If you dare to venture off the main road on your way to St Austell and wind your way down many a minuscule lane, you will eventually stumble upon the secret treasure that is The Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Heligan has become one of my favourite places to visit in Cornwall. Every time I go throughout the differing seasons and holidays it becomes a completely unique experience. Towering rhododendrons and flowers bejewelled with water droplets are my memories of a fresh Heligan Spring, whilst Christmas time sees the foliage dancing with fairy lights. Tonight the gardens had been transformed yet again into the setting for Wildworks’s latest production, 100:Unearth.
Having collected our tickets the audience were then guided down a series of winding forest floors, chattering excitedly about what was to come, before emerging into the biggest theatre set I had ever seen – a huge grassy meadow! With limited structures and no traditional amphitheatre, this stage had no boundaries, only the ground at our feet and the endless seas and skies beyond.
Like a group of invisible onlookers we were taken back in time to glimpse a world from the past. Four years since the war began was where our story started, four years since the soldiers had gone away, leaving the women and children to carry on with their lives, not knowing when or if they would see their loved ones again. Distant drums could be heard on the breeze, the sound carrying a mixture of hope and fear. Who was coming back? Who was not? A brass band emerged over the hill’s brow, leading the wounded and weary soldiers home. Fathers and sons, brothers and husbands returned. Eurydice reunited with her beloved Orpheus. One moment of bliss, but life is fragile. The harshness of war cannot be left behind and in its wake the lovers become separated once again, this time in death. And so, as the Greek mythology goes, we followed our hero into the realm of the Afterlife in search of Eurydice.
Through the gates into the land of the dead to the house of Hades, we were guided through a number of outdoor sets, complemented by undertones of choral singing and brass music. As an audience member physically moving through the story, you feel like you are going on the journey with the characters. You are able to engage all of your senses to feel part of their world, rather than watching it from afar.
During the performance, the audience were free to wander at will through the Afterlife – exploring the Gardens of Lives not Lived, Hospital Limbo, the Department of Lost Gardeners and Grove of Regrets. We drifted past the lost souls of war, eternally doomed to relive their injuries and shellshock or grieve futures which did not come to pass. Heligan provided the ideal setting for this, with so much character each space only requiring minimal props for the actors.
I think the concept of immersive theatre like this is a great way to engage audiences in story-telling. Having only experienced traditional theatre before, I was amazed at the ways in which you can be creative with outdoor spaces and Cornwall is certainly the place to do it. With so many stunning locations to choose from, it’s a playground for testing the boundaries of performance.