The Bikeshed Theatre (named after the sizeable bicycle shop beneath which it lies – more of a bike hangar, in fact) in Exeter staged a richly imagined adaptation of The Secret Garden earlier this week. It was performed by the Dorset-based troupe Angel Exit Theatre, and it marks the centenary of the publication of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved novel, which has steadily grown in reputation over recent decades to achieve recognition as one of the major twentieth century works of children’s literature. I had vague memories of the mid-70s BBC TV adaptation, but was entirely unfamiliar with the book, and thus came to the story largely without any preconceptions; The ideal blank state in which to approach any story.
Burnett’s tale has a harsh underlying lack of sentimentality, centring around two children who are both, at least initially, intensely unlikeable. Mary Lennox grows up in Imperial India, the neglected child of parents who show her little love and leave her lonely and brittlely introverted. When they both die during a cholera outbreak, she is left for alone in the house for a while before being discovered and shipped off to England in the cold company of the fearsomely dragonish Mrs Medlock. She begins life again in a rambling old Yorkshire mansion on the edge of the moors, the home of Mr Craven, a remote uncle whom she has never met before, and who has no interest in making her acquaintance now that she has come to stay. He is merely doing his duty as an Edwardian gentleman in agreeing to look after her. Left largely to her own devices, and wishing to escape from the stultifying atmosphere of the neglected, labyrinthine house, she explores the grounds and becomes fascinated by a walled garden which seems to have no entrance, and whose existence nobody seems willing to acknowledge. A robin leads her to a buried key, and she uncovers a door when she disturbs a sweep of ivy. The wild garden she discovers within becomes her sacred space of imaginative play, and draws her out of the stubbornly inward, arrogant insularity which has led her to be so dismissively rude towards Martha, the maid, and Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener. These two take on the role of surrogate parents, but her closest companion becomes Martha’s son Dickon, a gentle-spirited local nature boy, who has a tamed fox as a familiar. She lets him into her secret world (and was Kate Bush’s song Under the Ivy maybe drawing out the potential underlying symbolism of this scenario, in an Angela Carter fashion?) and together they set about nurturing the garden back into life.
Back in the house, Mary is disturbed by pained wails winding through the night corridors. Conquering her fear, and dismissing Martha’s denials, she traces their source to a room in which a sickly boy is confined to his bed. He is Colin, the son of Mr Craven, who is apparently afflicted with a deformity of the spine, and believes that he is withering towards an early death. He is a pitiable creature, and no-one pities him more than himself. Sealed in his bedroom universe, he gleans all that he knows of the world from his books. Mary joins him in his bookish explorations, and in turn tries to coax him out into her secret world. She and Dickon entice him with tales of the garden, and when they finally manage to trundle him out to it in a wheelbarrow, he is entranced by the enclosed, magical world. As time and the seasons progress, he begins to regain some of his strength, filled with new vigour as the garden springs into life, as if, under careful tending, he has himself become a part of its perennial growth and renewal. It had been a place beloved of his mother, who had grown roses there. But she had fallen from a favourite perch in a bower and died from resulting complications. The garden subsequently became a dark space, associated with death as well as with a life whose absence was still rawly felt. It was closed off and declared a no-place, erased from the garden’s map; painful memories sealed and buried. Ben Weatherstaff, the archetypally surly, no-nonsense Yorkshire gardener (akin to Geoffrey Smith, a regular on BBC radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time, which my parents regularly tuned in to) had honoured her last requests and returned to surreptitiously prune the bushes and keep it alive in the form in which he had helped her to create it. But the creeping spread of his rheumatism eventually made of the wall an unscaleable barrier, and the interior grew wild and untamed, more briar than bloom.
Mr Craven spends much of the story travelling hard across the world, attempting to diminish the continuing pain at the death of his wife through physical distance. But as Colin’s health improves and the garden blossoms, he begins to hear an insistent voice urging him to return home. When he does, he finds the children in the garden, and Colin now able to walk again. His spirit is also transformed by the sight of the garden, his wife’s space which is once more full of the life she sowed in it (her son included), and the crippling melancholia which has for so long weighed heavily upon him begins to lift.
It was immediately clear (through the haze) upon entering the small, vaulted cellar auditorium of the Bike Shed Theatre that Angel Exit intended to engage all the spectator’s senses. The Indian environment in which the story starts was conjured with tamboura drones and billowing clouds of incense smoke. Already, outside in the bar area, we had come across scattered paper flowers and leaves and draped and entwined stretches of cloth patterned with floral designs which had led us to the theatre doors and prepared us for entering a different world. The incense created a heady, intoxicating fug (not a word you get to use so much these days) which immediately transported you elsewhere. Its lingering miasma in the opening scenes also served to suggest the sickly sweet pall of disease hanging in the air as the outbreak of cholera spread. Incense was pumped out again to usher us back into the story after the interval, taking us away from the smells of the bar and café. This time it evoked the rich, somnambulant scents of a hazy summer day, with the secret garden in full flower. The recurrence of scents drew the two worlds together, Mary having discovered the particular beauty and fascination inherent in the new world which she had at first utterly rejected. The exotic and the miraculous are everpresent, and can be revealed in the seemingly everyday and ordinary.
Observant statues - Cocteau's La Belle et La BeteAngel Exit created a magical space upon the stage with minimal means, the parsimony with props necessary for a travelling company balanced by the imagination and ingenuity with which they were put to use. The illusion of depth and distance was given by the movements and gestures of the cast, who drafted architectural and garden plans in the wake of their regard. Poles (which would later become garden implements) were held up and shifted over and across to suggest the maze of corridors through which Mary was guided when she first arrived at the Craven house. Pictures and empty picture frames were lined up at head height to give the impression of the walls from which they hung. The faces of the actors positioned within the frames provided instant portraits. Their heads turned to follow Mary’s progress as she passed them by in a manner which immediately brought to mind the living statues and caryatids in the castle of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete. Such a comparison was further struck by the chorus’ formation of living furniture, of bedposts, washing line poles or even railway carriage luggage racks; static and rooted yet still observant.
Interior domestic appurtenances were swiftly re-arranged and recast to become aspects of the tamed natural world of the garden. A carpet’s dark weave, patterned with gloomy, dull colours representing the airless, lifeless world of the house was flipped over to reveal a strip of greengrocer’s grass on the obverse side, which served as the emerald baize of a well-tended lawn. Chests of drawers drawn out became bushes and vine covered walls, and the interiors of cupboards, doors spread wide open, became shady bowers under which characters sat. Long bolts of cloth were unrolled and hung and draped in undulating, criss-crossing banners, their floral designs appropriate to the season: spring blossoms and summer roses. Soft, stuffed props of a semi-abstract nature resembling the knots of thorn which appear in Graham Sutherland paintings were scattered throughout, inside and out, taking on forms appropriate to their context. They suggested objects on dressers or cupboards (brushes and hangars), mounted antlers (or antlers placed upon the crown of a head), roots, branches and rose thorns.
The members of the small cast each took on a variety of roles, Mary excepted, her presence on stage being continuous. The Lady Bracknell-like Mrs Medlock, loosely draped in a dour, floor-length black dress topped by a floppy black hat and veil, was a natural for a drag act, in the manner of Alec Guiness playing Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets. The actor later became the puny child Colin, a role at the opposite extreme from Mrs M’s formidable and forbidding aloofness. He played him in a broad, clowning style, initially communicating in a series of breathless, animalistic whoops, and warding off potential contact with wheeling and wholly ineffectual karate chop gestures. Mary herself conveyed fierce and scornful self-containment by remaining for the greater part of the play with shoulders tensely hunched and arms held firmly and petulantly, fists clenched, by her side. This stance was only temporarily dropped when she exploded into motion in sudden foot-stamping tantrums. Eventually, this wearying rigidity began to relax as she opened herself to her surroundings and responded to the kindness and patience of those who inhabited them, discovering beauty in the world and allowing it in.
All of the cast also took their turn (Mary once more excepted) in a lively chorus, which served several purposes. They told us of the characters’ actions, motivations and feelings; bridged gaps in the narrative; noted the passage of time; commented on the action in classical dramatic style; and moved and transformed props. They also acted as living props themselves, holding up the blossom-speckled material or giving shape to the bed with suspended curtains, or striking acrobatic poses to combine into a garden hedge. In Angel Exit’s very Pagan reading of the book, they were like nature spirits, arms veined with rooty brown tendrils, leaves and feathers crowning their heads, woven into wild hair. Their eyes were made up to appear in the almond-shaped style of Victorian and Edwardian fairy paintings, as depicted by the likes of Richard Dadd, Arthur Rackham and Richard Doyle. They creep out of and return to the backstage shadows, creatures caught in the periphery of vision. They are not sympathetic or compassionate observers (this is not what the characters need at first, anyway), seeming largely indifferent to the plight of those the edges of whose story they haunt. Occasionally their comments take on a mocking tone, but they are never malevolent. They are not active participants, maintaining the distanced, coolly measured perspective of the wholly other.
Simple puppets were used for the lightly anthropomorphised birds, animals and reptiles with which the characters commune, and which seem to guide them at key moments (the Robin indeed leading Mary to the key to the garden gate). The snake in the opening Indian section circles Mary as she lies in what appears to be a fever dream (an opening which allows for the possibility that all that follows is indeed but a dream within a dream). It rattles and hisses as if it is trying to tell her something. She sees it and tells it that she does not fear it. It’s a dialogue which anticipates her later communications with the robin in England, and once more links the two worlds; the standard Kipling exoticism of India with the mystery found within the commonplace in a Yorkshire garden. The snake, in its fearful, poison-tongued aspect, seems to be a harbinger of the death of her parents. But it is also a creature which has represented change and rebirth throughout the ages and across cultures, and thus presages the transformation of her life.
The robin is manipulated by the actress who plays Martha, who makes it flitter from branch to rake head with convincing birdlike skittishness. She also shifts from Martha’s Yorkshire accent to an avian trilling which contains auditory hints of human language. The fox is a sinuous wind of bristly material with a vulpine snout at its head, which is made to glide and weave across the stage in Dickon’s wake. There is also a miniscule puppet of Mr Craven, which stands in for the actor playing the role during part of his endless journeying. It slowly ascends the Alpine slope of an upward sweep of curtain, whose creases are crevasses and folds escarpments. Its tiny form symbolises the insignificance of man in the face of the spectacle of the Romantic sublime in all its terrifying grandiosity. It also represents Mr Craven’s own diminished and desolate spiritual state. His self-punishing journeys and his confrontation with immensity and the void is a dead end. He needs to return home to discover that nature can also reveal itself on a human scale, against which a sense of meaning can more appreciably be measured.
This was a performance which also incorporated much choreographed physical movement, which often approached the condition of dance. On her trip over to England, Mary was handled like a piece of baggage, her body remaining rigidly straight as she was lifted, spun around and deposited, a passive and unyielding ballerina. The motion of the train in which Mary and Mrs Medlock travelled was conveyed by a rhythmic bounce, ending with a tilting forward sway as it came to a juddering halt. There was a certain amount of miming involved in the opening of invisible doors and the negotiating of phantom garden walkways. The chorus also prowled and leapt in a very balletic manner, sprites treading lightly upon the ground, creatures of the air as much as of the earth.
This was a thoroughly engaging, charming and heartwarming piece of storytelling. Angel Exit Theatre brought the world of the book to life with great imagination and invention, bringing their own particular perspective to the story. They drew out its Pagan aspects, its English nature mysticism (I don’t know to what extent these are apparent in the novel). It is a rewarding and worthy way of celebrating the centenary of The Secret Garden’s publication, marking the continuing fascination exerted by an enduring classic of children’s literature. The company continue on their tour through January, February and March, ending up in Poole in Dorset in April.