Walk With Me (Felbrigg Hall)
In his first review from the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, Matt Trueman takes a stroll in the woods with Strijbos & Van Rijswijk's latest walkscape
For National Trust regulars, I daresay that whacking on some headphones for a site-responsive audio tour might feel like a novelty. For a jaded theatre critic, forever being bossed around by soothing, disembodied voices, the chance to see some actual greenery and breath in some cow shit – that's the novelty. Nature, eh? Who knew?
So ambling round the grounds of Felbrigg Hall, 520 acres of lush English idyll, I couldn't help but feel that Jeroen Strijbos and Rob van Rijswijk have come up with a perfectly good way to ruin a perfectly good walk. I mean, why would anyone want recorded birdsong pumped into both ears when, all around you, in every direction, songbirds are chattering and chirruping away in stereo?
Walk With Me attempts to dredge up the past of this 17th Century stately home. It's easy to forget that historical buildings have history – to see them as generically old, as opposed to teeming with secrets and stories; lives that were lived; pasts that were present. Here, they come back to life. Footsteps fall into sync with your own. Absent children chase each other through the bushes.
As you walk through the woods, long-dead inhabitants whisper in your ears like ghosts. A husband and wife stroll through the grounds, mulling childlessness and terminal illness. Two Victorian sisters dart through the trees, hiding and seeking and prodding dead rabbits. There's a homeless man hiding out in the bomb shelter, a 500 year-old Oak, hollow on the inside, and a ‘Victory V' path cheering pilots en route to Nazi Germany. There's more to these grounds than meets the eye.
It's a fragmentary thing, a soundcloud of voices and stories. As you walk, wireless sensors track your whereabouts and feed you the next instalment. Sometimes, without realising, you slip out of one story and into another, so that different eras seem to bleed into one another. Every channel-hop tunes you into your new surroundings, the way the landscape transforms as you pass. Trees open out into wind-battered fields. Pebbled paths lead you to manicured lawns. This isn't just one walk, it's many. In thickets of woodland, light struggling to break through the leaves, you hear of poachers and snares, then round a corner, as the canopy clears, airy pianos kick in.
It's a beautiful setting: picture postcard stuff. The chance to take it all in – rusting barbed wire and geese wading through marshes, flecks of colour and expanses of England – is a treat in itself, one that's heightened by the headspace Strijbos and van Rijswijk open up. The stories, however, are all but forgettable; the voices in your ears, so redolent and actorly; the fictional format, so false and so forced – it's like taking a stroll with a radio play. Really, though, what's wrong with just walking?
Walk With Me runs at Felbrigg Hall until 30 October.