The healing power of the natural world is sharply in focus at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake right now. While Liz Richardson’s emotive monologue Swim, about recovering from grief in open water, plays in the studio theatre, the main house is staging an evocative new production of Kes, and how a relationship with a kestrel helps transform the life of an angry, abused teenager. Or at least, we hope it will. Kes is truly a modern classic, and no less relevant now than when Ken Loach’s film of Barry Hines’ novel A kestrel for a knave hit the big screens back in 1970. Maybe even more so, as the experience of isolation is added to the injustices of a polarised world where opportunity is not for all. All that’s missing today is the coal-mine.
Adapted here for the stage by Robert Alan Evans and directed by Atri Banerjee in a co-production with the Bolton Octagon Theatre, it’s a mesmerising and powerful story that retains the power and the occasional transcending joy of both the film and the book, while adding a new and vivid dimension as only great theatre can.
Like Swim this is minimalist theatre, three actors this time, but a stark, simple stage set used to great effect, and perhaps most strikingly – and hauntingly – by the singer, Nishla Smith, whose exquisite voice is both occasional observer and commentator. Jake Dunn plays the angry, bullied, taunted Billy, who is full of both fear and wonder as the kestrel starts to show him another view entirely of what life might be. The future then, for kids in his class, was a life working down the pit, relieved by a trip to the bookies. Billy, though, has a book, and it’s teaching him how to train a hawk. We never see the kestrel. He’s there in our consciousness, in Billy’s cupped hands, and in Billy’s outstretched arms as the boy, like his bird, tries to rise above the brutality of life. And it is brutal, in the loveless home with an uncaring mother and a thuggish brother, and particularly at school. “I’m all that stands between you and a pit so black you’ll never find a way out,” threatens the teacher, in a school where the Youth Unemployment Officer will be seeing each and every one of the final year students.
The teacher…all the teachers in their extreme manifestations, the bullying head, the kind English teacher, the ludicrously macho PE man… are played by Harry E gan offering us a theatrical masterclass in role-play. Yes, he’s also brother Jud, and even Billy’s mother. In one scene he struts among the audience, taunting in a way that only those of a certain age will remember from their own schooldays. In another, stripping to his underpants in a parody of a PE teacher and booming that “muscle is power” there’s initial comedic light relief, and then the dawning realisation that no one is impressed.
Ultimately there’s no clarity of redemption or salvation. We’re left hoping that Billy, in his grief for the murdered bird, will have enough strength to rise above the bleakness, to follow the path of which he’d had a glimpse through his caring for Kes. We know he has potential, we know that where there’s life, there’s hope.
Kes plays at Theatre by the Lake until April 30.