Theatre goes wild in the country

Wolf's Child Ö WildWorks' show for the Norfolk & Norwich festival.

Originally written for the Guardian.

Across the South Downs, on Brighton beach and deep in the woods in Norfolk, theatre-makers are redefining the relationship between art and nature this spring and summer. For a number of outdoor shows and installations that are exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the unpredictable, the environment is far more than just a backdrop. The recent rise of site-specific performance means that the “where” is becoming almost as important as the “what”.

In the promenade performance Nightingale Walk, audiences will venture across the South Downs late at night in search of the elusive song of the nightingale – “the romantic heartbeat of England”, according to the musician and artist Sam Lee. During the performance, Lee and his musicians play songs that both speak to and celebrate the bird. “We’re not trying to disturb or interfere,” he says of the piece, which is about respecting as much as exploring the surroundings. Audiences might return without actually hearing any nightingales, but Lee suggests that “the sense of the unknown is what makes it so exquisite”.

Birds are also the inspiration for And Now’s Brighton beach installation, Fleeting. Using fire and sound, the artist Mandy Dike hopes to create something that is “in feeling with the landscape”, evoking the starlings that flock around the collapsing West Pier. The installation is also concerned with the place of humans within the landscape. “The pier is a standing symbol of impermanence and change,” Dike says. “It’s not a natural feature, it wasn’t there 200 years ago; it’s something that has been built by man and has gone through an evolution and is now dissolving back into the water.”

Both Nightingale Walk and Fleeting are part of the Brighton festival, which starts on 2 May and offers a range of genre-defying work. Guest director Ali Smith is inviting visitors to “imagine the world seen from the eye of a bird. Migrating birds are born naturally equipped with maps that even newborn birds know how to follow. Imagine maps of landscapes with no border, and birds with nothing but the urge to flock together.”

Other performances at the festival delve further into the wild. The forest has frequently been imagined by artists as a place of transformation – consider the woodland escapes of plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Burn the Curtain’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves immerses audiences in “an edgeland where you feel surrounded by danger all the time”. The performance will transform Stanmer Park into a fairytale landscape of beasts and hunters.

The director Joe Hancock explains that the company wanted to create “a very visceral experience of the outdoors”, something they have achieved by getting audiences on their feet in groups of runners and walkers. Hancock hopes to give theatregoers, as physically active participants, a different point of access to the story. “Antonin Artaud talks about creating a theatre that isn’t a theatre of the intellect, but where instinct is as important as intellect,” he says. “Promenade [theatre] does that very well.”

In The Lone Pine Club, Pentabus theatre company’s new children’s show adapted by Alice Birch from the series of books by Malcolm Saville, young protagonists roam across the landscape with a freedom that few British children now enjoy. The show will tour five National Trust properties this summer, starting at Carding Mill Valley in Church Stretton, Shropshire, in July. Director Elizabeth Freestone describes the original books as “proper Bond-style adventure stories in the countryside”, and hopes the show will rekindle children’s relationship “with being feral and being wild”. In her books Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit likens the human mind to a landscape: thought is a kind of wandering, and musing takes place in “meadowlands of the imagination”. Likewise, for Freestone, “there’s a really direct link between being outside and imagining stuff”.

For WildWorks’ new show, Wolf’s Child, which is part of this month’s Norfolk & Norwich festival, the company’s artistic director, Bill Mitchell, started with a question: “Is it possible to get an audience to look through the eyes of an animal?” Drawing on myth, fairytale and folklore, the show takes audiences into the woods around Felbrigg Hall, exploring a natural landscape that we so often ignore or abuse. “We’re losing our connection with the wild,” Mitchell says. Felbrigg Hall is one of those dreamlike places. Sun-dappled clearings narrow into tree-crowded paths; overhead, branches twist and curl in fantastical formations. In one part of the woods, cedar trees rise up like columns, creating a backdrop more evocative than many a stage set. “We’re trying to honour the space,” he continues. “There’s a phrase: ‘What do you get for free?’ Actually, here you get a hell of a lot that is just given to you.”

Reflecting on the impact of outdoor performances and installations on these landscapes, Dike says: “You leave an energy there, but you’re not leaving big structures or marks or scars.” All of these artworks are about working with what is already there. As Mitchell puts it: “There’s a big difference between doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park and actually using the landscape, trying to understand the landscape, and letting the landscape shape the story.”

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The Contents of a House, Preston Manor

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of Peter Reder’s latest guided tour is deliberately misleading. It suggests a series of objects, an inventory, a forensic dissection of Preston Manor through the stuff it has accumulated – art as archaeology. But rather than offering the act of excavation that so appeals to an audience, Reder denies our investigative urges at every turn. Despite appearances, this is no perfectly preserved historical document; it’s an exhibition gallery, manipulated at the mercy of its curators. The building is, as Reder puts it, a “giant dolls’ house”, as much a canvas for the imagination as the delicate structures that house our childhood dreams.

Both imagination and curation are key to what Reder has carefully choreographed through the rooms of this fairly ordinary historical home. Preston Manor is, as Reder himself admits, nothing particularly special. The former home of the Stanfords, a not especially important branch of the landed gentry, it has no real claim to fame, nothing to recommend it to the nation’s memory. As Reder spikily quips, the mysterious case of Kitty – the Manor’s disappearing feline inhabitant – is the biggest thing ever to have happened here. Pride of place in the dining room is a rejection letter from the Merchant Ivory production company – a celebration of a non-happening.

In the place of eminent individuals or memorable events, Reder fills this space with memories and ghosts. The piece’s investigation of place always returns to an investigation of people – both the elusive former owners of the house and the staff who now animate it. Beneath Reder’s gentle, unassuming presence as a performer, guiding us through the building with all the mild enthusiasm of the TV historian, there is a glimmer of archness and a hyper-sensitivity to the form he has appropriated. The latent desire to spin stories from the tattered vestiges of personal history is indulged in, acknowledged and then upturned, as our guide tells us the sensational, speculative stories we want to hear before smashing them apart.

Populating the building with a subtle political undercurrent, Reder quietly exposes the glossy, alluring lifestyle of the late Stanford family to be something of a tourist sham. The modern lust for Downton Abbey style escapism is frustrated by fractured narratives and messily stitched seams. Gilt-edged mirrors and luxurious carpets are succeeded by corridors crowded with the prosaic clutter of a working museum; a projected video sequence of two staff members enacting a typical servants’ hall scene continues rolling as they slip, giggling, back out of character. Eschewing the fetishisation of the aristocracy that first made this place into an attraction, Reder’s fascination is clearly with the “ordinary” individuals who now work there and who provide the life of the house far more than the austere portraits on its walls.

For all my insistence that this is not really a show about objects, Reder’s extensive research has uncovered some curious and extraordinary items. In the private library of one former occupant, a grinningly unearthed French copy of the Karma Sutra asks inevitable questions about what happened behind closed bedroom doors, while one of the novels on display in the family’s drawing room is the astonishingly titled The Mating of Anthea, an unlikely marriage of romance and eugenics. In an anomaly of a room just off the main hall, the antique collection of a nineteenth century theatre designer – all oppressive wood panelling and gleaming silver – has been oddly transplanted into a house that otherwise pretends at authenticity.

In one of the final rooms we visit, Reder draws our attention to a huge bookcase lined with grotesque, grimacing porcelain statues. Apparently this was the personal collection of Lady Ellen Stanford, who we might conclude to be a woman of questionable taste. What is important, however, is not the collection itself, but the impulse to collect. Why, in bizarre magpie fashion, do we gather objects? How do we decide what is of value and what should be discarded? How do we organise the things we accumulate?

These questions are equally applicable to Reder’s show, which is a product of curation if ever there was one. Confronted with such a wealth of material, we can only ever be shown a fragment, but here the process of selection that always colours our reception of history is brought firmly into the foreground. The piece implicitly asks, by its pointed selection of certain material, what narrative it is consciously constructing from these few chosen items. As I linger that moment longer in each room, peering into the shadows, one question insistently remains: what are we not being shown?

Peter Reder

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As I chat over the phone to artist Peter Reder about The Contents of a House, his latest project for this year’s Brighton Festival, I’m on a train, contesting with temperamental mobile signal and occasional off-putting jolts. For a conversation about place, my own location is particularly unstable, shifting and continually disrupted. In a sense, this mirrors the format of much of Reder’s work; guided investigations of sites peppered with detours and interruptions.

“I like that you’re telling this story but there are also all the digressions,” says Reder, musing on his continued fascination with the guided tour format. “Like in a travel book, you might enjoy that you find something out about the author as you go along; you perhaps learn about why they’re on this journey themselves. There’s a lot of potential to mix in quite disparate things.”

The latest location that Reder is leading audiences on a journey through is Preston Manor, a historic house and museum just outside Brighton. Reder explains that he was drawn to this particular building because it exists “very much on the fringes of everything” – on the outskirts of Brighton itself and at the peripheries of people’s awareness. With a history stretching back to the Domesday Book, the present house is a mixture of a 1738 rebuilding of the 13th century structure and a series of extensions made in 1905. Now functioning as a museum on Edwardian life, the manor is visited mostly by school groups, but is only vaguely known by many residents of the surrounding area. “I was intrigued by this building which is really interesting in its own right, but which is hovering there kind of half-known,” Reder adds. “There’s an air of mystery around the building.”

Reder also feels that, unlike many of the more famous historic homes across the country, Preston Manor has an accessible, tangible aspect. “What’s attractive is that everything’s quite small scale, it’s very intimate on every level,” he says. “Nothing is of huge significance; it wasn’t lived in by anyone that famous, nothing of national importance happened there. It’s interesting as an example of an Edwardian, relatively wealthy home, but it’s not got that grandeur, so in a way it’s very touchable – you feel it’s on a level that anyone could understand.”

Accessibility is also an element of the guided tour set-up, a format that is instantly familiar to audiences. Although this format is one that Reder has kept returning to in his work, it was one that he initially fell into almost by accident. During a period of research and development for a new show at Somerset House, Reder had a number of found objects to show to a small invited audience and naturally found himself presenting them, guiding spectators through his discoveries. “What I really stumbled on is that speaking about these things was a sort of performance,” he remembers. Intrigued by what could be achieved by adopting this presentational style, it quickly spilled over into the finished work and became a recurring technique.

“I’m aware that it’s a very familiar thing and in some ways I rather enjoy that,” Reder says. “It has a comfortable feel; people know how these things operate.” But he’s not content with simply appropriating this format without interrogating it; there’s a desire in the work to gently provoke and subvert, to acknowledge the way that guided tours traditionally “pander to what people want to hear” and dig away at what latent desires people bring to these tours. In this sense, Reder argues, it’s almost “anti-tourism”.

Recalling one production in Edinburgh, in a context surrounded by lots of real guided tours, Reder explains how they used fabrication to reveal what audiences wanted to hear. “In that particular show I always made up a story about a building that was a phantom, that had been in that place before the current building, which sometimes was true in some of the buildings we used, but at other times was entirely fictional. I realise that’s a very strong desire, that there should be something underneath the layers, that people like the idea of a ruin beneath the current building – a sort of archaeology.” It’s a desire that shares a kind of kinship with the experience of watching theatre; the impulse to peel back layers, to reveal something buried and authentic underneath the artifice.

As Reder has gone on, however, he’s had less recourse to fiction in his work. Whereas previously he would seek to change spaces or populate them with imaginary narratives, now he is more interested in “exploring how they already work and trying to see what I see in them as they currently exist”, noting in this a kind of acceptance. “I want to delve into their reality a bit,” Reder explains, adding, “I would go as far as to say that everything I say in the show is true.”

With this particular project, Preston Manor has revealed more than enough material for Reder to work with. After a lengthy and painstaking process of research, the task was to shape that nebulous mass of history and memory into a piece with a negotiable path through it, a process that Reder admits is “a bit mysterious even to me”. “Bit by bit there is some process of natural sifting where certain things feel more essential than others,” he tentatively continues. “But sometimes what seem like irrelevant things can be very vivid, so it’s a bit hard to explain. There’s some natural selection of the ideas that seem to stay with me and others that slightly fall to the wayside.”

Beyond his guided tours, the interest in space bleeds out into much of Reder’s other work; hisCity of Dreams project, for instance, created live performative maps of a number of cities across the world, fleetingly capturing the living memory of a place through the illusionary machinery of theatre. For Reder, however, place is never the primary concern. “I’d say my major preoccupation is probably to do with memory, but I think that’s played out often in experience of a place,” he says. “They’re very hard to divide, because I think so many memories inhabit landscapes of one kind or another, so what’s conjured up in your memory is full of spaces you’ve experienced and the atmospheres of particular spaces. I think that when you enter a space, even if it’s an entirely unfamiliar one, your memory of other places is always in play – otherwise how do you understand anything?”

Memory, of course, is inevitably delicate and personal, leading to the strong presence of Reder in his work, with The Contents of a House being no exception. “This current show is about the history of Preston Manor, and it’s also about me in some way. But it’s only me in relation to Preston Manor; it’s the bits of my own history that have been prompted by the things I’ve seen in Preston Manor. The two strands are completely enjoined and dependent on each other.”

“I have an anxiety with these performances that they don’t just become entirely self-indulgent, me rambling on about my own memory of things,” Reder is quick to add, expressing his desire to widen that circle of memory to include his audiences. “I’m very interested in the overlap with other people’s memories. As much as some of the things I talk about are genuinely quite personal, they’re there because I think other people will share quite similar associations. Maybe the personal can become a bit more publicly shared.”

This is not interactive theatre in the way it’s typically understood – “there’s no obligation for anyone to share anything” – but there is clearly a hope that those who join the tour might find their own memories being stirred by those that are revealed in the building. “It’s very rewarding to see that I’m not just communing with myself, that it does touch people,” Reder says. Returning to Preston Manor’s lack of historical or national significance – what Reder characterises as its “lightweight” quality – he wonders aloud whether ultimately it’s less about the place itself than the offer it extends to those who come to wander through it.

“I think it’s a place of some quiet reflection; maybe it doesn’t really matter what it’s about. It’s a contemplative space.”