‘Forests’, by RoguePlay Theatre

Review from: C Venues Aurora, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 24th August 2023

A large square of astroturf, a singular tree structure, and a soundtrack of birds and insects and raindrops signal the forest setting of RoguePlay Theatre’s show inside their blackbox studio venue at Edinburgh Fringe. Forests, written and directed by Kim Wildborne, is a poetic allegory of humankind’s striving for dominance, over nature and over each other. Performed with complete commitment from Wildborne, Fleur Hall and Meshach Shadare as they progress from innocence to aggression, through despair and hope, the show is a collaboration with the Rainforest Foundation UK, designed to highlight the destruction of forests around the world. An activist message grows as the show progresses, ending in a direct appeal for us to act as ambassadors for the trees, the forests, and their natural environments.

At the centre of it all is a tree; it could be any tree, but it’s also a special tree, totemic. Created from a bespoke standalone rig created by Total Solutions, the metal truss is dressed with woven wicker. Five splayed roots support a central trunk, laden with treasures of rope vines and stick branches that the three performers gradually discover and deconstruct. Playful interactions become fraught, as we watch the structure they clamber upon tremble, shake and, ultimately, topple. Choreography shifts from simian movement studies to martial manoevers, spiced with acrobatic flair. The sort of climbing ropes more usually seen hung vertically stretch at horizontals and diagonals down to the ground, where aerial rope techniques are played out from the floor with heads, arms and hands. As a movement vocabulary, there are useful access and inclusion implications in this style. The show’s soundtrack includes sections of lyrical prose in the voice of the Mother Tree (co-director Lorna Meehan), who watches over all her children – including us wayward humans – in a sonorous vocal that makes me think of mindfulness meditations. There are also music sections, composed by Shadare, that emphasise the emotive content, and which I find especially effective in the sentimental final section where he and Hall try to rebuild their past lives and happiness as Wildborne piles sticks around them.

The casting highlights important issues of colonialism as the white performer pits herself against her darker skinned companions in pursuit of power and capital. Meaningless throwaway trinkets spill from the wreckage, before transforming into more powerful symbols of hope in the shape of origami birds. The ecological messaging is more directly expressed, in a straight-to-the-point way that seems to be aimed for young audiences. The advertising copy doesn’t make a target audience explicit, but suggests it is suitable from eight years and upwards, which seems the ideal age group. (Older viewers might, like me, tend to prefer to join the dots for ourselves a little more, or it risks coming across a little preachy.)

In a previous incarnation, the show has been an outdoor performance, and could still work well in that format. Inside the C Venues space, the spoken language of nature and nurturing life and the physical motifs of breath and discovery come up a little awkwardly against the manufactured artifice of a theatre. Outdoors I can imagine a sense of connection that could be magic, the environment as much a part of the experience as the performed action. Indoors, our attention is more focused and, as the slow pace of tentative eye-contacts moves to playful passes, holds and inverted hugs, my engagement gradually increases. As division and destruction ensue, I’m invested in how equilibrium can be restored.

There is no doubt that the motivations and mission of Forests are admirable and important, and I like to imagine future generations that are able to act more strongly than we have to rectify the damage done by those of us who’ve gone before. Certainly my 2.5yr old was struck by the felled tree and the sadness she watched unfold. And then played birdies all the way home with an origami gift, made from sustainable bamboo paper!

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