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'Rift' by Natalie McGrath

By The Running Muse, May 1 2015 05:42PM

And now, a race report: 'We ran from the top of the Heights to the park, without stopping - Catherine completely beaten in the race because she was barefoot. You'll have to look for her shoes in the bog tomorrow.'

No, this is not from the Sodbury Slog or a Tough Mudder - the two runners here are Cathy and Heathcliff, for whom 'running around the moors all day was one of their chief amusements' in Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights'. Her novel was written during the Romantic period, when many artists turned to nature and to the human emotional landscape in reaction to the soulless mechanics of the Industrial Revolution and the rationalisations of 19th century science.

Since then, moors have been associated in the imagination with solitude and freedom, their wild, often bleak weather an image for the passion that can lurk stifled within an everyday urban melancholy. Before this, walking the moors was merely a matter of getting from A to B, but now it became a choice for many with leisure time to commune with 'God's creation' or escape the overcrowded towns. For many poets especially, any remote wilderness was a workplace, a sublime source of inspiration.

Today, of course, the high moors are not only a haven for walkers, but a playground for runners going from A to B, whether in races or in training:

Doesn't look much like a moor, does it, but this is Exmoor, the opening setting for one of the few works of theatre to feature onstage running - 'Rift', a 2012 play by Natalie McGrath set both in Exmoor and in Kenya's Rift Valley.

The drama explores the connections and fault-lines between two runners thousands of miles apart: the connections are made through running and tragedy, the fault-lines through culture and personal history. Both runners are turning the same earth with their feet, while the differing landscapes, the one verdant and misty, the other stark and rumbling, inspire a poetic voice in each character.

The first half of the play sees Alice pick up a pair of trainers that belonged to a recently deceased boyfriend and go for her first ever run, while Nuru trains barefooted in pursuit of his Olympic dream. Their monologues become dialogue in the second part, set some years earlier, when Alice's work as a geologist has taken her to the Rift valley.

Alice had always resented her lover going out jogging so often. When he is run over by a car while doing so, she feels convinced he'd still be alive if she'd been out there running alongside him. Nuru, too, has had his fair share of loss and deprivation in tribal conflicts, but seismic shifts can be creative as well as destructive, and they are each running along paths that may or may not lead to a healing of their inner rifts. Eventually those paths cross.......

Natalie McGrath writes in the programme that she wanted to set up a counterpoint in the play between "a sense of motion and the meaning of what it means to be still", a theme that has engaged poets, scientists and philosophers since Zeno and Aristotle, not to mention sports psychologists today. The onstage running uses stylised, energetic, on-the-spot movements: they are both still and moving, like the head of a cheetah.

Alex Marker's Exmoor parkland set morphs into the bare trees and red rocks of the Rift Valley through lighting changes that see the sun burning away the mist, while the percussive rhythms of the runners' feet and their breathing is suggested by a score that connects a jazzy clarinet to African drums.

In an 2008 Observer magazine article about the traumatic experiences of Kenya's elite runners during the ethnic violence that year, Jean-Christophe Collin hailed the Rift valley as the birthplace of running: "It was along this immense gouge in the rock that men first stood upright and began to walk. And to run."

McGrath alludes to this broader context - as he runs, Nuru feels the valley's tremors, earth pangs that echo his own and recall the tectonic upheavals that had separated the homelands of these characters many millions of years before. This is running as connection or separation, as an escape from trauma or a striving towards healing, all the while looking forward but thinking back.

Some of the themes in this play are also addressed in 'Running the Rift', Naomi Benaron's harrowing but uplifting 2013 novel about Jean Patrick Nkuba, an Olympic hopeful in war-torn Rwanda who had been told as a boy that 'someday you will need to run as much as you need to breathe'.

And in 'Town of Runners', Jerry Rothwell's beautifully shot 2012 running documentary, most of the teenagers living a subsistence life around the small Ethiopian town of Bekoji get up before dawn - to run and train!.....

Can't see that happening today on Exmoor...........mind you, one teenager, John Ridd, had to run for his life all night there, albeit in a novel, R.D. Blackmore's 'Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor', where Ridd describes how 'the nimbleness given thereon to my heels was in front of meditation'.

Nuru and Jean Patrick have had many real life counterparts running the Rift while dreaming of Olympic gold, some of whom fell victim to the tribal conflicts, but here's Brit athlete Mo Farah running in 2010 in the Great Rift Valley, not too far from where he was born:

"I can be still for you", Nuru says to Alice. In his poems and drama,

T. S. Eliot wrote repeatedly of a 'still point', not only of the turning world or the wheel of life, but in time itself. Runners, too, speak of their time on the road as a space for reflection, and this play gives a sense of that inner pause moving along.......along a road less run, perhaps, or along an ancient way, moving and rumbling.

'Rift' was staged in 2012 at the Taunton Brewhouse as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the arts festival that runs in parallel with the Olympic Games and is the successor to the arts competitions of the modern Olympics, last held at the 1948 Games.

Natalie McGrath is a playwright based in England's West Country.

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