How the play began

Lilies on the Land – How the play began

In 2001 the Lions part decided to stage Christopher Fry’s play, A Sleep of Prisoners, which explores the troubled minds of four soldiers held prisoners of war. As a companion piece, we wanted to stage a sister play: a play that gave a voice to the wartime experiences of women. The subject of the Women’s Land Army had come up after reading poems by Land Girls (mostly unknown) in an obscure book of war poems. We later found many of them came from The Land Girl, a contemporary journal published in the 1940s and written and read by the women themselves. We began to realise that we knew little about the extraordinary role the Women’s Land Army played in World War 2: certainly a Forgotten Army.

The Lions part company members are experienced in devising theatre and we were keen to develop a new play. We decided to go (as no doubt most of the Land Girls would say), to the horse’s mouth. We wrote an open letter to Saga Magazine asking ex-Women’s Land Army members if they might consider sending us any material relating to their experience in the Land Army, that might help us to create a play.

We expected only a small number of replies, but the response was staggering. Some 150 or more letters flowed in from women from all walks of life: memories and recollections, anecdotes, poems, photos, newspaper cuttings and wartime memorabilia. It took over three days to go through all the letters: we read out loud what we could to each other. What resonated most was the breadth of the human experience and the depth of each individual woman’s feelings. Most movingly, memories that were highly personal to each writer also seemed to be part of one collective voice, one extraordinary shared experience, full of strength, courage and love. This in essence, ‘straight from the ‘horse’s mouth’, became the heart of Lilies on the Land.

The rehearsal room filled up with pieces of paper and pictures: charts and diagrams, cut-and-pasted lists of full-length recollections, anecdotes, poems, sayings, songs. The floor, table and chairs were covered. Slowly key elements of content began to emerge and take form. We were swiftly learning the farming year. It was essential to grasp the exacting labour demanded of the women, physically and mentally. Certain elements became key – signing up, weather, particular farming skills, animals, dances, soldiers, those left at home, POWs, food, love – and death.

We arranged to meet many of the women who had written to us; we heard yet more stories, told with wonderful animation and vivacity. And some of these women became the chief inspiration of the four principal characters created by the four actors in the company.

Once we had a script to rehearse with, a distinct playing style began to emerge. The play unfolded ‘out front’ to the audience and the narrative was carried along by the shared enactment of each event as it happened: in that moment in the past. Faith in living history, as well as the spirit and dynamism of the people to whom the events actually occurred, lifted the page onto the stage with vigour. The playing could be fresh, open and immediate, the flow of the play driven by each character and their immediate circumstances. One quality stood out: each Land Girl sustains her own unique and independent journey even as events and experiences are communally recalled and shared.

With Arts Council support, Lilies on the Land toured outer London churches in 2001 and in 2003 the Lions part took to the road nationally and played to 97% audience capacity, among whom were many ex-Land Girls and their families.

Through careful amendment and re-working, the play has evolved and grown, but sustains its original form and content. It is most exciting to see Lilies in the West End: a living testament to a generation of truly remarkable women.