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Monday, June 27, 2022

Taking a journey with ‘Dart’

Ben Ray is swept away by the mysterious voice of this river

“This is me/ Anonymous water soliloquy.”

‘Dart’ is originally a book-length poem by Alice Oswald, tracking the life and the voices of her native river, the Dart, from its source to its mouth; tracing its wild, reckless journey through the wilderness of Dartmoor down to the sea. Having already read and loved the poem, I was curious as to how it would be adapted for the stage of the BT Theatre. I am happy to say it did not disappoint.

In a daring and imaginative blend of sound, film and instillation put in place by the sound and lighting technician Will Forrest, the performance cleverly brought the poem’s words to life. The intricate lacing of poetry and sound wove the river’s various voices around the audience and seemed to immerse us bodily into the depths of the water as the actors voiced the different stages of the river’s journey. From a solitary, grizzled long distance walker exploring the Dart’s source, to the young, daredevil kayakers that battled the current and swerved around boulders, to the fishermen who plied their trade and spent long hours out fishing in the Dart estuary- all were flawlessly explored and expressed as we were taken on the water’s winding journey through the landscape down to the wide sea.

The strong and imaginative acting was enhanced by the play’s beautiful staging, put together by set designer William Rees- the opening scene contained only two bell jars of river water lit up from behind, creating the eerie effect of river patterns shimmering across the room. And then the stage seemed to suddenly come alive- from plastic sheeting encasing refuse and weeds, to fleeting, shivering film projections onto the back wall, the clever use of the minimalist props let the beauty of the poetry shine through. This was presumably accompanied by a series of very quick costume changes, as each character re-appeared dressed in different clothes, giving the river a multiplicity of voices and personalities that belied the small cast of only five.

There is the worry that the beautiful sparseness of the set may impede the understanding of those who have not read Alice Oswald’s poem- the lack of context and the swift scene changes create the danger of leaving audience members confused and lost in the play’s swift transitions. However, under the wonderful directing of the directors Grace Linden and Alice Troy-Donovan these problems are quickly dealt with, using subtle background projections and the actors expressions of the poem itself, which helps to ground the scene for the audience.

Despite the beauty of the staging and the intelligent and sensitive shaping of the material into a presentable form, it is, however, the beauty of the poetic language of Alice Oswald that really makes this play memorable. Where the wording could appear cryptic and complex, the staging and careful handling of the script gently helps the audience to understand the actions on stage. Oswald’s words create an intimate link between the actors and the audience, and give the performance a strange tinge of magic that stays with you long after the final words have been left hanging in the air. From the mythical to the mundane, the river Dart is brought to life in speech that slips and slides like the water it describes, sweeping the audience downstream in a gentle wash of words. This piece of writing is beautifully handled and imaginatively, lovingly brought to live- it will be hard to look at rivers again without thinking of the stories in the gentle murmurings of the water as it flows down to the sea.

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