There’s something endlessly fascinating in not knowing the rules. Trad-theatre’s ability to signify meaning is all tied up in knowing the language of it. If at the beginning of a play a person is buried, under the rules of traditional storytelling you are most likely to think ‘that person is dead’. When, however, in The Woods by the Jane Packman Company, the audience are invited to lay leaves over a person lying still on the woody earth, you (or I, at least) experience the moment of covering, not the immediate meaning. You explore, rather than consume, the storytelling, here.
This piece is a piece about grief, and at the same time about winter, and wondering if you’ll ever see spring again. It took place in a gallery space in MAC, Birmingham, almost all the floor covered in woodchips, leaves, and shrouded in tall green rectangular sheets that felt easily like trees. The space lit by large low burning bulbs, cradled in twigs, you find yourself both in a bedroom of the urban flat of a young couple, and deep in chilly woodland permeated by the scent and crunch of leaves; scored by the murmurs of rooks in the distance. It reminded me of those dream moments in Michel Gondry’s films – where a toy patchwork horse is suddenly big enough to ride, or when a couple wake up in a bed in the middle of the beach where they first met. And indeed, The Woods had the same complex language of a dream.
The storytelling here has to move differently around its audience; immersion foregrounds the body of the audience, it is not the vanishing act done by placing the body in darkness (a la trad theatre). This was very gentle immersion, though, with a mix of direct address that didn’t require verbal responses, and careful invitations to feel the wholeness of the experience (touch the bark beneath your feet, partake in a warming, spicy punch on entering the space). The Woods’ physical language addresses the body, and in doing so, our bodily mortality; while the setting reminds us that whilst we die, the world continues, the leaves fall, mulch, and feed the coming spring.
The sense of watching the piece from spring was perhaps important to how the piece felt; the abject despair of grief, seen framed from a land where the snowdrops are starting to flower. This distance doubled with that of childhood – a story about the games a little girl played to make sense of the world moves into the ‘bets’ made by a grieving partner:
‘I’ll give up a limb, a leg, an arm, 5 years of my life, 15, if I could just see her again, for a moment’.
There was a strong feeling of folklore and fairy-tale – from the opening song to the often thick, and slightly obtuse language. Movements were repeated, footsteps shadowed. This was a Story. The woods are one of those liminal spaces in literature, where characters meet, fall in love, lose themselves. We once lived among them, from them, and had to tell stories to warn each other of the dangers there.
When my grandmother died we spread her ashes at the feet of 5 large beech trees we planted in memory of her second husband. There is much of death in the woods, but each year I visit that place and see the beech trees grow. You come out of The Woods feeling like I do when I leave their side; sad, but somehow, taller.
The Woods ran at MAC, Birmingham from Friday 18th until Sunday 27th of Feb. Next time I’ll try and actually get to see something a little more usefully earlier in the run.