Terra Firma is a true story. Well sort of.
In 1967, Paddy Roy Bates claimed Rough Towers (originally called Fort Roughs), a disused anti-aircraft sea fort in the North Sea, roughly 12 kilometers off the coast of Suffolk. Bates established The Principality of Sealand and declared himself the ruler of an independent sovereign state. While never officially recognized as a nation, Sealand has been described as the world’s smallest country, with its own constitution, flag, coat of arms, currency, and other national symbols.
It’s all rather Beckettian, which is kind of the point.
Barbara Hammond’s fictionalized version isn’t a far stretch from the real events. Set in a near future apocalyptic post-war microcosmic scape, the independent nation called Terra Firma consists of the royal family: Roy (Gerardo Rodrigues), his wife the Queen (Andrus Nichols), their son Prince Teddy (portrayed by Daniel Jose Molina), and Princess Rose (who’s lost at sea some time before the play begins). And there’s their sole citizen, Jones (John Keating), who’s also in charge of medicine, defense, culinary arts (that is just cod stew all day every day), amongst other things.
It all starts when Roy and Jones capture a lone fisherman (we later discover that his name is Hans, with Tom O’Keefe’s delightfully robust portrayal), and decide that this is a spy. Without anything better to do (or much at all in general), they interrogate Hans and take him hostage, despite the latter’s repeated assurance that he’s a mere fisherman without allegiance to any nation.
With all its surreal charge, the play’s structure is rather conventional, as everything takes place chronologically and is relatively in real time. What’s exciting about it is that we are periodically interrupted by sounds of explosions that seem to be drawing nearer, and it adds a layer of urgency to the situation. You live the play along with the occupants of Terra Firma, which Hans aptly describes as “a slab of concrete in a sea of chaos”. They have to grapple with circumstantial threats (apparent hostility from unknown origins, a general lack of resources, etc.), while maintaining a level of civility. This is reflected most on the characterization of the Queen, who presents herself with an affected, royal gesture, wears a tiara, and spends most of her waking hours polishing the nation’s constitution.
The design of the production is noteworthy. A hybrid of hyperrealism and expressionism, set designer Andrew Boyce creates a world that has a palpable texture and feels extremely present. The lighting design by Eric Southern is for the most part subtle but at appropriate moments brings the distant threat up close. I was even more impressed by Jane Shaw‘s sound design: from the barely audible sound of a beer bottle being dropped into the ocean; the soft purrs of a cat, to the deafening rumbling of a mine going off. Such attention to detail deserves a round of applause.
Of course, Terra Firma isn’t simply a speculative disaster play. The story, though inspired by history and set in an abstracted near future, is neatly parallel to our present society and I believe the playwright’s intention of making the narrative a metaphor is crystal clear. The most biting and poignant points are perhaps carried out through the conversations between the Queen and her son Teddy, who aptly represent the discrepancy in values between two generations of people who have to co-exist.
“Some day it will be yours,” says the Queen, who is first and foremost a mother. “Some day it will be under water,” urges Teddy. All I can hear is the youths around the world asking the adults to open their eyes to a drowning world. Such a vividly portrayed discrepancy makes the play readily relevant, as we witness the generation who lives in denial, as well as the one struggling with hopelessness, trying to get their parents to pay more attention to what’s being done in their names.
In all its hilarity and lightness, Terra Firma is a tragicomedy packed with complexity that asks a lot of difficult questions: what does it mean to be a nation? What’s an individual’s worth without allegiance to a common value? What are the things we must hold onto, or realize the value of in the direst situations? A loose piece of hedge becomes a garden for the residents of Terra Firma. Although, at times such complexity makes the play seem a little esoteric, it’s a worthy piece of theatrical endeavor that we need to chew on. The characters discover that the approaching threats ultimately come from no enemy at all, but the mines they have buried themselves a long time ago. And indeed we are sitting on this earth that is a ticking time bomb, as a result of negligence and denial. Perhaps that becomes the one burning question that matters: when the land beneath our feet begins to crumble, where will we go?