d love to hear a longer version of the play with more of a narrative spine, something these characters could come bursting out of. For now, the kindly optometrist who closes the play provides a satisfying opening out, testing Minerva’s eyes till she can see angels, light, open space, her own tiny village.
When the play is done, it’s the journal you are left with. Like its own kind of collective gravestone, it sits on my sofa. I like to look through it, to try and remember the words or the music, the slipping, vanishing village of Spoon River.