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.”