An elegantly dilapidated Anglican chapel provides a sumptuous centrepiece for Biped's Monitor – a mixture of immersive theatre, performance art, music and dance conceived by multi-disciplinary collective Arbonauts and taking place every evening this week inside Nunhead Cemetery in south London. Reprised after its sell-out run at the same location in 2012, the project takes as its starting point Italo Calvino's Il Barone Rampante, or The Baron in the Trees – a tale of a young boy who, in a fit of rebellion against his sister Battista, climbs up into the trees and refuses ever to come down again. With its history of formal arrangement, then neglect and now semi-management, and resulting diversity of tree species (ash, sycamore, horse chestnut, even a formal Victorian avenue of limes) the beautiful Nunhead Cemetery is a perfect site for the performance to take place.
The evening begins before dusk, and we process one by one up the long, straight avenue towards the grand ruin of a chapel, long since roofless due to arson. On either side stand crumbling memorials (a headless and handless Anne-Marie looms large) and by them, rows of white-robed acolytes chanting in haunting, semi-avian tones.
From here, we're left to explore at our own pace, wandering amongst the beauty of the cemetery – tired and broken headstones, dense with overgrowing foliage; purple-flowering dead nettles; choruses of crows caw-cawing in the distance. In amongst it all, the performers drift and bustle. The young baron himself cavorts in languid fashion inside a teardrop framework, suspended from the branches. A white-clad girl leaps up to join him. Another, more bird-like, hurries up and down the pathways, tutting and chirruping, pausing only to writhe gently on a nearby swing to the soft backing of the choir.
As the sky drifts to darkness, cavorting sisters don funnel-like, beaky structures.
Elsewhere, lank-haired flunkies marshal proceedings – ushering small groups of visitors into a large white-box, temporarily trapped inside and leered at by those next in line. Perching for a moment on a tombstone some time later, I pick up one of the many old books dotted around inside the cemetery. “'What would you like to do now, Milly?' inquired Amy Long of her little visitor.” is as far as I get, before I'm moved on unceremoniously by a pair of hunched and grunting henchmen.
A horn sounds to summon us back to the chapel, and we funnel inside as violins strike up. A steeply angled banqueting table forms the focal point, around which the baron's sisters wail and warble, clad in sleepily ethereal white undergarments, structural bustles limiting every movement. Places are set simply with cross-sections of wood; cutlery goes flying as the flunkies scrabble around or stand aloof. Floating choral music is punctuated by the scrape of slipper on stone.
Then the tale is told, with gradually increasing lunacy, of a baron making “speeches in defence of birds”. Then, “sometimes the squirrels would carry off a letter of the alphabet”. Here, that hardly feels surprising. Up above, the open-air chapel wears its own crown of wispy-threaded buddleja. As the sky drifts to darkness, the cavorting sisters don strange masks – long, funnel-like, beaky structures – rise, and process back down the avenue. The bipeds have fused, reality reigned in by “progressively thinner and less palpable threads”, and by nightfall, they've disappeared. Now it's our turn.
Biped's Monitor is taking place at Nunhead Cemetery until 4th August 2013.