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'I'm a great believer in play'

When naturalist Richard Mabey spent time at the RSC he discovered what linked the art of comedy to survival in the natural world. He talks to Eleanor Margolies about Shakespeare, David Attenborough and 'syrupy' writing.


richard mabey
Richard Mabey
Theatre wasn’t particularly interesting to me until an extraordinary occasion in 2005, when I was invited to help with the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Gregory Doran. He roped me in to make a film about natural symbolism and I also wrote a programme note for the production. Seen through Greg Doran’s eyes, Shakespeare suddenly re-opened itself to me. It was a complete revelation. It was witty, funny, physical.

The play – in the sense of playing – was as important as the content. What mattered was the play between people – and that was in everything that was happening on stage.

I think I understood theatre in Joseph Meeker’s terms properly for the very first time. I’m a great believer in play. I basically go along with Meeker’s idea – as I described it in Nature Cure - that play is the purpose of life.

Joseph Meeker’s book The Comedy of Survival is about a metaphorical resonance between survival in the natural world, and survival in literary comedy. The comic way is about durability, survival, reconciliation and above all, play. It was a huge experience to be involved with that [production], and it helped me understand something important about myth and theatre.

However, there is a problem with myth. It’s a question that arises for all of us who write about the natural world or make glamorous films about remote parts of the world. As I discuss in Fencing Paradise, myth is fundamentally very valuable. It’s the way that humans get to grips with the world, with the imponderables. But it can replace the real world. In a sense, myth is the progenitor of virtual reality. Watching Attenborough’s 'Planet Earth' I wondered: do we really know whether the animals shown are real? Would it matter if they were simulations? Would anyone mind?

Joseph Meeker argued in 'The Comedy of Survival' (1974) that plants and animals demonstrated a ‘comic’ response to life: immediate, flexible and attentive, with strategic adaptation to new circumstances. In this extract from 'Nature Cure', Richard Mabey wonders whether the ‘whole company of nature, ourselves included, is simply at play’.


‘The ultimate expression of the comic way is play, an almost universal phenomenon among more complex animals (and which includes what humans call art), and one which, in its exuberant purposelessness, seems close to the heart of the whole business of life. Play is the opposite of Management by Objectives, the current creed which rigidly screens out spontaneity, imagination and surprise as parts of the creative process. A play ethic with rules would be a contradiction.

But Meeker suggests a Playbill of Right for all creatures – subject of course to tacking, negotiation and daily revision:

    All players are equal, or can be made so.
    Boundaries are well observed by crossing them.
    Novelty is more fun than repetition.
    Rules are negotiable from moment to moment.
    Risk in pursuit of play is worth it.
    The best play is beautiful and elegant.
    The purpose of playing is to play, nothing else.'
from Nature Cure (2005, London:Chatto & Windus) pp 200-201.
It’s a problem for a writer too. By writing you can pick something out and make it seem more important than it is. It is a challenge: for the writing to be important and vivid and yet not push the subject into oblivion by becoming a substitute for it. I have no answer to the problem – no answer except hard thinking and watching.

There is one kind of answer in John Clare’s poetry. The poems have a great quality of evocation. You would never read a Clare poem instead of going outside; it makes you want to experience the real thing.

I’ve talked to the poet Kathleen Jamie about this quality, about how writers can let the things they write about shine through. The term she uses is ‘transparency’. In contrast, the great failing of wildlife television is its refusal to admit the existence of the hidden. One doesn’t have a sense of inwardness; everything is drawn out onto the surface.

There are very few twentieth-century English ‘nature writers’ I bother to read, but there are some outstanding writers on nature.

I love Iain Sinclair – all his London books of course, but also Edge of the Orison, his wonderful book about the poet John Clare, retracing his walk from High Beach asylum in Essex back to Northampton. It’s fabulous. It’s not really nature writing, and yet... The Snow Geese by William Fiennes is another great book in this area. It took me a while to get to love it. I was distracted by the affectations of the modern novel, the listing of all the objects people carry about with them, and the brand-names. But I became more and more attracted by his description of the journey and of the birds themselves.

Ronald Blythe’s work goes back to Akenfield, but more recently he’s published a trilogy collecting his Word from Wormingford columns for the Church Times. They bring reflections on local, theological and philosophical matters together with a description of the life of the writer.

I love Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, which is about swimming his way through Britain. And in Findings, Kathleen Jamie has written far and away the best book in my field.
The Eden Project is not intended to be a zoo, but a ‘living theatre of plants and people’. But in this extract from 'Fencing Paradise', Richard Mabey encounters two 'colubus monkeys'.


'They’re performance artists, of course, not real monkeys... but the detail of their costumes and their body language, and their piercing, primate eye contact, give them a compelling presence. These actors have watched the colobus at close quarters. They squat on their haunches, arms looking impossibly long for humans, and gaze about in quick jerky glances. One gets up on all fours, and, every limb stretched out straight, advances towards a small boy. He’s about five years old and holds his ground, giggling uncontrollably in a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. He knows it’s not a real colobus. But it’s not unreal either, not a computer graphic or a creature from a wildlife documentary. It may be a human, but that doesn’t stop it being a live animal, unpredictable and mischievous.

By now both monkeys 

are working the crowd, untying shoe laces, emptying kids’ bags on the ground, rushing off with anoraks. The children are in paroxysms of laughter and discomfiture... These artfully intimate performers have taken them to limits that no longer occur in their lives. The monkeys are the strangers (and the strangeness) by whom children are no longer allowed to be touched. They are symbols of the wild in which they’re no longer allowed to play.'


from Fencing Paradise (2006, London: Eden Project Books). pp 189-190.

I return to the Romantics – Clare, Blake and Coleridge especially – again and again. But in terms of my professional writing, most of the books I now read for pleasure and inspiration are American. There has been a tradition of high-quality nature writing in America from the nineteenth-century on, with Henry David Thoreau there at the start, of course. The American tradition is really exciting: broader, more poetic and with a greater sense of philosophical enquiry than anything in Britain.

Other American writers important to me are Joseph Meeker, Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, and David Quammen. Quammen’s Monster of God looks at the role of big predators in the human consciousness – what does it mean to us to know that there are man-eating lions, tigers and bears out there?

Writing in the UK has tended either to get bogged down in a scientific approach or to adopt a sort of syrupy ‘countryside’ tone, which I don’t go in for.

Because the United States contains really wild places, the writers aren’t afraid to write wildly. Their vision is bigger. And they are considered writers, not ‘nature writers’. Annie Dillard won a Pulitzer prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a level of literary honour that is scarcely thinkable in this country.


 © Eleanor Margolies

Eleanor Margolies edits Puppet Notebook, the magazine of British UNIMA, Union Internationale de la Marionette. UNIMA's website is .

fencing paradise
Richard Mabey’s most recent books are Fencing Paradise, (2006) a widely-ranging sequence of essays on plants and the stories we tell about them, springing from a residency at the Eden Project, and Nature Cure, (2005) an account of his gradual exploration of a new landscape, with rich reflections on the interaction of human and wild life.

His other books include Whistling in the Dark - In pursuit of the Nightingale (1993), a study of nightingales and their presence in literature, a prize-winning biography of Gilbert White, and Flora Britannica (1996), an encyclopaedic study of plants and their roles in British culture.

published in 2006

'What mattered was the play between people – and that was in everything that was happening on stage.'


'Play is the opposite of Management by Objectives.'


richard mabey

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