The Wood Beneath the World: Being led astray

Polly Checkland Harding

A new immersive theatre performance has opened beneath Leeds Town Hall – but is it as impressive as it sets out to be?

The Wood Beneath the World starts well. We are part of a small group, less than 15 people, each holding a ticket that looks like an old cinema stub. We have found our way through black gates tucked away to the side of Leeds Town Hall’s main steps and, at the end of a long, slightly stuffy corridor below ground level, we wait for the performance to start. We have been told that we will be taken into a world filled with secrets, via a pop-up forest that grows beneath the building.

At a little past the hour, a man in warden’s uniform appears, and leads us away beneath silvery heating pipes. He checks behind us, turns his torch into dark corners and speaks quietly about men who have been locked up down here. Again, he checks behind us. It feels as though we are being followed.

A world filled with secrets, a pop-up forest with growing beneath a building

What happens next fades from a genuine thrill into something far tamer and less involving than its introduction suggests. Part performance, part art installation, The Wood Beneath the World doesn’t fully commit to being either: there are only two characters, whose miniature narratives lose their way down some tenuous paths. The main feature, the wood itself, is beautiful but doesn’t provide enough visual distraction to make exploring satisfying in itself. You’re presented with the idea that this is also about an inward journey – the problem is that you find yourself mildly disappointed after such a promising start.

That said, the set you’re left to explore is rather lovely. Let go of the idea that it will be dotted with more than a couple of hidden spaces – or that there will be other actors, who will follow through on the threads of story you have set off with – and it can become quietly enjoyable to explore. Sink into strangeness, into a world beneath street level that’s better in reality than in description. Then emerge into the evening, holding onto a beautifully printed programme, and head for the pop-up bar. It’s cold and candle-lit, serving beer, cider and mulled wine in the town hall’s old cells. There are tables tucked into nooks you wouldn’t want to think about being locked away in. This is the bit that I’d go back for – to cup hot, homemade mulled wine and wonder pleasantly whether, in looking for a solid story, I’ve missed the point of this will-o’-the-wisp experience.

Planning a visit to The Wood Beneath the World? We recommend San Carlo Leeds for food.

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