Last night I sat in a Dublin B&B for watching a performance unfold in Leeds Playhouse through a laptop screen. It was a beautiful, moving and strangely gripping experience. I couldn’t take my eyes from the stage, though I’m easily distracted when I watch things online. With ‘The Promise of a Garden’, I did not move for two and a half hours. This morning, the images, music, movement and voices ripple in my heart, unsettling and yet kind, generous, hopeful.
There were many things to appreciate. The beauty of the staging, which grew from the emptiness of one figure in a white landscape to a profusion of colour, light, shape and texture that more than fulfilled the promised garden. The truths spoken by the performers, their truths, sometimes funny, often painful, always honest, but artistically, not literally true, because it is not enough to tell your story: its truth and power to communicate are in how you tell it. The music, rich, varied, perfectly judged, supporting the performers at times, other times in the spotlight—and some of the singing, just spellbinding. The dance of older bodies, in a different stage of life; not the athleticism of youth, but the lived-in-ness of age, when it’s no longer possible to be unaware of the feeling of joints moving, but graceful beyond expectation, and beautiful too. And holding all of this together, like a complicated automaton moving plantes and stars in shifting orbit, the subtle direction that brought on one element after another, or several at once, never losing the broader picture in the arc of an evolving story.
Alan Lyddiard and I spent many hours discussing concept, script, design and staging over the last year, so I knew what to expect, even though I’d not been able to attend the rehearsals. But, of course, I was wrong. What I knew bore a similar relationship to what I saw as a building does to an architectural plan. Words came alive with the voice and presence of their speaker, music and light brought emotional depth to moments that I’d hesitated to believe in as text on paper. The talent and creativity of so many people were harnessed to create something that could only come from their interactions—and there must be special gratitude for the whole Leeds Playhouse team, who deployed their resources with trust and creative generosity.
Community theatre in Britain has long roots, and I have seen (and been involved in) some wonderful productions over the years. It is capable of bringing together whole communities in moments of celebration and reflection that can change the character of a place and how people live together there. But it has weaknesses too, at least in my view—heavily dependent on text and local history, it can be nostalgic, literal in unhelpful ways, and even encouraging resignation rather than questioning. It is unusual to see in Britain the kind of theatrical poetry I have encountered in other parts of Europe. That has its weaknesses too—self-indulgence and lack of grounding being the most obvious.
‘The Promise of a Garden’ drew on the best of both traditions to create a performance that brought placed older people’s experience centre stage in ways that allowed them to become open to all, even universal, if that means speaking to our common humanity. People from different cultures, places and backgrounds, people speaking different languages, people who have known the hurts and blessings that come to all of us by virtue of being alive, being human, people with deep wells of character and creativity—they came together last night to create something extraordinary and unforgettable, a gift to the city as it moves, cautiously and with hope, out of the depths of pandemic, offering the hope of healing and reconciliation, and the promise of a garden.
The images illustrating this post are taken from the livestream by Leeds Playhouse.