The Last Wilderness
David Napthine, with music by Duncan Brown
Harehope Quarry, Frosterley, Weardale
I've written before about our tendency to try to fit productions neatly into categories - this is a play; that is a musical; something else is a play with music - and it's something I always try to avoid, but I have to confess that my first thoughts on The Last Wilderness were: what is it? where does it fit?
Obviously it's a site-specific promenade production but the nearest category I can fit it into is a cantata with spoken dialogue. In its form it reminds me of the Bach cantatas, specifically Wachet auf (BWV 140) with its chorus, chorales, recitatives and duet interchanges - "Wann kommst du, mein Heil?" "Ich komme, dein Teil" - but with the addition of a spoken narrative and some dialogue between characters.
It's performed by three professional actors (Charlie Richmond, Tony Neilson and David Napthine), a professional singer (Rebecca Pedlow), the Bishop Auckland Choral Society, the Sing Up Chorus and a band of amateur and professional musicians, so it is very much a hybrid community/professional production.
It's the story of Thomas Allman (Neilson), a North Pennines hill farmer suffering major financial problems, who is faced with a decision, whether to sell his farm to the mysterious Stranger (Richmond), a Mephistopheles-like figure who offers him the answers to his problems. The ghost of his wife Elizabeth (Pedlow), along with the Sing Up Chorus of young people who represent the elements and the ghosts of the past, provide the counterbalance and lead him to the "last wilderness" where he must finally make his decision, where he must face up to who and what he is.
Neilson captures Allman's anguished dilemma powerfully, torn between the seductiveness of the solution offered by the businesslike Stranger of Richmond and Pedlow's yearning portrayal of the long dead wife. As the Narrator, Napthine has a sardonic air, taking no side but, with a sometimes amused detachment, commenting on the action.
The music is eclectic, with elements of folk, jazz and classical choral - and there's even a didgeridoo at one point.
The piece is perfectly suited to its venue. Quarrying at Harehope first began in the twelfth century and its marble can be found in the Chapel of Nine Altars in Durham Cathedral. Its limestone was used in iron ore refining in Consett, Tyneside and Teesside and more recently in road construction, so it is very much a part of the life of the North Pennine area. The sense of history and the wildness of the area mixes with the music and the gathering gloom to create an almost mystical atmosphere which lifts Thomas Allman's - appropriate name! - individual dilemma to the universal.
It's short - about 70 minutes including the time taken to get from site to site - but it packs a lot into the time and the audience (inlcuding this critic) was involved throughout, in spite of the attacks of the killer midgies which swarmed around our faces (and other body parts) throughout. If you go to see it - as you should if you're in the area - wear a powerful insect repellent. You'll need it!
Until Saturday 12th September
Reviewer: Peter Lathan