Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sylvan – Tinderbox have left the building with their new site-specific outdoor show (Belfast and Coleraine until 5 November) #offthegrid

When the team at Tinderbox Theatre Company put their minds to a concept, they deliver with gusto. And so it is with Sylvan, a deliberately sustainable, aptly outdoor and haunting piece of theatre being performed as part of their Off The Grid season.

In a world where natural photosynthesis has been replaced with oxygen generating machines, timber has been removed. So when Rosie from the adoption agency discovers that Paul and Deirdre have an illicit forest hiding in their house, she bends the rules and negotiates regular access to the verdure. But the young family’s nightmare is only beginning.

Staged at night in a forested area of Victoria Park, the audience at first sit on wooden seats in a natural clearing before shifting into the forest alongside the actors. The reclaimed set is simple, list mostly by torches and wireless lights (more usually seen in conference venues) scattered throughout the undergrowth. Sound effects amplify the sense that not all is well in this home.

Maria Connolly is a master of the scowl, at first officious, later crazed. She plays one hopeful parent off against the other as Rosie barters and inveigles her way into the lush recesses of their home in order to be at one with nature and close to someone from her past. Meanwhile Ruby Campbell and Seamus O’Hara portray Deirdre and Paul as a couple who make disagreeing look like a well-executed dance, finishing each other’s sentences, contradicting each other, and ultimately getting both their ways. None of the hardy cast is phased by the weather, and they all throw themselves about the set as if playing on a beach.

Deception builds, trust is tested, and longing overrides common sense and love. (And behind the scenes, the props are strewn around the forest floor in a way that must cause the stage manager to perpetually have kittens thinking about the dirt on the Enda Kenny’s multi-faceted costumes.)

Over 30-40 minutes, the initial unpacking of the world in which the characters live is fabulous theatre. The snappy dialogue, stereo effects, symbolism and props are all enthralling. Director Patrick J O’Reilly’s choreography creates some beautiful chains of movement, whether as an ensemble illuminated by the strobing lights, or as individuals exposing a character’s demons. A lot of fine detail is portrayed in spite of the harsh climatic conditions.

Unfortunately, Jonathan M. Daley’s script loses the plot about halfway through. The play trudges through a forest of ideas and endings that sprout up like poison ivy (a little like his earlier Assembly Required) and this all goes to stretch the piece out to 90 minutes when 60 or 70 would have sufficed. Are we witnessing Deirdre’s post-adoption depression, Paul’s verdant spirit, or Rosie’s insanity, or all three? There’s a definite whiff of horror about the staging and some of the themes: but it doesn’t quite commit to the genre. The eventual enigmatic conclusion – at least in the way it is staged in this production – denies the audience of any chance to applaud or receive a sense of closure to the novel production: there’s shock on some faces as we reach the car park and our escorts explain that the show is over. A simple and swift blackout much earlier in the script could still have left the audience thinking yet overall less confused.

That said, Sylvan makes the complex job of running theatre outdoors, at night, with light and sound but no sense of infrastructure look very easy. Tinderbox have created a theatre space in parkland woods. And they’ll be recreating the magic in a number of venues throughout the run. It’s very innovative and a huge investment in new sustainable techniques.

Sylvan continues its sold out run in Belfast’s Victoria Park until Sunday 1 November, before resetting its imaginative world in the Ulster University campus at Coleraine on Thursday 4 and Friday 5 November. Do wear shoes suitable for tramping around a forest, and bring a hat and waterproof coat in case the weather turns. 

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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