Lyn Gardner for The Guardian Newspaper
The most interesting theatre takes you where you didn’t expect to go, but director Ben Harrison takes you further still. As one of the foremost creators of site-specific theatre, Harrison has sent audiences on some surprising journeys. For an adaptation of Angela
Carter’s Bluebeard story The Bloody Chamber, he led us into the labyrinthine tunnels under Edinburgh. Most recently he brought a disused East London hospital back to life for Ghost Ward.
Harrison is now an associate director of the Almeida, which has staged its own site-specific experiments at the old Gainsborough Studios in Shoreditch and in King’s Cross.
But his new venture takes place in even more ordinary surroundings: a park playground. Decky Does a Bronco, a rite-of-passage story by Douglas Maxwell, was first directed by Harrison at the
Edinburgh Fringe, where it had rave reviews and walked away with an award.
A number of London theatres were so taken with this memory play about a group of lads in a city park that they offered to turf over their stages, and in some cases their auditoriums. But Harrison has remained true to Maxwell’s vision of the piece as an outdoor show played in a proper swing park where the sounds of children playing mingle with those of the actors.
This summer his revival of the show is touring to parks across England.
Harrison, 30, stumbled across the possibilities of site-specific theatre almost by accident.
He was directing a play about Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s when he had the bright idea of taking the audience into a nearby graveyard for the second half. What he didn’t know was that the city was about to provide an impromptu light show. As the audience gathered around a headstone and the play reached its climax, the castle behind was suddenly flooded with brilliant red. "It came at such an appropriate moment in the production that the audience actually gasped out loud. Of course it was only a lighting rehearsal for the Tattoo, but in that
moment I suddenly realised that you could never achieve anything so effective inside a theatre, not even if you had a £3m budget. I became interested in finding scripts and sites that could resonate with each other."
In the case of Decky Does a Bronco it is a perfect union. Set in the summer of 1983, Maxwell’s play is the story of a loss of innocence, both for the children and for their community. For nine-year-old David and his friends, whose rituals and speech are brilliantly evoked by the script, the height of achievement is "doing a Bronco" on the swings. A Bronco involves swinging
very hard while standing up, and, at the point when you are level with the crossbar, leaping off so that the seat wraps itself around the bar. All the boys can do a Bronco except for wee Decky, the smallest and most fragile of the gang. His failure leads to the tragedy that blights the gang’s adult lives.
Last year the production packed an even greater emotional punch because the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne was in the headlines, but Harrison and Maxwell deliberately played down the obvious links. "We avoided talking about Sarah Payne during the rehearsals, although her story was at the back of all our minds," recalls Harrison. "We knew we were taking this production to small communities and we felt we had to be careful about the emotions we might
raise. We do the show, we pack up and we move on. We’re a theatre company, not social workers, so we have to be responsible."
Even so the production stirred strong emotions, all the more because of the delicacy with which it approached its subject. It was amazing to see how many of the audience suddenly felt the need to put on their dark glasses, even though dusk was falling. As Harrison observes: "Sitting in the dark in a theatre feels like a safer place to cry than sitting outside watching a play in a circle. It is very exposing not just for the actors but also for the audience, and that introduces an interesting new dynamic."
The big question is, of course, whether Harrison himself can do a Bronco. For the first time, Harrison looks slightly flustered. "Er, actually I can’t. Well, the real answer is that I don’t know because I haven’t tried. I thought it would be terrible for the actors and for me if I tried and couldn’t, so I haven’t. You won’t tell
anyone, will you?"