How does one portray the inconceivable on stage? Surely, the only comparison one could draw to describe the feelings of those convicts who were transported to Australia in the late 18th century, never to see England again, is that of a possible expedition to Mars today. A voyage into the unknown with no return ticket.
And yet this huge concept is what ‘The Transports’, this new production at Cecil Sharp House, bravely engages with and explores. Set in London’s home of folk music and brimming with talent with music from the marvellous Faustus, Nancy Kerr, the Young ‘uns and members of Bellowhead, this show is an imaginative and bold retelling of the legendary folk ballads of Peter Bellamy’s original 1977 production. Narrated by the loudly brash Matthew Crampton, the evening follows the true story of two convicts from Norwich jail, Henry and Susanne, who went on to become the founding fathers of Botany Bay’s European settlement. From tender love songs to bawdy ballads and rousing sea shanties, the versatile skills of the various musicians were employed to bring this age-old story of migration, danger and hope to life.
The relevance of this epic story, of lives sacrificed on the way to a completely new world, was not lost on the audience or the cast. Indeed, the second half of the evening opened with a narration of two Syrian brothers attempting to swim across the Bosphorus into Europe in 2015. Many other stories of contemporary migrant strife were told, even leading to a modern folk song describing the migrant experience — proving folk music is still a vital and versatile medium for interpreting current events. The night was twinned the project ‘Parallel Lines’, charting those who once left towns around Britain with those now arriving, thus linking together these migrants into a global community of people that spans time. (This can also just about forgive the almost insultingly brief mention of the aborigine people whose land was stolen by those transported. Even though the night was not about their story, one couldn’t help but think they deserved a bigger mention.) After the final notes had died away in the glorious hall of Cecil Sharp House, the audience was left with the profound feeling that this 200 year old story was still disturbingly relevant to today’s headlines.