This week, Leeds Playhouse welcomes the public back to the theatre with ‘The Promise of a Garden’. This unusual production, somewhere between theatre and performance art, is the creation of The Performance Ensemble, a remarkable company of professional and non-professional artists who create with and from the experience of age. It is their most ambitious production to date, devised specifically for this moment during the long months of lockdown. Throughout that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with director, Alan Lyddiard, in a role he calls ‘dramaturg’ but I prefer to think of as ‘caretaker’. It involved a lot of conversations, and some writing within and outside the performance. Now, the image comes to mind of how a shepherd works with a dog; another metaphor for this small backup role. I’ve not yet seen the production (I’m in Ireland, working with Irish National Opera on workshops for Traction) but I’ve found even these production photographs moving, as people and scenes I’ve known only through the text become living art.
Tonight, I shall watch the livestream with wonder and delight (thank you, internet, for making life possible these recent months). If you’re wondering what to expect, here’s what I wrote for the programme. I hope it encourages you to join us at 7pm BST tonight.
Is anything more perfect on earth than a garden?
I ask as someone who has come to appreciate gardens late in life, during the enforced solitude of lockdown, and without a scrap of the knowledge shared by those who know and nurture plants.
In a garden, there is balance as nowhere else, people and nature, human beings in—and of—nature. We can only work together to find where life will thrive and fulfil itself in beauty, accepting the myriad things over which we have no control. The climate, the seasons and the weather; the animals around, above and below us; the plants that will do what they will, perhaps with our assistance, perhaps not. Gardening teaches humility, if our hearts are open to learn.
During long, fearful months of confinement some were lucky to have a garden in which to rest and watch life grow, while we were in suspension. Others watched it in back yard pots or on a window sill: even a house plant changes through the days. More lessons for restless humans here: patience and care.
And anyone could hold on to the promise of a garden, like a seed or a bulb, life waiting to be released. The promise that spring would come back and, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, ‘vindicate us against too much death’. The promise of sitting on a park bench to hear the wind in the branches, the snatches of passing conversations and children’s play, the occasional bark, and the birdsong.
In this production, people who know something about life’s long unfolding have come together to create — what? A garden, of sorts, filled with flowers crafted with care by people all over Leeds. A garden of words, and stories, seemingly natural in their planting, though it takes artifice to seem so causal. A garden of artists, musicians, and performers. Some have been doing this for 50 or 60 years; others are stepping for the first time onto a stage. Each has something to bring, all of their own, and the garden would be incomplete without any of them.
And so, as Leeds Playhouse carefully reopens its doors, we welcome you with the promise of a garden, a place to sit and enjoy the quiet spectacle of life unfolding, not for you but with you, at home here like all of us. A little out of season, yes, but this is art, after all, not nature: we can make up things that are true. We promise you – quite literally – hundreds of years of living on this stage, we promise you beauty, kindness and healing, we promise you a garden—though perhaps not as you know it.
All photographs by photograph Zoe Martin for Leeds Playhouse