Before he created the Eden Project, Tim Smit came across a thousand acres of bramble and broken masonry on the Cornish coast, once the gardens of Heligan House. Neglected for decades and finished off by a hurricane in 1990, they seemed like a lost cause.
Then Smit found a faint pencil inscription on the wall of a ruined outdoor toilet: around 20 names, and the date August 1914. They were the gardeners who went off to fight, many of them died, and so the land decayed.
In 2014 the restored Lost Gardens of Heligan hosted WildWorks’ First World War commemoration, 100: The Day Our World Changed, a dusk-to-dawn piece about the start of the war. Now WildWorks has come back to look at the end of the war and the people who survived, using the company’s mammoth devising approach and weaving in testimonies and stories from others who have returned from more recent wars.
Those lost gardeners are in here, played movingly by current Heligan staff, as well as hundreds of other devastating memories. Around that is the Orpheus and Eurydice myth played out in giant set pieces among dozens of volunteers – singing, acting, playing in a marching band.
WildWorks shows have an approach to space unlike any other company. Their founder Bill Mitchell called the company’s work ‘landscape theatre’. The first scene takes over an entire hillside, using a community chorus to create a village on the day the troops return home.
The audience sits on hay bales while dozens of children run around, playing and shouting, and a choir sings. It’s an overwhelming introduction, huge and welcoming and inclusive. Then, across the evening we’re led from one spectacular set piece to another around the Gardens.
Nature does a lot of work: the Lost Gardens are stunning, especially on the East Lawn sloping down to the village of Mevagissey, with the sea visible and a few poppies sprouting up. There’s also a spectacular moment when a Cornish sunset filters through the trees during a scene in Hades.
But the beauty of the place is mostly used as a complement to a show that is the product of colossal human effort. And on top of WildWorks’ incredible community ethos and extraordinary process, this is a thrilling piece of theatre too. There are explosions and collapsing houses. The Underworld is a dystopian airport-cum-hospital ruled over by Hades, whom Nigel Barrett plays as a smoking, drinking boorish billionaire, petulant and annoying.
There is an extra, tragic poignancy to this production about how life goes on after death: WildWorks’ founder, Bill Mitchell, died in April last year. The company itself is working out how to move forward without him at the helm.
The melancholy moments are many, but there’s joy and life too. While the Orpheus myth doesn’t always map comfortably onto the First World War theme, the show, by a company coping with death, is an outstanding celebration of the persistence, the renewal and the potential of life.