‘Murmurations’ plays heartstrings sweetly at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve performance
‘Murmurations’, a play that’s also a guided tour of Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, is an unusual exploration of wildlife and the experience of being in the open – and a delightful bit of playwriting by outdoor theatre experts Tangled Feet.
The Sunday morning performance of the play starts right outside the National Trust buildings at Wicken Fen. There are around 22 of us in the audience, waiting around for the start. Chloe – “I’m a poet making my guide debut” – introduces herself as the narrator. You wear headphones which provide musical interludes (the soundtrack is expertly broadcast by a sound engineer who is pushing a buggy full of sound equipment including a mini mixing desk as the tour goes through the reserve). All the performers’ lines are channelled through your headphones too, so even those at the back, or walking more slowly, can hear the dialogue.
Chloe is very funny. “It’s Jurassic Park out there,” she warns us. She goes into a bit of background story about how she was in London and had to get away, and moved to Ely, and it took her a while to find her feet. Later, she tells us what she had to get away from – her dad, who worked for TfL (Transport for London) had died of Covid-19. It’s hard – actually I found it impossible – to tell whether Chloe is telling her own story or the story as written by the play’s writer, Steve Waters. Maybe it doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re out in the Fens and suddenly you’re hearing this story about a transport worked who died, and all the aftershocks that spill into everyone’s lives.
And Chloe isn’t the only one who has suffered a loss during the pandemic. We come across a middle-aged lady who’s wandering about looking lost, but actually she’s carrying the urn containing her mother’s ashes and she’s looking to cast them into the water or the land on the site because her mother “said she didn’t want to be memorialised in any way – no grave, no funeral, no park bench”. Later, we understand her grieving a bit better: she can’t get over the fact that, after a lifetime of giving and love and sacrifice, “the last person she saw was a nurse in a visor”.
Chloe moves us along a bit and we encounter a birdwatching scene, with a man and a woman both staring into the distance. Suddenly, she sees it: a rare crane. But the bloke says that’s impossible, it’s the wrong time of year. He starts belittling the woman, saying she’s made a mistake, and she’s listening to him telling her how she can’t believe the evidence of her own eyes, and she’s looking at him like he’s a total douchebag, which he is at that point. But later, when she finally loses it with her partner, he relents and tries to subdue the raging OCD he has about birdwatching, and go back – with his missus – to a time when it was just simple pleasure and fun to be out in the wild. It’s rather charmingly done.
The fourth play-within-a-play involves an older developer and younger farmer. They seem familiar maybe the older man is the uncle. We hear them converse, or rather we hear the older man deliver his views and then expects full agreement with those views, but when it comes to developing the land the nature reserve is built on the papered-over disagreements come to a head. The older man thinks the offer should induce gratitude – he’s in the big time, thee’s money to be made, if he wants to get on he should come and join the firm. But the farmer in the younger man can’t be so easily airbrushed aside. They have a bust-up, the land – respect for it, awe of it, love of it – is too deep in the farmer, and the developer goes off with a thick ear. The farmer then rings his father, from whom he has been estranged, and proceeds to make amends.
Fifth and final story is a series of exchanges between a female botanist who has joined a climate protest group, and a male worker at a nature reserve. The woman is dressed up as a large copper butterfly and talks through the history of the species to the staffer, who just wants her to get off the land. As the exchange continues, it becomes apparent that both the participants misunderstand each other equally, but the woman is funnier.
“Switch off your GPS, obey your ANS” is her slogan about the autonomic nervous system – a slogan which surely Extinction Rebellion should pick up on. When the man tries to tell her that the land has to be looked after, she says in disgust: “Nature does not recognise the category of ‘weed’.”
Gradually, they share their stories, the real stories, the stories of their hearts. The woman is in grief: the planet is dying – or rather being killed – and she alternates between grief and rage.
“The entire architecture of our world collapsed between my doctorate and my pension,” she laments.
The land worker, for his part, is tired of being treated like a football by politicians, financiers and therorists with no real experience of the land, and he’s tired of the way agriculture is being corporatised, and then he has Extinction Rebellion on his case and they’re buying into the idea that he’s part of the problem, and he’s not, but he can’t be part of the solution (which he wants to be) until the whole agricultural model is turned around and the land is properly looked after. Really, they’re on the same page, they’re humans who want the world to change for the better and it’s not happening on their watch.
‘Murmurations’ is a unique new site-specific production responding to two different nature reserves in the East of England – National Trust Wicken Fen Nature Reserve (September 17-19) and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen Nature Reserve (September 24-26). Tangled Feet has a long history of site-specific and site-responsive work, and writer Steve Waters has developed ‘Murmurations’ as part of a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council an the university of East Anglia on “how drama might serve the work of conservation in a time of extinction”. This show was the main outcome of the project along with a four-part seasonal radio drama set in a nature reserve for BBC Radio4, ‘Song of the Reed’.