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Putting theatre in its place

Introducing Coventry-based theatre company Talking Birds before they pitch up in Shakespeare's New Place for their latest show, The Festival of Lost & Found.

Emma Bessent

This winter, Shakespeare's New Place will be transformed into a glowing, bustling spectacle of festivity. Theatre company Talking Birds will be mounting tents in the Great Garden and setting up trails of festoons to light the way to their magical encampment, where the greatest show that never happened will finally unfold.

Talking Birds Three Doctors
"Three Doctors", performed in Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital (photograph by Janet Vaughan)

Talking Birds are leading proponents of a performance style called 'Theatre of Place'. Over the past 27 years, the company has worked to uncover the mythical and magical within parts of history that might seem mundane. They have drawn inspiration for their shows from a cottage hospital, an underground car park, and even a cattle market. There are truly very few boring stories in this world; they only need to be told right. Shakespeare himself knew this, transforming clashing neighbours and dysfunctional families into the stuff of legends. After all, what is Romeo and Juliet but a neighbourly dispute that got out of hand? King Lear, at its heart, is a story about sisterly squabbles and inter-generational political disagreements — things which populate many hours of our own lives.

There are truly very few boring stories in this world; they only need to be told right.

Talking Birds Wanderlust
"Wanderlust", performed in an underground car park in Scarborough (photograph by Janet Vaughan)

Theatre of place is all about celebrating these moments, which seem so small when you’re living them, but have such incredible significance when you look back. It asks both the performers and the audience to consider the full potential of a space as they ask “What is there now, what has been there before, and what might this place become?” Any performance given on a significant historical site will be only be “a blip on a timeline, whether 50, or 600, years long.” This blip doesn’t have to be insignificant; Shakespeare only lived at New Place for 19 of the almost three hundred years that a house stood on the corner of Chapel Lane, and yet that short period formed the site’s identity as we perceive it today.

Theatre of place is all about celebrating these moments, which seem so small when you’re living them, but have such incredible significance when you look back.

Talking Birds’ work is distinctly different to what you might expect from a mainstream theatrical experience. As Derek Nisbet, Co-Artistic Director of Talking Birds, explained to me, “We very seldom work in theatres. The work we make is to be performed in the world, and to have an impact on the world, rather than to be kept in traditional spaces and temples of culture. Where once upon a time, we might have toured theatres, we now tour streets.” This fits with their aspiration to make 'Art for Good', which works — amongst other things — to open up conversations, foster communities, and promote human connection.

This is exactly the dynamic at play in The Whale, a roving theatrical venue which tours towns, villages, and festivals, swallowing up audiences of one to four members for a nautically themed three minute show. Like the rest of Talking Birds’ work, The Whale invites audiences to collaborate with the performers; as Derek says, “It’s not about scary audience participation, it’s about making a show together. You’re relying on everyone’s imagination. We can bring half of the material, but the rest is up to you.” 

Talking Birds The Whale
"The Whale" (photograph by Janet Vaughan)

The Festival of Lost & Found won’t be Talking Birds’ first venture into either Stratford or the material of Shakespeare’s plays. Five years ago, they worked with the Orchestra of the Swan and three local schools to create Ant & Cleo - The Musical! at Stratford ArtsHouse. Rather than working directly with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Talking Birds delved back into the playwright’s own source material, the histories collected and written by the Graeco-Roman biographer Plutarch. They uncovered several delightful stories not even mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, such as how one of history’s most famous couples used to pass the time by playing knock and run!

Like Talking Birds’ previous work, The Festival of Lost & Found will celebrate New Place’s rich legacy in ways you might not necessarily expect. Rather than Shakespeare taking centre stage, he hovers in the wings, out of sight, but still quietly influencing all that unfolds. Once the final performance is done, Talking Birds will turn out the lights, take down their tents, and “like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.” But Shakespeare’s stories will live on long after the last visitor slips through the gates. As he tells his reader in Sonnet 60, art has the power to defy even the passing of time:

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end, / Each changing place with that which goes before... / And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand...

— Sonnet 60, lines 1-3 & 13

The Festival of Lost & Found will run from 11 to 15 December, with matinée performances at the weekend. All performances will be captioned by The Difference Engine, and there will be a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance at 6pm on 14 December.