Translating nature into the theatre

How can we stage the great outdoors?

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A supplied image obtained Thursday, July 24, 2014 of Tom E. Lewis taking on King Lear at the Malthouse Theatre performance of The Shadow King in Melbourne. Director Michael Kantor has dramatically reimagined the King Lear story and set it in a remote Aboriginal community riven by land battles, greed and distrust. (AAP Image/Jeff Busby) EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO ARCHIVING

Audition season for Trinity plays is beginning. Prepare your monologues and get ready to neglect your studies. More importantly though, get shopping for a raincoat. Garden plays don’t mix well with the British summer. So, for those who don’t fancy shaking with cold while doing Shakespeare under umbrellas and perhaps want to take a more interpretive approach, how can we depict the natural world in theatre?

Let’s deal with the obvious first – outside performances can be immersive and fantastic. The success of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre indicates this. The Globe is similarly popular and features the threat of rain for groundlings – with the warning that they won’t cancel productions based on weather conditions. Sure, £5 tickets are great but standing in the pouring rain to watch Hamlet for three hours is less so (although I can now relate to Hamlet’s misery on a far deeper level). A midnight matinee (one of the Globe’s most popular performance types) results in moments of amusement – as you struggle to keep your eyes open, Romeo and Juliet pulls you through morning, noon, twilight, night and dawn again. Reliance on natural light and seasonal changes can also create issues. So, if you want to skip the authentic – what are your options?

Inua Ellams’ Three Sisters (yes, it’s based on Chekhov) has just closed at the National Theatre. We are taken to 1960s Nigeria – more specifically, Owerri in Biafra. As civil war breaks out, nature seems to take over. We begin on the porch of a house built by the father of Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Odo, framed by hanging fronds which recall a proscenium arch. War leads us to a curtain of greenery; this is used to show distance and intimacy between characters as well as providing a victim to be evocatively attacked by Nigerian soldiers before the interval. 
We end with the house off-stage. Abosede, its new mistress, plans to cut down the greenery, showing her ascendancy and new-found power. The Igbo sisters, previously part of the educated elite, are instead relegated to the forest, a key zone within the atrocities of the civil war. Here, it’s set that leads us into the natural world, showing the collapse of Biafran idealism in the face of harsh economic and imperial reality. 


Rob Drummond’s one man show The Majority utilises layered hexagons which then show films of beehives. In contrast to the minimalist, metallic and modern set, this large-scale set piece shoves the natural world in the audience’s face. This clash exemplifies the discord explored in The Majority, which was written as a one-man show in the wake of the Scottish Independence vote and the Brexit Referendum, looking at issues of fragmentation – the cultural clashes are highlighted through the material clash of bees and metal. However, just as quickly as the bees come, they flash away. The stage returns to blankness, a canvas for Drummond (and his audience) to paint their opinions upon. Nature, here, is a trifle to be used, rather than a consistent embodiment of status or a reminder of setting, as it is in Three Sisters.


The 2017 Globe production of King Lear begins with homeless itinerants piling onto a sheet-covered, dully graffiti-ed stage – much like in The Majority, this is an urban and delocalised scene.It’s almost post-apocalyptic with the barren staging. There is no place for the natural world here. This jars uncomfortably with the natural focus of Shakespeare’s writing as Lear, the Fool and Gloucester wander the heath after entering exile. Lear, after his mental collapse, scatters the stage with (notably fake – pragmatism or symbolism?) flowers, tossing them over the audience. He is attempting to bring the natural world into this empty environment, creating comfort. Flowers remain scattered on stage, trampled by the cast, as Lear cradles Cordelia’s corpse. This, similarly to Three Sisters, shows the relation between character and nature.


The Prince of Egypt has been playing at the Dominion Theatre for the last month. The ensemble become the Nile, rolling over each other in an astounding act of physical theatre to carry baby Moses to safety. This is aided by nude-toned costumes and bold lighting choices – washing the entire stage blue, for example. The ensemble also become the desert and a burning bush; when the Nile turns to blood, the ensemble roll to rip the costumes of guards to reveal the red, blood-stained ones underneath. The Dominion seems to lend itself to large-scale choreography; it previously hosted An American in Paris, with beautiful balletic sequences. 


At the climax of The Prince of Egypt, ensemble members are hoisted up, spinning in mid-air while fringed costumes signify the Red Sea. They create a parting through which the Hebrews can escape to (a struggle for) liberty. The raised section of the stage – the only significant static piece of staging – tips to throw the Egyptian soldiers into the orchestra pit. The natural world is figured through human physicality – it’s familiar to any of us who played a tree (or a bush, or a sheep) in the school play. 

There’s also the question of immersion itself – placing the audience in a world which they can explore and discover, seeming more real and authentic than the standard, potentially archaic, model of theatre. For We Can’t Reach You, Hartford (The Assembly), the audience stand in the centre of a burnt down circus tent while the cast move around them. Iris Theatre’s Hamlet last summer was in the grounds of St Paul’s Church in the heart of Covent Garden – playing a play about corruption and capital in the capital of a perhaps corrupt institution. Sleep No More, an immersive theatre experience in New York since 2011, features more than ninety different spaces – from candy shops to cemeteries – while Then She Fell (riffing off Alice in Wonderland) takes place in an old church, transforming it into an interactive psych-ward for the audience to move around.

So, why can’t we create an immersive world featuring nature? It would be far easier than a garden play, less reliant on the weather and more suitable for tech work. But the majority of us haven’t been to psych-wards or candy shops or circuses enough to truly judge their authenticity. We simply don’t have that knowledge so rely on tropes and creative choices to inform us. It’s far easier to create an immersive, authentic world within the urban sphere. When attempting to portray the natural world, though, the audience can typically tell, especially when given the freedom to move and investigate the space – in Three Sisters, the fake vines and fronds are only possible because of the separating proscenium arch. Sarah Kane famously demanded that flowers on stage in her play be real, planted in soil and tended to between performances. Authenticity at all costs.


So, the natural world can be constructed through staging, as in Three Sisters and The Majority, ensemble and cast (through The Prince of Egypt), props (as in King Lear) or indicated through the play text itself, with a requirement for audience belief. All of these are inauthentic – but then so is theatre. Fundamentally, it is a medium of falsehood and omission, with inauthentic performativity being central. Sibyl Vane, a failed actress, in The Picture of Dorian Gray claims that “the painted scenes were my world” in the “empty pageant” of the theatre. While in the theatre, these painted scenes can become our world, from the urban to the rural or natural. While it is an “empty pageant”, it is our choice to believe that makes the environment real. 
No matter how the natural world is constructed in theatre, it is its impact – whether it is compelling enough to make us believe – that is truly important.