Susurrus ****

Assembly @ Royal Botanic Gardens, 4 August – 6 September 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Susurrus is a radio play at heart. A really good one. Themes and images from A Midsummer Night’s Dream ebb and flow through a series of intertwined monologues. A scientist investigates the declining population of sparrows; a brother and sister remember their famous father; an ageing actress reminisces about her role in Benjamin Britten’s opera version of Dream. Odd phrases drop, sink, bubble under and resurface in other accounts like poetic refrains. Shocking revelations simmer and are unveiled with sensitivity and without bombast, encouraging reflection, not reaction. And between scenes, excerpts from Britten’s libretto accompany relaxing strolls through the Royal Botanic Gardens – because unlike conventional radio plays, this one comes with recommended surroundings.

Because this incarnation of Susurrus can only be experienced in the Botanics, the play has been subtly reworked to include them as a pivotal location. Maps are provided with the mp3 players and headphones, and a reassuring voice explains clearly when it’s time to move to the next marked spot. The scenes are intended to be played while static, seated on benches or in gazebos rather than on the move, once again encouraging reflection over action; but while most of the locations selected for lingering in are clear points of interest, others have little to focus on visually, diminishing the effect of juxtaposing audio with environment. One such location is actually a choke point, where the path narrows and meanders and absorbed wanderers are obliged to move aside for ordinary Botanics visitors. But Susurrus is a chimerical beast, radio-play-cum-classical-mixtape-cum-guided-tour, and what one head lacks in common sense another makes up in poetic prowess.

Written by David Leddy

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