Performance / STONES AND TREES Witley Court, Worcester

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The Independent Culture
The first Earl of Dudley was a kind of aspirational version of Ludwig of Bavaria. Taking over Witley Court in 1846, he transformed this Jacobean manor-house - already re-fitted with not one but two Nash porticoes (the neo-classical equivalent of stone cladding?) - into a Palladian tribute to conspicuous consumption, adding a pair of ornamental fountains that vie with the art of Jeff Koons in their total disregard for taste and decorum. Now an inspired co-production between English Heritage and West Midlands Arts has turned the building (in ruins since a 1937 fire) into the site for an ambitious arts programme, with Gerard McBurney's newly commissioned work as the inaugural event.

And fittingly, all modern country life was there: red-faced Chubb security men; concerned stewards whose yellow jackets declared them members of the Poseidon Fountain Restoration Society; and an audience of camcorder- happy tourists, curious locals and dedicated followers of either English Heritage or contemporary music, for whom the event was a kind of country- house version of Woodstock, with bottles of claret and flasks of coffee replacing Acid or Ecstasy as the tipple of choice. Everything in the garden was perfect, except for the weather. While Friday's temperature had soared to 93 in the shade, the sun failed to show for the anticipated glorious sunset, and we were left with the raw chill of evening as the entertainment overshot its cut-off point by 45 minutes.

It started falteringly, the promenade production - with a tootling saxophonist leading us around the various sites of the estate, each cued to a musical movement - failing to offer much to look at until night fell. With 300 of us following the leader, it was rather like that surrealist painting of a crowd of onlookers eagerly scanning the horizon in search of some mysterious, cataclysmic event. Even the composer, wearing a frown and clutching a redundant panama, looked unnaturally expectant. In contrast to the extravagant folly of the setting, the music (from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) spoke of an economy of means. Hard and precise, mixing percussion with brass and reeds, the governing tone was conversational: a dialogue between several reed players dotted about the deer park was particularly effective. But given those fountains, we were in the mood for excess.

It arrived eventually with "Fire in the Victorian Ballroom", a movement that saw the players backed by dry ice amid a marvellous lighting effect of licking flames. Then, with darkness visible, the final coup de theatre came at the Poseidon Fountain, smoke pouring from the dragon's mouth as the musicians, miners' lamps upon their heads, produced a fittingly grand and brassy finale, ending with chimes of percussion that rang across the deer park, end to end, the decay perfectly matching the death of the light. It was a wonderfully bold experiment, to be repeated, one hopes, in sundry loony sites around the nation.

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