I am sitting on a chair in a car park overlooking Canary Wharf. In front of me a production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge by Dutch company De Roovers. The characters are dwarfed by the huge towers which rise up on the opposite bank of the Thames. The names of international banks blink in pitiless neon as the quiet tragedy of Eddie Carbone and his family unfolds.
This may be 21st-century London, not 1950s Brooklyn, but the setting makes the point that the poor almost always live in the shadow of the rich. Wherever and whenever they live. No set designer in a traditional theatre could come near to creating such a striking backdrop, but more importantly, using the living, breathing, winking city landscape as scenography has made new connections and meanings. Those of us watching see an old play afresh.
When we talk about going to the theatre, mostly what we still mean is going to a theatre building and sitting in an auditorium. But over the last 50 years, theatre-makers have frequently moved their practice outside of purpose-built theatres, preferring to make theatre in found spaces, either indoors or outdoors.
Some of these performances will be site-specific, some will be site responsive and others will simply colonise the found space, taking to heart Peter Brook’s idea that all directors and actors require is an empty space.
But many more take Shakespeare’s suggestion that all the world’s a stage to another level. They explore and connect with topography, place and space – whether urban or rural – to create work which engages directly with the landscape. With no fourth wall, the work often makes audiences have a more direct engagement, and also reminds us that – even within the four walls of the auditorium – there is no such thing as a neutral space.
In National Theatre Wales’ 2014 show The Gathering, the audience was herded for four hours across the lower slopes of Snowdonia as shepherds and sheep dogs gathered the sheep in for the winter. This was a performance grounded in place, in folk memory and in the art of shepherding itself. Poetry sprouted on rockfaces, the sheep poured down the mountain like extras in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, and the mountains themselves glowered above us as we trekked, magnifying our smallness in the landscape.
In 2000 I saw Emma Rice play the heroine in a futuristic Cornish version of Antigone, called Hell’s Mouth, written by Nick Darke and staged by Kneehigh in disused china clay pits in Nanpean. Local Hell’s Angels roared across the moon-like cratered landscape as rival factions of the warring brothers fought each other. A body fell like a ragdoll from a high cliff into the lake below, the blasted heather suggested a world on the brink of destruction and populated by a chorus of blind archaeologists picking skulls out of the milky puddles. This version of Antigone felt hewn out of the distinctly Cornish landscape. You couldn’t transfer it to the West End.
Historically, the pioneers of this landscape work have often been located in areas where there is limited access to traditional theatre spaces, or who have felt excluded from them. Or who perhaps see traditional theatre spaces as confining and limiting. That can be both in terms of what it is possible to achieve in those spaces and about who can gain access to those spaces. Brith Gof in Wales, Welfare State International in Cumbria, NVA in Scotland, and Kneehigh and Wildworks in Cornwall have all created work inspired by and embedded within the landscape.
It is no surprise that both the National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales – both national theatres without walls – have frequently made theatre in which engagement with location is fundamental to the work itself, as well as how it is made and who sees it.
Whereas a building-based theatre will expect the audience to come to it, when there is no auditorium available then the theatre-makers must go out into the community. National Theatre Wales has made shows on beaches and in woods, and in 2007, National Theatre of Scotland collaborated with NVA to create Half Life in Kilmartin Glen in Mid Argyll, an outdoor night-time performance which explored the mind-set of Scotland’s early Neolithic inhabitants. I know the Glen well; its innate other-worldliness would be impossible to recreate elsewhere.
Wildworks is a company which has always understood that while a landscape offers creative possibilities to a theatre-maker, it often comes with communities attached who cannot be disregarded and who must be part of the process. After all, a location brimming with possibility to a theatre-maker is home to someone else.
As a result, Wildworks’ practice has evolved to become not a plundering of landscape but an exploration of it and the lives of those living there. This requires care as Wildworks demonstrated in Souterrain, which in its first iteration in 2006 told the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the context of Stanmer, a dying village gradually being depopulated, in Stanmer Park near Brighton. The underworld became the boarded up derelict houses of the village. The show was subsequently remade in several other places across Europe, always re-contextualised for each location and always made with the consent and involvement of the community.
Landscape theatre often involves the audience walking, and many theatre-makers see the walking element as a contemplative element of the performance. Walking can be a spur to creativity. Louise Ann Wilson’s Fissure, created in the Yorkshire Dales in 2011, required the audience to take a 12-mile walk during which they saw dancers in rock fissures and the ghostly voices of unseen choirs rise from the depths of the earth.
I interviewed Wilson before the first performance and she said that as a landscape theatre-maker she cannot control the surroundings as she might in a theatre, but she is able to take advantage of the way the natural landscape constantly shifts and changes: But not all landscape theatre takes place in rural settings. Brith Gof’s large-scale performances often took place in derelict post-industrial urban settings, and makers including Fiona Templeton and Look Left Look Right have used the city as a vast backdrop to create disorientating one-on-one experiences. Templeton’s 1989 You the City and Look Left Look Right’s 2011 You Once Said Yes offered city-wide odysseys in London and Edinburgh where you had a series of encounters with actors within the hectic bustling environment of the urban landscape. The cleverness of these pieces is that, while you drink the spectacle in, you too are actually part of the spectacle.
I am looking forward to those moments when environment, weather, light and performance all come together, and nobody will be able to tell what was planned and what was a happy accident.
One of the most ambitious examples of landscape theatre I have seen was National Theatre Wales’ Port Talbot-wide production of The Passion with Michael Sheen in 2011. Unfolding over 72 hours and using various locations in the town, including its beaches, local housing estates, shopping centre, streets and social club, this modern retelling of the Easter story gave familiar everyday landmarks in the town a mythic makeover. It turned the ordinary into the extraordinary, disrupting the spectacle of everyday life and not just making Port Talbot look different but look differently at itself.