Review by Kent Barker

Is there just the hint of the peeping Tom in all of us? A nosiness that needs to know what’s going on behind drawn curtains? If so, your curiosity can be sated in St Leonards where an extraordinary theatre group positively invites you to peek into their world. 

Gail Borrow’s ExploreTheArch ensemble is based at a substantial domestic home in a leafy backstreet. Previous events have taken place indoors, but current restrictions meant they had to reimagine their performance space for their latest production, Spirited. So, we sit outside in groups of six, staring in at curtained windows. When the drapes part we strain our necks and peer within. 

Alice Beadle
CREDIT: Ian O’Leary

The amazing sights we see we’ll come to in a moment. But first let’s pop back nine centuries and introduce ourselves to Marie De France. Doubtless familiar to medieval feminist scholars, others may have difficulty recalling her main oeuvre – twelve narrative poems or Lais written in Norman French around the 1180s. ExploreTheArch has chosen fragments from three of the tales and enjoined a musician – Alice Beadle, a dancer – Alison Cooper, and a visual artist – Erica Smith, to perform them. Two stories are recorded – only Erica speaks her lines. The three audience groups walk round from window to window, so where you start is random, and each performance is thrice repeated.

Erica Smith as Bislavret’s Wife

This is undoubtedly most taxing for poor Alice who not only has to play her violin while perched precariously on a ladder over a pool. This is undoubtedly most taxing for poor Alice who has to play her violin while perched precariously on a ladder over a pool.. It is hard to convey just how magical is the scene seen through the conservatory window as she prepares her set and fiddles in front of us. Director Gail Borrow is an experienced puppeteer and employs everyday objects such as colanders and toilet brushes, while a simple bow serves as a fishing rod, to play the violin and to shoot arrows.

First let’s pop back nine centuries and introduce ourselves to Marie de France

In all this De France’s tale, Guigemar, of a knight who has no interest in – but is ultimately saved by – romantic love, gets slightly lost. But this really doesn’t matter, so entranced are we by our performer’s feline movements and mischievously angelic smile. All too soon she closes the curtains on her mystical world and, doubtless, hurries away to prepare for her next performance. 

A Morality Tale

We, meanwhile, amble round to the front of the house where throne-like chairs have been draped with cloth and dressed in hazel branches and fairy lights. Now it is Alison’s turn to raise the blinds and invite us to peer into her dining-room world with a story fragment from La Fresne. Here two bold and valiant knights from Brittany both sire twins, but with rather different outcomes. It’s a bit of a morality tale, rather reminiscent of Chaucer who, we recall with some astonishment, was writing nearly two centuries after Marie De France. Puppetry is again to the fore, and our performer’s agile use of the big open windows boldly breaks barriers with the audience.

Outside Looking in

The third and final mise-en-scène is around the side of the house in what once might have been a coal bunker. Now Erica Smith has transformed it into the home of Bislavret and his ‘worthy’ wife. Worthy perhaps, but one who, discovering her husband is a werewolf, steals his clothes to prevent him from returning to human form. Needless to say, she gets her comeuppance. 

In an evening of close-up theatre, this third is perhaps the most intimate with Erica performing just inches from her audience, charming them with saucy smiles and witty asides.

It only remains for our guide, compère and director Gail, to wrap everything up on the terrace and meadow at the back of the house, having presided over perhaps the most innovative and charming evening’s entertainment – within or without a theatre – that I can recall.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.