I am instantly wary of any performance that promises me ‘audience engagement’, viewing a trip to the theatre as a chance to escape into the anonymity of darkness rather than to be dragged onto the stage. That being said, Mac’s latest project, The Woods, offered the kind of engagement that was neither awkward nor intrusive, but simply allowed its visitors to become immersed in the surreal world of the actors. The Woods is an intimate piece that combines art and theatre and manages to feel both natural and necessary.
The Woods, a creation of local artist Jane Packman, is staged at Mac in Birmingham. It sees Mac’s gallery transformed: when you enter – in a move that feels distinctly Narnian – you are enclosed in a densely wooded glade offering flickering glimpses of the trivialities of everyday life. The project is described as a ‘sensory experience’, a chance for visitors’ role to evolve into touching, smelling, feeling and, above all, indispensable members of the production. The Woods is more than just a work of theatre; it incorporates installation and creative workshops to allow the audience to project their own imaginations onto the carefully crafted set.
Inspired by what Packman labels as “an autumn spent under the trees”, The Woods sees a strong cast – anchored by Chris Gunter’s multi-faceted depiction of grief – express the complex emotions that surface following a death. The performance inextricably links individual sorrow with the mysterious surroundings of the woods, tying human emotions to the ebb and flow of the natural world. The themes of loss and acceptance are prevalent, with the company evoking the reassuring repetitiveness of a daily routine as the one stable entity amongst the turmoil of grief. The piece suggests, somewhat comfortingly, that in the richly layered environment of nature, a human loss is never completely eradicated but remains ever-present.
The Woods is not an easily defined production. It stands alone as an innovative experience not to be missed, especially by those who are lovers of both art and theatre. It is not a performance that allows you to hide behind your role as a spectator, nor does neatly wrap up its numerous ambiguities. It does, however, guarantee a thought-provoking insight into humanity that will leave you pondering your own existence.
The Woods played at the MAC Birmingham. For other shows and information, see their website.