David Rudkin John Coleby - Essay

John Coleby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.