On arrival at Sharpham, the marshals help you to park and find your way to the "holding field, " with its beautiful views across the River Dart. As the audience sits admiring the landscape, a faint sound of drumming comes from the woods below; not awful ‘"let’s bang on a djembe" drumming, but rhythmical, pulsing, and fun. There is something interesting and enticing happening down there in the trees. Immediately you know that real care and thought has gone into this promenade performance: you will be in safe hands during a journey both physical and metaphysical into the forest and on the quest for the Grail.
For promenade performance to succeed, it needs a skillful guide. In this show, the task falls to the artful storyteller, Martin Shaw. Throughout the evening, he entertains, guides, informs, and cajoles the audience - throwing in funny, throw-away contemporary references every now and then, while also drawing pertinent parallels between the world of myth (in which the audience finds itself) and our own times, our own lives.
The flow of the show - both physically, in the movement from the forest to the court and then to the castle, and in the narrative - is superbly handled. This is achieved by a combination of well-executed elements: the stunning grounds of Sharpham used in perfect combination with the narrative; the masked ushers and the ever-present story-teller guiding us on; musicians and drummers keeping us connected to the play as we move through the trees; and skillful stage management moving actors and props unobtrusively from scene to scene.
Sharpham itself provides magnificent spaces for the performance, with just the right addition of scenography and lighting where needed. These are never intrusive; and, as with all the elements of this production, handled with great sensitivity to both the story and the land.
Each scene is played out in a different part of the estate by a wonderful ensemble cast who are clearly enjoying themselves. The acting is good: physical, funny, moving, and committed. Lines are delivered well, and are audible. (Too many outdoor productions suffer from inaudible dialogue.) There are lovely touches of characterization and well delivered humour. My own speciality is mask theatre, so I feel justified in singling out one particularly fine actor in this regard. Mask work is woefully bad in many productions, but Helen Aldrich inhabited her mask brilliantly, with the right physicality to support it. This adds yet another layer of myth and magic to an already magical show.
As well as the show's professional cast there is also a company of community members who play the masked guides. Dressed in black with blue sashes, they subtly move the audience forward and create temporary performance areas. They also play in some scenes themselves - which they do with gusto and, as with the main cast, a good sense of ensemble.
The production's music is just right: from the incredible drumming that greets the audience in the first forest glade to the incidental music - subtle, humorous, and evocative by turns - played on a variety of strange looking instruments.
It is a precious thing to find theatre that entertains and transports; that, for a few hours, brings you into a mythical world. Theatre strives to make the intangible mystery of the human condition tangible, if only for a brief moment. Parzival achieves this ... and then, as with all good theatre, the ephemeral nature of the form asserts itself. The glimpse of the "intangible made tangible" slips once again beyond our grasp ... like the Grail of the story.
Directed by Matthew (Harry) Burton, Parzival shows the powerful nature of what theatre can and should be, when all of its elements - story, performance, use of space, lighting, music and production - work seamlessly together. It's running at Sharpham House until Sunday, July 20th. If you like theatre, if you like myth, and particularly if you like the combination of the two, then hurry to get one of the last tickets for this inspiring, thought-provoking show.
For those of you too far away to see the play, I recommend seeking out Martin Shaw's excellent books, and the West Country School of Myth