Mulgrave, Mulgrave Woods, Sandsend

A ramble with the ghosts of Empire
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The Independent Culture

Something strange is afoot in the woods near Whitby Bay. If you amble along to the village of Sandsend and loiter by the old stone bridge - just where the cottages meet the forest edge - it won't be long before you're accosted by Mrs Clough. An eager-beaver in a cagoule and tweed skirt, she is your initial guide through the wilderness in this enticing promenade piece (created by the site-specific company, wilson+wilson).

Soon Clough (the droll actress, Sally Armstrong) is scuttling into the trees and beckoning you to follow. Mildly bossy but a terrific enthusiast, she points out the lovely sycamores, the English oaks and more "exotic specimens", including a monkey-puzzle brought back to these shores by an early explorer-collector.

These not-quite-wild woods are, in fact, in the historically complicated grounds of Mulgrave Castle. An 18th-century ancestor of the Phipps family (who still own the place) was a great admirer of nature but sought to "improve" it, too, commissioning Humphrey Repton to compile one of his red books of landscaping plans. Captain Phipps also played host to the botanist Joseph Banks and Omai, the "noble savage" he shipped back from Tahiti. Then in Victoria's era, the castle lodged the young Maharaja Duleep Singh who took to the hunting'n'shooting life of an English gent but was roused by his mother to protest against the British theft of his kingdom.

What's very curious, back amid the trees with Clough, is that she barely registers the Indian boy, in a smart grey suit, who stumbles past, splashing in a rocky stream and howling like a grief-stricken lunatic. This place is, you slowly realise, crisscrossed by generations of ghosts - a weave of tragicomic spirits who are, to various and debatable degrees, civilised or running wild.

When Clough suddenly disappears, a vintage horse-drawn carriage rolls into view and Captain Phipps and Banks, both in periwigs, leap out. They bound over to inspect the flora then betray impatience as they correct the highly poetic English of their exotic human specimen - the dignified innocent Omai.

Elsewhere, a hulking forester with a chainsaw springs out of the foliage, burbling about the folkloric tale of the shipwrecked siblings, Hake and Gull - one raised by a lord, the other hunted down like a beast. A silent wolf-girl, in animal skins, darts through the bracken, and Repton (Deka Walmsley on great form) stands in a long-overgrown glade, flipping through his plans.

Be warned, this is not a hike for the frail. And it's not dramatically flawless either. A few lines are fluffed and you rarely feel spooked because you know these encounters are art, not life. But that's fitting really, and there are some moments when you're wonderfully uncertain if a passing stranger is part of the show - just as you can't always tell the specially cultivated trees from the indigenous wood. At its best, this is like Alice in Wonderland, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Stoppard's Arcadia rolled into one, and the surreptitious stage management is phenomenal, with seven actors racing round playing 16 roles (plus local extras with bit-parts). The wandering, looping nature of the storylines reflects the walk itself.

If the criticisms directed at British cultural imperialism are somewhat predictable, some of the scenes that greet you are visually unforgettable, poignant and witty: a tree-house hung with chandeliers, armour and portraits pilfered from the castle; the weeping Indian man walking away into the sea; a life-size wooden elephant, seen earlier at the Maharajah's picnic, merrily roaring over the bridge on a pick-up truck and off into the sunset. Magic.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

To 3 July, 01947 602123

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