JOYCE MCMILLAN on EMBRACE at Falkland Woods, Fife, for The Scotsman 20.10.14.

3 stars ***

SCOTLAND’S WILD WOODLANDS  feature ever more strongly in our theatrical life, as we become increasingly aware of how precious – and sometimes threatened – they are.  From the huge Enchanted Forest events at Pitlochry to the National Theatre of Scotland’s amazing 2007 show Half Life, at Kilmartin in Argyll, we are invited to dress up warm, and venture into the magical world of dark night-time forests re-shaped by light and sound; and in 2011-2012, the Edinburgh-based company Vision Mechanics achieved an extraordinarily intense effect with their own short show Dark Matter, a doomed love-story staged in a dark woody garden.

With their latest project Embrace, though – seen in forests  across Scotland over the last month – Vision Mechanics are working on a larger scale, leading audience-groups of around 30 people through a dark woodland landscape to five or six sites filled with sound, film, installations and performance designed to evoke the stories of women who have become passionate protectors of our natural environment.  The core story is the true tale of Amrita Devi, who in 1730, along with 363 others from her community,  sacrificed her life, in her home village in Rajasthan, to protect a forest which was about to be cut down.

We’re driven on our way, though, by a narrator (played by Kim Bergsagel) who is a bit of a stereotype of an eccentric modern environmental activist.  And the scenes we discover, as we slither along the woodland paths, vary wildly from an activist camp full of 21st century “issues” that moan and groan at us from brightly-lit bivouac tents and dangling pieces of paper, to a  gorgeous silhouette-puppet film of the Amrita Devi story, and a thoroughly over-the-top final aerial sequence featuring wood-spirits in billowing orange pants and extravagant green body-paint.

The final effect is slightly confusing, part over-enthusiastic chlldren’s show with attempts at comedy, part deeply serious spiritual journey into a more balanced relationship with the natural world that gives us life.  With a stronger script, and a more clearly-defined mood, Kim Bergsagel’s show – with fine sound, music and lighting by Ewan and Charles Macintyre – could have taken us much further and deeper into the vital story it tells, of struggles against brutal and unaccountable power to protect the very essence of life.  Yet even so, it remains a memorable experience; and one with the nerve to lead us deep into the dark forest, where human beings have always gone to find change and transformation, at times of crisis.



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