Chris Eldon Lee reviews Pentabus Theatre’s “In This Place” which is happening on Shropshire’s Stiperstone Hills on Sundays and Wednesdays this September.
Put your boots and anorak on – we’re going to the theatre.
Gathering at The Bog visitor centre at the far end of the Stiperstones, 15 hardy souls in inclement clobber were each issued with a futuristic pair of infra-red headphones and invited to follow Mary, the human transmitter. We must have looked like a party of G20 Summit translators out for a Sunday walk, listening to sustaining chords of ambient electro-music to sooth their fevered brows.
Once on the beaten track, Mary played with her thumb pad, and the laptop hidden in her rucksack sent binaural sounds of the Stiperstones straight between our ears; the thunder of horses hooves, the call of the curlew, the simmering of a kettle and, crucially, the innermost thoughts of twenty women who have a special relationship with This Place.
Their testimonies have been collected as oral history and assembled into theatre by a writer, a dozen female actors (with Olivier and Carlton Hobbs awards amongst them) and a musician with a mesmerising way with keyboards.
Characters gradually emerge. We climb a brow to a farm and the sound track permits us to penetrate its walls. We hear the woman who moved there (before even the bridge was built) making tea, raising her family and sharing her fears for the future.
Other voices along the way have a more professional relationship with these hills. There’s the widow who turned to plant hunting to fill her void; the litany of botanic names falling from her lips like poetry. There’s the artist for whom the moody landscape is a new painting every day. And the environmentalist who defends her distant plot with the vigour of Boadicea. We hear what they do, what they grow and what they care most about in an artistically meditated way. And lurking all along is the underlying concern that they may be the last generation to care at all.
It’s a lovely experience, reflective rather than reactionary, and communal in a way that sitting in a darkened auditorium to ‘see’ a play can’t quite be. The situation is also faintly humorous at times. An old lady in our heads invites us to turn and look back along the ridge; and we all do – like synchronised, multi-coloured automatons. The pinnacle of the experience is the climb to the Nipstone outcrop where we’re urged to rest long enough to really admire the long, beautifully blue views (ten out of ten to the set designer!) whilst the women of Clee and Clun remember tantalising episodes from their lives.
In an age when people generally rush round wearing headphones in order to pretend they are somewhere else, Pentabus are employing them to uniquely enhance our understanding of the very place we are in at that moment. You experience the stillness of a child being told a story. It’s all utterly authentic and it’s a real privilege to be allowed to be part of it.
What’s more, the concept is eminently transferable to any Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or industrial landscape equally brimming with stories. Other organisations may easily borrow the perfect pattern provided by Shropshire’s pioneering Pentabus.
For more information go to www.pentabus.co.uk or call 01584 856564. The walk takes 80 minutes and pre-booking is nigh essential.