The Forest & the Field was the title of an essay Chris Goode penned some years ago. In 2009 it became a piece of quietly polemical performance, and later this year it will unfold and expand to fill a 300-page volume, a ‘politically-motivated exploration of theatre’s relationship to reality’.
It’s typical of Goode’s open and explorative relationship to theatre making (a term which feels at odds with many of the themes of this particular piece) that he’s given his ideas a new place to work and work themselves around, that he’s put them in a space again, to prod and probe and explicate and annotate with performance. Goode opens with a series of questions, ‘What do we want?’, what do we want as an audience gathered in the space? And what do we expect of the next moment in our life, or the next 90 minutes of our life that we’ve turned over to what he has created.
Goode doesn’t seem interested in that concept of theatrical contract that Ontroerend Goed and others have put through the wringer, but rather in the concept of communal presence and intention. Whether our expectations are to be changed or for the world around us to be changed by the attention we are paying to acts of performance, by our participation in the room in which they are performed.
The audience is sat haphazardly in the round, and there’s a cat in the room, wandering nonplussed about its perimeter and nonchalantly toying with performer Tom Ross-Williams, who works in loose dialogue with Goode to illustrate or vocalise quotations or concepts. The cat is called Antonio, and his presence creates unexpected ripples in the still waters of a watching and listening audience. He’s a scene-stealer, all cats are, and by pulling focus away from Goode and Ross-Williams, he makes us particularly aware of our presence. By being as interested in us as it is in the performance, it contributes to a truer democracy of presence, a feline demolition of the hierarchy of performers and their public. I have no idea if Brecht used cats, but if he didn’t, he was missing a trick.
The meat of The Forest & the Field is a movement through several of Shakespeare’s ‘forests’, which were sometimes islands, sometimes storms or carnivals, and sometimes actual forests: locations which are liminal in the sense that normal boundaries and categories are liable to slip, systems are likely to be overturned and the dividing lines between sleep and waking, reality and fantasy become permeable. These are locations in which theatre occurs, in a rejection of Peter Brook’s concept of the Empty Space, these spaces of constant performance, of multiplicity, masque and total conditionality are the inner stages of Shakespeare’s world. Goode’s thesis that these locations have the power to change the world by performing a pantomime of its transformation, that the act of make-believe naturally makes us believe or allows us to believe that something is so, and therefore is itself transformative, is profound.
The Forest & the Field deploys a witty bibliography of ‘forest’ texts, which are given an often strikingly beautiful life by Ross-Williams. His Miranda in her brave new world pouts and slouches like a smack-woozy Kurt Cobain, his naked Caliban sliding down a stream of Bacofoil is full of primal wonder. Asides from John Cage and O J Simpson (whose own conditional text If I Did It slots eerily well into a discussion of Shakespearean villainy) widen the referential context, and discussions of the shifting semantic value of ‘nudity’ and the changing pace of life ensure that the knotty problems Goode picks at never slump into the dustily academic.
A fine essay on Shakespeare, a brilliant performance on theatre, The Forest & the Field is as likely to move as it is to provoke; its sense of play is as physical and visceral as it is intellectual. Appropriately non-conclusive, this essay working its way from the page to performance is a giddy call for papers on the future of theatre. What Goode says is interesting, what he asks and what he asks for feels essential.