David Rudkin's Ashes … is a complex, confused play which it's difficult to deal with in a brief review and which one suspects the author didn't entirely sort out himself. For most of its length, it's concerned with charting the progress of an intelligent couple's attempts to overcome sterility; and a harrowing story it is, of endless, degrading sperm counts, ovary tests, detailed charts of their sex-life over a period of six months, and even demonstrations by condescending specialists of more efficient positions, illustrated by horrendous plastic models.
With a fruit-machine clunking and whirring on the sound-track, they keep trying; she conceives, to a sarcastic Veni Creator Spiritus, miscarries (they were twins, cruelly) and has a hysterectomy as well; and finally they can't even adopt. But at this stage Colin, the husband, has to go home to Belfast for the funeral of his uncle, blown to pieces in the street, and in a long and graphic speech makes the connection with the sterility of Ireland's will to stop her own blood-letting. The trouble is that practically anything, including pollution and the energy crisis, can be, and is, put in terms of this one metaphor….
Much of the intended poetic writing doesn't come off, but at its best it achieves a marvellous loamy richness and prodigality, typically Irish….
Anthony Masters, "Theatre in the Community," (© copyright Anthony Masters 1974; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 21, No. 6, March, 1974, p. 47.
Why is David Rudkin's Ashes … a sad, but not a tragic, play? What dimension does it lack? The brief reply, a kind of energy, begs more questions than it tentatively attempts to answer, for Rudkin's play bears all the signs of honest effort, which is energy of a kind. Its theme is as fundamental as that of Lorca's Yerma, which it resembles: childlessness, but seen from the angle of a couple, not just from a wife's….
There is so much to respect about Ashes (not least, Rudkin's ambitiousness) that it goes against the grain to record that … [it] is a dreary, self-absorbed play. Rudkin has given himself a situation which he has not managed to develop into a story. From the tone of the opening scenes, we know that Anne and Colin will not have a child. Even when the urine tests prove positive (to the strains of triumphant music), an ominous piano rumble from the Erle King indicates that Death is not far behind. On one level, therefore, the situation cannot develop: it can only go from bad to worse. And so the final scenes of the play, and particularly Colin's long monologue about Ulster, are anticlimactic, leaving the feeling of one damn thing after another….
[The] true failure of Ashes … is the lack of imaginative vitality. Rudkin knows what he wants to say, but he cannot find the dramatic means to do so.
John Elsom, "Ashes to Ashes," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), Vol. 93, No. 2411, June 19, 1975, p. 817.
Penda's Fen is a major television play, Expressionist in technique, making full use of the tricks available to the medium. It demonstrates how to compress and concentrate within the compass of the small screen the themes and images more fitted to larger locations. The awakening to manhood of the youth Stephen Franklin in the context of the ancient terrors presided over by Penda, the last pagan king in England, accompanied by Elgar's Dream of Gerontius … is treated imaginatively and sensitively; it is located firmly in the Malvern countryside and in the ways of its inhabitants…. The author occasionally gives the characters thoughts which do not arise from the context or would not be naturally reflected in the faces we are watching. Our attention shifts to what is being said, at the expense of the scene. A fast-moving narrative can be helped along in this way without breaking audience attention, but where ideas are being explored and worked out in terms of a static or slowly developing situation, it is a mixed blessing. Better, in drama, a 'voice under' supplied by the audience as the dramatist leaves them no choice.
John Coleby, "Plays in Print: 'Penda's Fen'," in Drama, No. 120, Spring, 1976, p. 81.
[Ashes] is astonishing—it affirms life without lying. The story is simple and ordinary, but touches on every major private and public concern; it is wonderfully written and structured with meticulous care, but its artfulness is never ornamental or self-serving….
This is really Colin's play, about his fight against death. He loses his heritage and his inheritor; he no longer can place his hope for meaning either in past or future; the present is all that exists. [He] sums up his severance from the past by wryly transmuting a basic taunt: "Phoenix yerself!" That is: Rise up out of your own strength, be born of nothing. Of course the phoenix is the bird resurrected from ashes, but it has other senses, all appropriate: "Phoenix" means the blood-red one, according to Graves, "a title given to the moon as goddess of death-in-life," and Phoenix was the name of Achilles' tutor, blind and cursed with childlessness. Ashes's grim themes of sterility, death, burning, futile knowledge, all are held paradoxically in a symbol which as a whole means resurrection….
The language [is] at once strong and nuanced…. Much of the dialogue is natural, funny, and biting but understated, not evading emotion but choosing to be, well, British. Colin (who has been a writer) also uses a meditative tone, verging on the ironically intentional literary, to discuss the failure of his future and his rejection by the past ("the clan, from whose loins I come, had turned me out; to my own loins no child of tomorrow shall come: and I felt so—severed."). Anne, always more direct, narrates rather than meditates. No earth-mother cliché, she addresses her fetus, "Blood-beast. Take over the graveyard in your own good time and your own right. If you see our values have failed us, cack on our graves."
Erika Munk, "Resurrection from the Ashes," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), Vol. XXI, No. 1, January 3, 1977, p. 63.