The Festival of Lost & Found, Talking Birds at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust New Place, Stratford, 13th December
Too often immersive theatre is another name for ‘forced fun’ – you have to go along with some make-believe game, smiling uncomfortably as a thespian invades your personal boundaries. Maybe the festive spirit has taken hold of me, as although this was indeed typically immersive – and at some point I was obliged to sing, which I and anyone within earshot of my flat tones loathes – I actually ended up feeling quite edified and with a skip in my step as I left New Place having undergone the The Festival of Lost & Found ‘experience’.
Devised by Coventry-based theatre company Talking Birds, directed by Steve Johnstone, the cast invite the audience to help them bring to life ‘the greatest show that never happened’. New Place looks beautifully festive as the company have set up a midwinter encampment – it resembles a mini festival, with a circle of tents and pretty lights. As a dozen of us amble into the centre space, the great-great-great grand-daughter of famous 18th century actor David Garrick calls on us to help realise her dream of finally hosting the grand pageant that never took place during her ancestor’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 because of heavy rain. We must find the missing poem that will be the centrepiece of her dream show.
And so off we head, uncertainly but following a trusty Birthplace Trust guide, we are invited to tour four tents, taking a seat as an actor or actors address us, giving a glimpse into their lives and/or that of their ancestors. It turns out that the characters are ghosts of those associated with Shakespeare, or distant relations. There’s a stage manager called Frances Gastrell, related to the naughty chap who tore down New Place; the ghost of Thomas Sharpe, the spiv who made tourist memorabilia from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree; Gabriel Marlowe, an actor related to the writer Kit; the aforementioned host Robin Garrick – yes, progeny of David; and ghost mum and daughter, Judith and Hermione Blackwell, servants who stole Shakespeare’s lost poem.
I’m not sure I immediately grasped what was going on – one would need a thorough knowledge of Shakespearian history to realise all the nuances – but the actors inhabited their parts so believably and with such confidence and humour (the script by Liz Mytton is very clever) that I was thoroughly enchanted as the story unfolded, and was curious to get to the denouement.
At the finale I found myself happily donning a ruff collar, holding a lit-up yellow umbrella aloft, as I sang and took part in a joyous wee procession around the garden, along with the cast, tour guides and fellow audience members. Yes, we had undone the not-doneness of the Garrick pageant. It turns out rewriting history can be an awful lot of fun.