Drama on the marshes

The Return of Walthamstow Mysteries

The Trial of the Trespassing Cow

Playwright Deborah Nash on the return of her site-specific theatre production, Walthamstow Mysteries

Creating a show custom-made for a particular space, or site-specific theatre, is an increasingly popular art form.

There are plenty of companies out there championing it. Punchdrunk, for example, brought us The Drowned Man, an epic Hollywood thriller in which the audience wore sinister beaked masks and roamed through multiple scenarios on four floors of a derelict warehouse in Paddington.

The audience is rarely sitting passively watching the action on some distant stage; it is usually physically involved in the play, sometimes an active protagonist.

But the distinguishing characteristic of a site-specific show at its best is that it cannot transfer anywhere else, this would run counter to its very definition.

One particular idea I like is the concept of ‘host and ghost’. Welsh performance company director Cliff McLucas explained: “The host site is haunted for a time by a ghost that the theatre-makers create.

“Like all ghosts it is transparent and the host can be seen through the ghost. Add into this the witness, the audience, and we have a kind of trinity that constitutes the work.”

Last year, I decided to make a site-specific piece for Walthamstow. Such was its success that the team is bringing it back for one final run on 5th and 6th September.

The marshes at the bottom of Coppermill Lane make a stunning set. After the frenetic activity of the High Street, the marshes bring an odd respite. Big skies, flat drained grassland, a river, a railway track, a rare adder’s-tongue fern, Belted Galloway cattle in the summer, plus dog walkers, cyclists, railway workers and haystack makers.

The way nature rubs up against aggressive urban intrusion creates a bristling tension, reflected in the history, included in the play. The trains cut through and the skyline is dominated by chloride containers, electricity pylons and spiked metal fencing.

The Walthamstow Mysteries mixes history with characters drawn from Walthamstow’s past, with the magic of the marshes tossed in.Structurally, it is a promenade to five different spots in Coppermill Fields where five scenes or chapters from a local history book are brought to life in a sequence of plays within a play.

The picnic table becomes the negotiating table where the Saxon Earl Waltheof and William the Conqueror duel it out in a game of cards; the changing usage of the copper mill is charted in a song and dance routine; the 1815 case Clarke vs Biggs is dramatised as the Trial of the Trespassing Cow.

And the finale takes place beneath a willow tree where the iron dragon of industrialisation and development fights a little boy who uses a twig as a sword. His name is William Morris.

The Return of The Walthamstow Mysteries: Saturday, 5th September at 3pm and Sunday, 6th September, at 4pm

Meet at the Coppermill Pub at 2.30pm prompt for a short 15-minute walk to the marshes. Please dress appropriately for the weather.