A WILD AND WOLFISH WALK IN THE WOODS
Last time I went a Norfolk and Norwich Festival outdoor event, I had to spend the night suspended in a nylon flower-petal up a tree and get hugged by tree-kissing Belgians called “Starlight” and “Hummus”. The time before, it was Artichoke’s elegant Alice in Wonderland adventure-dinner-concert. So you never know. This time, they have recruited WildWorks, famous for the Port Talbot “Passion” with Michael Sheen, and set it in the deep woodland surrounding the 17c Felbrigg Hall.
So here we are, stumbling through chilly darkening woods, mocked by ragged giant crows for being human (“Queer little walkie-talkie-two-leggies! Driving dead machines! Craaaahh!). After gathering us round a smouldering fire and a ritual of “summoning the bones” they hustle us to and fro, 250 of us in groups led by crows with ragged umbrellas called Sorrow, Funeral, Birth, Mirth, Bone, etc. The dark harsh birds, often from up trees as we progress, need to tell us a story: a mythic tale of Rowan (superbly played by Kyla Goodey) raised in an authoritarian orphanage. Shamed, she runs away in the woods and gives birth among wolves. We follow her into the darkness, coming to scene by scene as the dusk falls, until like her we change sides and learn to look at human beings through the wary, judging eyes of beasts.
It’s a beguiling idea, and Bill Mitchell’s team (professionals and community together) approach it with a fierce theatrical dedication which – in the end – pays off to memorable effect. Vocal harmonies by Victoria Abbott accompany us: a Crow choir reappears at each scene with primitive raw sound, while the orphan “Maids”, neatly Edwardian in white dresses and corseted back-braces, ceaselessly chant the rules of constricting civilization under the authoritarian, white-haired “Mother” (given chill authority by Sue Hill).
There is some puppetry, notably wolf-skeletons pawing and leaping; there are flaming torches underneath the trees, but it is the human-animal players and tensions which create real silences, so you hear the breath of those around you and even the gits put away their smartphones. Even the fact that the ushering Crows (my boss was Mirth) repeatedly cry “Keep to the path!” for obvious elf ’n safety reasons gets incorporated into the sense of folk-tale danger.
Some scenes are unforgettable: a tiny golden child born among grey-clad wolves (the physicality is excellent) romps with them like family dogs until cruelly “rescued”. At this point we are called “back to civilization!” by the crows, to watch the infant grow up. I cynically thought “Yep, good call, Mr Mitchell, get the punters out of the stumbly tree-root darkness onto the nice manicured National Trust grass before the light goes”. Shame on me! WildWorks are not timorous about us. Minutes later it’s “quick, quick, into the woods!” and a ten minute scuttle up hill and down in the darkness, following the escaping child towards intensely dramatic final tableaux in a cathedral of tall trees lit by torchlight (and a single star above, that night).
By which point none of us has the slightest idea where we are or how far from the Hall, and we are entirely on the side of the wolves. The last vision, as they mournfully howl their loss, is of the child walking down a long, long dim avenue alone, empowered by her dual nature, free.
By then I was with it all the way. It took time – maybe the first of the two hours – but was well worth it. And the weather forecast is reasonably good. But wear something sensible. Wolves and crows always do.
box office 0)1603 766400 to 23 May. Details: nnfestival.org.uk