Death and the Ploughman – A perfomance at Arnos Vale Cemetery.

Death and The Ploughman is a site specific production which takes place amid the stunning landscape of Arnos Vale Cemetery involving a community chorus.

In this showcase Tom Baily, the director talks about the show and in the video some of the chorus talk about what inspired them to get involved, and what it has been like to work on the project.


Can you tell us more about the play’s central characters and the actors you’ve chosen to play them?

In its previous stage incarnations, notably a production at the Gate Theatre in London in 2001, and later Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, they’ve worked with a cast of 3. There is of course Death and the Ploughman, but also the voice of God to deliver judgement. I am working with a cast of 2, and then a community chorus, who is an entourage of Death.

I guess it’s worth me emphasising here that this was not originally written as a play, but a dialogue on the page (a popular medieval literary form). It was translated in 2001 by Irish writer Michael West. It is still, on the page, a dialogue… do we are very much adding the theatre to it!

I wanted to make the encounter between life and death a powerful, compassionate one. So, although Death in the script is described with masculine qualities, I’ve decided to make Death into the appearance of the wife that the Ploughman has just lost. It’s reading upstream against the script, but I think it might work.  

The Ploughman is played by Scottish actor Paul Rattray. He holds an outstanding presence on stage. His thick Scottish accent really finds something fresh in this script (originally medieval German). Death is played by Helen Millar, whose ability to find the icy, animal, yet compassionate qualities of Death is exciting for me.

You have Chris Gylee working on the design of the play but what can audiences expect in the way of props and set in a semi-promenade performance which takes the audience on a journey through different spaces?

Chris and I have been working collaboratively on the design since Autumn 2013.

As a rule of thumb, we didn’t feel like we wanted to impose something on site. We wanted our intervention on the site to be slender, to work with the geography and history of Arnos Vale, its daily practice as a working cemetery and a maintained woodland landscape.

It’s also a huge site with a number of architecturally sensitive graves. So there have been a number of safety, historical, theatrical and personnel considerations to work around as I try to make a compelling theatrical experience from a medieval text. We felt that we wanted our project to be both minimalist and beautiful, that also allows the site to breathe its own significance during the production itself.

Where we situate the production in the landscape is partly due to thematic changes in the text, and also where we are able to actually make performance with an audience of 60 in the landscape (which is not a lot of places in the landscape.

Without giving too much away, we move to different areas in the site during the production. There is a good bit of walking in the site, as part of the reception of the theatrical experience. We spend some time inside the chapel and some time out in the landscape. The journey is one of ascent through the landscape.

Lighting has been central to our work too. We are making each part of the site where the action happens feel like one is passing through different ‘seasons’. Enough said… come along to find out more!

Making site specific work, particularly where there is an outdoor element, must have many challenges, but it must be very rewarding as well. Can you tell us about this?

Challenges to say the least, yes. There are of course many access considerations, safety and weather considerations, and with a cemetery, this of course raises a number of different issues. But at the end of the day it’s all aimed at giving an exciting experience for audiences.

Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust have been very accommodating in letting us use different areas of the site, and we are very grateful to them.

I suppose the main challenge is to find a middle ground where your artistic vision meets the physical and geographical presence of the site. How can site specific theatre really be true to the spirit of place, or explore what that spirit is? How can the site really feed into the artistic experience itself? These are questions that I find myself constantly asking.

Yes, the process is rewarding… provided everything goes to plan!  

What roles are the community chorus taking up in Death and the Ploughman? And how have you worked with them to get into character?

As mentioned, a community chorus of up to 16 is part of the entourage of Death. They also provide a landscape of movement and song to amplify themes of the text. They’ve been a delight to work with, and we’ve been rehearsing weekly since January.I wanted to work closely with the practice of the site, as well as the text. So the chorus of Death is a chorus of landscape gardeners.  
We’ve not actually done character work, as character is not the intention of this chorus. We’ve been doing movement with Laura Dannequin, song with Verity Standen, and a fair bit of plotting movements for the play. 

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The community chorus is made up of local people. What are their backgrounds and what has inspired them to be part of this project?

Well, the really touching thing is that some are coming, weekly, from as far afield as the Forest of Dean and Malmesbury to be a part of this project. So it’s not all Bristol-based.

The invitation, when we first made the call out, was for anyone interested in themes surrounding death, the play and the site. So a passionate connection to the subject is the first reason for people being here.

We have people with performing experience and those who have never set foot on stage. People have sung chorally for the first time and also done movement work for the first time. So it’s been a real journey for some people, which is very compelling for me.

Backgrounds of those involved include those who work at Arnos Vale as volunteers, a film maker, an insurance broker, an English teacher, a publisher and some who have retired. So a real range.  

Can you describe Death and the Ploughman and the experience audiences will have in 5 words?

Dance of Death

that’s a bit more than five, sorry.

Death and Plowman image

Death and the Plowman takes place 20th-30th March, click here for more details

Age recommendation 14+