When it comes to drama, Britain’s country-dwellers are used to being on the wrong end of the joke. With the sedate exception of the Archers, the star rural folk of recent years have been the snout-nosed “locals” of Royston Vasey – and characters such as Little Britain’s Maggie Blackamoor, an elderly village fête judge with a habit of projectile-vomiting over the offerings made by black or Asian entrants.
But Maggie is not simply the Gothic imagining of television scriptwriters who have never ventured beyond Hounslow. Trevor Phillips’s widely reported comments in 2004, that a “passive apartheid” had grown up in Britain’s countryside, spurred Pentabus Theatre and BBC Radio Drama to take nine writers from different ethnic backgrounds – from Caribbean to traditional traveller – to spend a week in the “whitest” part of Britain: rural Shropshire. The result is White Open Spaces, a series of seven monologues, currently in performance at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Pentabus’s experiment could have resulted in humourless moral grandstanding. But the writers, many of whom had never visited the English countryside before, were surprised by their discoveries. “The local people reminded me of West Indians. I felt like I was back in the Caribbean,” says the film-maker and playwright Kara Miller, who grew up in Jamaica and Barbados before studying law at Oxford. “In the shops and pubs, I did feel some tension – or curiosity – but it was very much a sense of ‘I may disapprove of you, but it’s nothing personal’.” Habib Nasib Nader, a black actor who performs two of the monologues, agrees. “It was my first time in the countryside – I’m a south London boy,” he admits. “But rather than having a prejudice, people were simply very interested.”
It is this sense of mutual curiosity – sometimes benign, sometimes hostile – that connects the characters of White Open Spaces, from a lonely Second World War veteran to an Asian wide boy on holiday. The play is fascinated by the ways in which accent, language and appearance mark us out as locals or outsiders – and how easily these markers can lead us to the wrong conclusions. In “The Management Reserve the Right”, by Richard Rai O’Neill, Nader plays a rural chain-pub manager perfectly, down to the last detail – polyester slacks, gold tiepin, offers of “carvery luncheon” and “ice and lemon with that” – except that he is black. O’Neill suggests it is rarely easy to determine who belongs where.
To its credit, White Open Spaces reminds us that Phillips’s “apartheid” soundbite was only half of a quotation; he also acknowledged that ethnic minorities may have an “exaggerated fear of rural hostility”. In the funniest of the monologues, Sonali Bhattacharyya’s “Two Men in the Fog”, Saraj Chaudhry plays a neurotic Asian Londoner encountering a shotgun-toting farmer in a foggy field. He freezes, terrified, “trying not to cry” – only for the farmer to guide him home, dourly comforting him over his recent break-up with his wife. “It’s not really about race; it’s about relationships and how our misperceptions of each other can be broken down,” observes Chaudhry. But White Open Spaces is tough-minded rather than saccharine in its insistence that we are all afraid, usually needlessly, of the unfamiliar.
Ed Collier, associate producer at Pentabus, tells the story of an elderly man who stood grumbling outside the Edinburgh theatre. “‘I don’t want to see some liberal nonsense,’ he said. But he came out smiling – he was completely won over.” It proves, Miller agrees, that prejudice is based on incomprehension. “There are no monsters in 3-D,” she says.
“White Open Spaces” is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh EH8, to 27 August. For more details visit www.edfringe.com