Theatre in Wales

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Tree and Wood

Jony Easterby & Collaborators , Ynyshir Reserve, Furnace , October-05-18
Tree and Wood by Jony Easterby & Collaborators The autumn season in north and south has hit a cracking start with “the Awkward Years”, "Now the Hero" and “Lord of the Flies”. The west has been slower to kick off but the first is a production with a difference. It is also testament to the sheer profusion, and plasticity of form, that comes within the orbit of performance. “Tree and Wood” is the best non-urban peripatetic piece since “Branches: the Roots of Crisis” in 2012.

It is smaller in company, and budget, than “Mametz” but superior in formal unity and integrity of image. For the audience, unlike that for the weakly directed “Yr Helfa”, the experience is one of synchrony of pace and place. The numbers drawn to Ynyshir are also 3-4 times greater than those who were present on the Watkin Path. Unlike the producers for that show- and that for July 4th this year- the marketing team for “Tree and Wood” has yoked their event to the local press and the potent promotional medium that is Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Capacity for the event is 150 people and all performances have been sold out. Its lead creator is an artist of depth of Wales, a veteran maker of art in landscape and long-term Meirionnydd figure.

It has an affinity with National Theatre of Wales' 2012 production. Like Wepre Park the location is that of woodland in ascent. But whereas the water in Flintshire dropped sharply from the height at Ewloe Castle, the Dfyi at Furnace and Eglwysfach is a wholly different watery being. It has to circle round the hillock of Yynyshir- long island- before widening out and entering its estuary stage. The timing for “Tree and Wood” has been artful. The gradual gathering of the 150 is in an October light that turns to dusk. By the time of the setting-off from the RSPB's visitor centre it is night. The journey, about a kilometre in all, is lit by a string of low lights. Stewards are located among the trees in crepuscular fashion to point out the occasional spot for care.

An artwork soars when presentness, the encounter of maker and participant, invokes the immanent. The artistic team do not have to struggle overly to link matter-to-hand to metaphor. Wood is the provider all at once of theme, setting and material. “Tree and Wood” is also about us, the women, men and children of Dyfi Valley and surroundings- there is no concern to impress bussed-in teachers and theorists. Live performance is a communal experience, in which awareness of each other plays a part- albeit a subsidiary part- in addition to attention to artists. Thus, the beguiling soundscape and music exist in the real space of nature. It emanates from unseen sources within the foliage. There is none of the forcing of sound into the atomising channel of privately experienced headphones.

The benefits of twenty-first century technology are in the hands of artists. They are used as means to an end and not an end in themselves. Within Wales the late Earthfall has been the most skilled practitioner. The company for “Tree and Wood” has seven performers. The last piece of music is a five-part harmony to the resilience of growth. The chorus line runs “the trees, they do grow still.” In accompaniment digitally created sprigs and branches dance and wave in the gloaming.

The setting for the performance is a glade of oaks. They are not the most aged in the area but some are four hundred years old. The performance is played out in three hundred and sixty degrees. The lighting is low and shines upward into the woodland- at this turn of the seasons the leaves have yet to fall. “Tree and Wood” has no spoken word. When our attention has to move Jony Easterby, in white trousers, shirt and braces, raises a forefinger and points in silence to the new place of performance.

The singing, rooted in folk tradition, is powerful. The two principal vocalists are first revealed at the top of wooden ladders, of home rather than factory construction. Rhythm is beaten out by a quartet of hammers on logs. The company includes a skilled vibraphonist. Easterby applies a bow to a two-metre high, two-person saw. Light is enhanced by fire. Easterby dips a hand into a broad metal dish and scatters flame across the space. Fire is an important part of forest ecology. There are trees which have evolved so that all their crucial survival mechanisms are beyond the reach of ground flames.

The credits are many: singer-songwriters Nathaniel Mann and Emily Williams, sound designer Matthew Olden, musicians Pippa Taylor, Pete Flood and Sam Robinson. Jony Easterby is recipient of a Creative Wales Award and a production grant from the Arts Council of Wales and Oxford Contemporary Music.

David Hare- with whom I frequently differ- wrote with some emotion on New Year's Day against the notion of a segmented theatre. The thesis he dislikes is that audience is dividable by interest group or other factors. The woodland walk back to our regular world of tarmac is opportunity for the audience to mull and reflect. “It was good” says a Iestyn among us. That is short and to the point. But then Iestyn is ten years old. A sold-out audience, wide in its composition: that is why a society deems public art to be worthy of public support.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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