Four grey-robed Keepers tend the grounds of St Alfege churchyard and the gateway to the next life. From a list of names of the interred, three are chosen: Levinia Fenton, Gibson Grimly and Jose Manuel Fricachee—unquiet spirits who need to tell their stories in order to move on. One is a bride who sees her hopes reflected in the sheet of a mirror; another is a disobedient boy who disturbs the equilibrium of the forest by picking its plants and flowers; the last is a man who narrates a story of travel and displacement on a world made out of water.
Developed specifically for St Alfege's deconsecrated churchyard, The Garden is a benevolent and good-natured piece that reaches for, and doesn't quite attain, the heightened style of a folktale or fable. The problem I think is that it wants it both ways: it uses a mode of storytelling that is characterised by isolation, illogic, magical acts, yet seeks also to create very direct connections with the history of its setting. As a preface to the piece, one of the Keepers reads out the names of some of the churchyard's real interments—including the odd recognisable figure: Thomas Tallis is buried at St Alfege—and immediately sets up a conflicting pull between the lyrical ambition of the writing and the weight of the location. You end up being pulled out of the world the production then tries to draw you into: watching the Keepers in their heavy robes I was mostly thinking how hot they must be; I don't think I was being obtuse.
Strange Fruit, who work on six-metre high sway poles, take a backseat in the production, with the four poles nothing more nor less than a flexible piece of set able to represent a tree or become the invisible force that flies a spirit through the air. They allow some invention by their height and position, such as when a green vine is pulled out into an overhead canopy, then allowed to drift down to become a forest wall, but in the end it feels like the circus element lies on top of The Garden rather than reaching far down into it—just as the production falls short of a meaningful connection with its setting, or with its other cited inspiration, the poetry and vision of William Blake.
It is most successful in the final section, handled by Milton Lopes, a soft graceful presence who before the show was to be seen wandering the grounds of the churchyard. He stopped by people and signed to them wordlessly to take an envelope, on which were the few lines of a poem, and in which was a small handful of seeds; you took the envelope, read the lines, and poured the seeds into his hand—a small, silent interaction that somehow felt right exactly, and that outdid the whole rest of the production in tying together the threads of its inspiration.