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.”

Village Halls, Village Voices


Originally written for Exeunt.

A robin perches, quivering, on a line of barbed wire. Sun dances across the snow. Uniformed men run, smile, play football and shake hands; one slips a bar of chocolate into the pocket of another. And a message flashes up on the screen: “Christmas is for sharing”.

“Everything looks great in that Sainsbury’s advert,” says playwright Rory Mullarkey, voice stained with a mixture of anger and disbelief. We’re chatting in a corner of the pub in Tirril, our conversation drifting towards the familiar iconography that has been rolled out for the centenary of the First World War. This advert, Rory comments wryly, represents the “Disneyfied” version of the conflict. It’s not an image that he or his play Each Slow Dusk – which we’re in Tirril to see – is interested in.

“I feel like there’s a perceived World War I narrative that you can see from War Horse all the way through to the Sainsbury’s advert,” says Rory, naming all the tropes that we’re familiar with from our stages and screens. “You’re not ever getting any closer to what the First World War actually was, you’ve just experienced a traditional narrative except that the obstacle has been the First World War.” To get underneath that perception, to scratch away at what the legacy of that war actually means, he suggests that it’s necessary to move beyond this sanitised remembrance. The real picture, of course, is far from beautiful.

“It was mud, it was blood, it was guts, it was horror.”

The sky is a brightening grey when I arrive in Tirril earlier the same day, wan sunlight just tickling the edges of the clouds. The darker grey and black of the Reading Rooms stands out against it, the inscription “1914” on the building’s facade eliciting a little shiver. Talking to local promoter Jimmie Reynolds once inside, he explains that the coinciding of the hall’s 100th birthday with the centenary of the First World War was one reason for wanting to bring in Each Slow Dusk. And it’s important for people to think about these things, he adds later over a cup of tea.

Tirril, a small village at the edge of the Lake District, is just one of the many rural areas Each Slow Dusk is visiting on its tour with Pentabus. The piece has been designed specifically for village halls, from the initial commission to the direction and design. Rachael Griffin, Pentabus’s managing director and my guide for the weekend, explains that this process allows the company to tailor the shows they produce for rural venues and audiences. Pentabus sketch the initial outline, then the writer is given freedom to fill it in. For Rory, the constraint is a creative one.

“It sounds like a slightly mystical thing to say, but I believe that the piece of work or the play is always out there somewhere and it’s my job to make a series of decisions to allow it to come to me and be present. If you know something like how many actors it is, how long it has to be or whatever, that’s a parameter that can significantly aid your creative thinking.”

As part of the writing process, Rory also visited some of the village halls the show might tour to – an opportunity to “imbibe” their atmosphere. The village hall as a building has a distinct identity, one caught up in history, community and nostalgia. Stepping into Tirril’s chilly, high-ceilinged Reading Rooms, I’m immediately hit by memories of my own village hall growing up: Christmas fairs, bring and buy sales, bad discos spent slugging Panda Pops.

The get-in is almost a performance itself. After a much-needed cup of tea – problems on the road have contributed to the company’s general exhaustion – rigging, lights and set are swiftly hauled out of the Tardis-like van. A month into the tour, this is a slick operation by now, but still one involving a precarious amount of kit to be installed on the hall’s compact stage. On the first night, one of the actors tells me in the pub later, it took a good few hours to dismantle everything after the production; now it requires just one.

When I grab a few minutes to talk to Jimmie, he explains that Each Slow Dusk is a relative risk for the Reading Rooms, which is more likely to receive music and live entertainment. People just want a good night out, he says. There’s also a danger, given the outpouring of art to mark the centenary, that audiences have “First World War fatigue”. Speaking to Rory later in the afternoon, though, I have a feeling that Each Slow Dusk may well challenge the narrative with which we’ve all become so familiar over recent months.

“I thought I would try and write the most open thing I possibly could,” Rory tells me, just a couple of hours before I see Each Slow Dusk. On the page, the first act barely even looks like theatre. Rather than dialogue, it consists of a long series of poetic stage directions. All action, no talk. It’s easy to see both how it represents a risk for promoters like Jimmie and how it fulfils Pentabus’s aim, articulated to me by Rachael, to bring rural audiences work which is ambitious in form and content.

Staged, however, it soon makes perfect sense. The actions belong to three different soldiers: a Captain, a Corporal and a Private, played by David Osmond, Lee Rufford and Sam Heron respectively. All are the same age – nineteen and a half – and all have been sent out on night patrol. The Captain is reluctant, the Corporal pumped with excitement, the Private terrified but determined to prove he’s not a “fucking coward”. Not directly interacting with one another, the three performers instead direct their lines to the audience, describing their actions in the present tense. The style takes a while to settle, but then it grabs a firm stranglehold on the audience.

The writing is more prose than drama and might at first glance be dismissed as novelistic. Yet it soon becomes clear that there is something intensely theatrical about both the rhythm of the lines and the terrible forward movement of the actions they describe. Despite the simplest of stagings from Elizabeth Freestone, subtly enhanced by Adrienne Quartly’s sound design, there’s something incredibly dynamic about it all. And, problematically, it’s kind of thrilling. The play asks us, guiltily, to acknowledge that there might be something exciting about the heat of conflict, even in the midst of all its undeniable horrors.

The three unnamed soldiers also offer a complex picture of the First World War and those who fought and died in it. The absence of names plays with the way in which soldiers have been “loaded with the freight of social commentary,” in Rory’s words, while at the same time refusing to allow each of these characters to be reduced to the mere symbol of “soldier”. The Corporal in particular challenges our collective idea of the First World War soldier as saintly victim. Here is a soldier who revels in what he does, who is proud of his skill in fighting and killing, and who would happily take the battlefield over a lifetime of picking potatoes.

“There are as many kinds of soldier as there are kinds of person,” says Rory, skewering – as his play does – the popular image of identical, “lovely lads” sent off to be slaughtered. “Those ‘lovely lads’ were just exactly the same as any lad is nowadays; they were just as likely to swear, just as obsessed by sex, just as violent, just as moody. They were human beings, and it felt like it was important to write something which didn’t cast them in the mode of victim the whole time – that they had agency and dignity.”

As the audience move around the hall during the interval, chatting to neighbours and buying raffle tickets, there’s a definite sense that we are in their space. This is first and foremost a place for community rather than one for theatre, and it shows. The size and warmth of the audience – a far cry from small-scale tours which often struggle to fill half the seats in a studio theatre – feels like a vindication of the idea that you really get theatre to talk to people’s lives by taking it to them. But entering an audience’s midst rather than extending them an invitation requires a different creative thought process.

“You’re making a very different kind of statement if you’re going to someone’s home with a show and you’re bringing it to them,” Rory suggests, stressing that he wanted to write a play that “would feel generous and warm and alive to a village hall audience”. So while Each Slow Dusk might be challenging in lots of ways, it was important for everyone involved that it speaks to the audiences it is going out to.

Rachael and Rory talk about the directness that feels right for these village hall spaces, but there is also something around proximity. The actors are right there, barely separated from the audience, and available for a chat in the small gap between the end of the performance and the get-out. On this particular night, the presence of the playwright adds an extra ripple of excitement and Rory finds himself, to his slight bemusement, signing playscripts.

Before I leave the following day, a cup of tea and a chat with Sue Hayward – the seasoned promoter in nearby Arnside – sheds some more light on the programming of this and other events. Many of her comments confirm what I see during the interval: audience members relish the intimacy, the opportunity to have professional performers come right to their doorstop and hang around for a conversation afterwards. Theatre is demystified.

One thing that I hear about repeatedly is the level of loyalty that rural audiences have for their village halls. In a way that most venues can only dream about, they trust in and care about the space and will attend performances more for the location than the specific offer. This then allows the volunteer promoters, who are often embedded at the heart of the communities they programme for, to take risks. Sue can take a punt on contemporary dance, inviting Compagnie T d’U to Arnside for the first time next year. And Jimmie can welcome Pentabus to Tirril, where a full audience sit rapt for an hour and a half in front of Each Slow Dusk.

“We’ve got a real remembrance industry,” Rory observes during the course of our conversation about the First World War. The second half of his play, fast-forwarding 100 years, takes us to the heart of that industry: the battlefields tours of France. We are now addressed by a female speaker (Joanna Bacon) who is grappling with the meaning of remembrance in the same way as those of us in the audience. How do you come to terms with the events of a century ago? How are you supposed to feel about the distant dead?

“I was sad when I thought about them, I don’t know,” says the (again unnamed) speaker. “I was sad, I guess.” Her uncertainty is our uncertainty; her ambivalence reflects every time the two minutes silence has felt like an empty obligation rather than a meaningful act of remembrance. As she speaks, showing photographs of her trip across the battlefields, I think not just of the monolithic memorials flashing up on the screen, but also of the sea of poppies surrounding the Tower of London. I think about how the act of remembering has become distanced, abstract and aestheticised, utterly divorced from the mud and blood and entrails so vividly described in the first half of the play. It has also become big money: the tourist routes, the themed cafes and restaurants, and, yes, the Sainsbury’s advert.

Once again, appearances deceive. The second act seems at first like a major departure from the first, but eventually the two halves meet as echoes resonate across the interval. Together, the two acts acknowledge how, whenever we look back at the First World War, we are inevitably seeing it through the lens of the present. And Each Slow Dusk demands that we think about that present as much as we think about the past. Or, as this contemporary speaker asks, “Where are we now?”

Photos: Richard Stanton.