Contact Jane Hughes

Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

Brighton Festival Theatre Review - Souterrain

The Independent, May 2006

Arriving at Stanmer Park, a couple of miles out of Brighton, is, at first, like stepping into picture postcard territory. A long drive leads through lush parkland to a grand country house and flint village beyond. Horses graze on the downland pastures, a church steeple peeps through the trees.

But get closer and the ghostly, boarded up windows of Stanmer House offer a hint that things on this country estate are not quite as idyllic as they seem. Further into the village, a derelict farm and one or two empty rundown cottages suggest this community has been overlooked, and perhaps neglected, by the powers that be. It's into this otherworldly yet slightly troubled setting that landscape theatre company Wild Works bring the premiere of its promenade production, Souterrain.

The story is loosely based on the ancient myth of Orpheus's journey to the Underworld in search of his dead wife Eurydice. But this drama follows its own journey through memory towards forgetting, and reaches its own conclusions about love and loss. And since this is site specific theatre - where community and place become part of the story - the production is also a meditation on life in a village with an uncertain future.

The action begins with a party at sunset to welcome both the audience and the returning soldier Orpheus. Eurydice and her excited friends are dressed as landgirls, suggesting this could be 1945, except that Orpheus has been away for seven years.

The couple are briefly united but the presence of death is never far away, and Eurydice is blown up by an unexploded grenade from Orpheus' kit bag. Overcome with grief, Orpheus can think only about getting her back and the audience follows him and his two companions into the twilight Underworld of the village transformed.

The narrative - mostly conducted in poetic or comic set pieces - is dramatic if occasionally hard to follow. But Souterrain is a visual and musical feast. As the actors move through the audience, intriguing background vignettes - such as Hades, god of the Underworld, waltzing with his wife, Persephone, in the churchyard - are played out.

The story is peppered with clever comic twists - as when a party of newly deads from Crawley approach the gateway to the Underworld. The music too - a haunting, eclectic mix that includes Japanese Enka folksongs and Jewish dances performed by Wild Works' musicians and community choirs and bands - is excellent.

But perhaps it's the village that is the star of this show, its inhabitants having worked with Wild Works to create a rich tapestry of tableaus and installations. As we walk up the street, we pass a spinning wheel in one garden, a shadow puppet show in another, and photographs of the aftermath of the great storm of 1987 in another.

A man in gardening smock stands atop a grass covered landrover, its interior transformed into a magical butterfly grotto - a symbol perhaps of nature recovering from the onslaught of man. Artistic director Bill Mitchell has created a memorable and exciting theatrical experience, but also a moving testament to the resilience of a small community under threat.

Souterrain is at Stanmer Park until May 20, performances start at 8.30pm. Tickets £12.50 for adults, £8 for children from the Brighton Festival Box Office, 01273 709 709,