October 8, 2008

Macabre Tale of Farmer Who Killed 49 Donkeys

By Simon Parker

I HAVE just spent a surreal sixty minutes in the company of Cornish writer Carl Grose - or, to be more precise, with the product of his wonderfully inventive imagination.

A veteran of countless Kneehigh Theatre productions and a founder of o-region, Carl is probably best known as a gifted and versatile actor, whose performances over the years have delighted audiences in Cornwall, London and theatres around the world.

He is also one of Cornwall's most talented and consistently original writers, whose work for stage, screen and radio continues to bash at the boundaries of what was previously thought possible.

His latest play, 49 Donkeys Hanged, which receives its premiere on BBC Radio 3 on November 1, is no exception. The story of a Cornish farmer stringing up donkeys from trees on his land at Ventongimps might at first appear not only to be a dark and disturbing subject, but unlikely fodder for mainstream Radio 3 audiences. However, Carl's skill at narrative and character, not to mention an eye for the macabre, ensure that anyone listening on November 1 will be hooked for the full hour - and that's a guarantee.

Carl first had the idea for this story while touring South Africa with Kneehigh a decade ago. But it wasn't until a series of coincidences - almost as strange as the resulting play - came about that it began to take shape.

The play stars Cornish farmer and actor Charles Barnecut as Stanley Bray, Amanda Lawrence as his wheelchair-bound wife Joy, Sibusiso Mamba as donkey-killer Solomon Singo, John Canford as garageman Randy Tregersick, Helen Longworth as slaughterhouse owner Sally Tregersick, and - without giving away too much of the plot - Carl Grose as himself. It is produced by Claire Grove, who has worked with a number of Cornish writers in recent years.

The story opens with Carl explaining his reasons for writing the piece; he says he spotted an intriguing newspaper headline (49 Donkeys Hanged) while travelling through Johannesburg on a speeding bus - and the image stayed with him. He kept the newspaper cutting and then, quite by chance some years later, met a South African man in London who actually knew the donkey killer - Solomon Singo - and assured Carl he was "a really nice bloke".

This led Carl to ask a series of questions, in particular what makes someone kill so many donkeys in such a seemingly brutal fashion? A story of such strangeness is a gift to any writer - but it takes someone with a truly rare talent to turn the bare facts into something meaningful and genuinely entertaining. Listeners are introduced to farmer Stanley Bray, who is rounding up and killing donkeys on his bankrupt Cornish farm. Trapped inside their farmhouse, his wife Joy has spent 20 years waiting for her son to return. Along the way we meet Slaughterhouse Sally, who runs the abattoir, and real-life donkey killer Solomon Singo.

It might all sound too bizarre to be plausible, but the beauty of Carl Grose's choice of storytelling style means that by the end of the broadcast everything makes perfect sense - well, almost.

Tremendously inventive, perfectly constructed and convincingly told, 49 Donkeys Hanged is contemporary Cornish storytelling at its best.

49 Donkeys Hanged by Carl Grose is on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday November 1 at 9.30pm.

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