Brighton Fringe 2014
They’d created a forest on the black stage at The Warren. Tall panels of foliage at the sides and rear, brought to life by blue and green lighting flickering over the dark leaves, like daylight filtering down through the treetops to the forest floor. Everything very symbolic, with a circle of rocks defining a small pool, and all the subtle forest noises – splashing water or wind through the branches – created by an operator seated like a musician at one side, playing on an array of vessels containing water or small pebbles, the sounds picked up and amplified by microphones.
The flyer for the show said that it’s set in the Ashdown Forest, in the 1800s; but when the actors came on it looked like something by Brecht – ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, perhaps. Two young women in long white dresses, one dress turning red above the waist, and a rather stocky shaven-headed man in loose-fitting grey clothing, pushing a wooden cart – their father. A farming family, harvesting fruit by the edge of the forest.
Tenant farmers, obviously, as the next person to appear was their Landlord – a tall man with long black hair swept back over his ears, much more smartly dressed in slim-fitting trousers and a black waistcoat over an immaculate white shirt. Right from the beginning we could sense a certain tension between the landowner and his tenants – would he exploit his power over them?
There is very little dialogue in this production, and almost no props apart from the cart. The fruit picking was all done with mime, and as they worked, the four of them sang – "Of all the trees that grow so fair, / Old England to adorn, / Greater are none beneath the sun, / Than Oak and Ash and Thorn."
Oak, and Ash, and Thorn. Trees of the forest. ‘The Girl and The Goat’ is all about The Forest, and the dark mysteries that might be found there. Faye is the farmer’s elder daughter – she’s the one with the reddish dress – and she feels a deep affinity for the trees. Her father tells her – "The forest lights up your eyes the way it did your mother’s"
He’s a widower – their mother is dead, like in so many fairy stories. For this is of course a fairy story, and Faye, who’s not long ago made the transition from childhood to womanhood, constantly sneaks away from the domestic routines to find solitude and freedom amid the trees. In the forest she encounters Pan, at first glimpsing the goat-legged god through the foliage, and later meeting him face to face …
Pan was played by James Lumsden Riccetto, a thin, wiry figure with dark bushy hair and a beard. He was in brown fur breeches from waist to knee, and small black goat hooves covered his toes as he danced through the trees. Not dance per se, but very expressive movement, crouching and creeping then leaping powerfully into the air, managing to convey both mystery and mastery. So thin that we could see his ribs, and sometimes as he stretched out his arms he looked disconcertingly like the crucified Christ.
Elizabeth Johnson used the same sort of movements playing Faye. She didn’t do structured, rhythmic dance steps, but twists and swoops of her body. When she’s trying to pull away from her family they tug at her, trying to hold her back as she reaches out, straining to break free, her face anguished – the whole group under tension, surging back and forth across the stage. Later in the forest, her face was at first fearful and then ecstatic as she realised that she was in the presence of some kind of god.
Very symbolic, very physical, very intense. Synaestheatre specialise in physically-inspired movement performance, and they have devised this piece collectively. I asked later about the singing, and was told that they had set one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems to music. It’s ‘A Tree Song’, from ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, a book in which a very ancient spirit of the woods, Puck, enchants two children with stories from the history of England.
The company are using some deep symbolism in this piece. The Forest has always been a place of mystery and lack of rules. Outlaws live in the forest, and exiles, and lovers go there for privacy. Pan is the goat god of myth, but he’s also a relic of the Pagan religions that were suppressed under Christianity. There is danger in the forest, and sexuality, but there’s also freedom from the limitations of a conventional life.
Director Deborah Ward has created this mysterious environment using only the most minimal staging – as I mentioned above, it has the simplicity of Brecht. She’s given us the basic cues, and we audience members fill in the detail for ourselves. A wooden cart becomes a cottage table when people stand around it eating, a ring of pebbles becomes a forest pool. Fruit is picked, doors are opened, by miming the actions, and we are happy to take part in the illusion.
But it’s Michael Corcoran’s lighting which brings this production alive. Soft russet colours for the harvesting and the farmer’s cottage, greens and blues giving the forest scenes a sense almost of being under water – certainly a long way down below the daylight above the trees. Corcoran also put in brilliant white backlighting which sharply outlined the figures of Faye and Pan as they moved around the stage, appearing and disappearing through the panels of foliage. He’s still a student, it seems, but this was a very exciting and professional result.
A few problems – the actors were occasionally visible as they moved into position across the back of the stage, and the watery sound effects were sometimes too subtle – not clear or loud enough.
Overall, though, this was a magical production – not an over-complex story, but beautifully executed. Like all fairy stories, it’s actually about growing up, overcoming problems and prejudices to follow your own desires and become fully adult. I left The Warren feeling moved and uplifted.