For years, Leeds has been holding on to its creative talent with a desperate grip, digging its metaphorical heels in against the siren call of the Big Smoke. But in recent times, Leeds has begun to see something of a shift. The artists are putting down roots (pardon the pun) in this grand capital of the North, and The Wood Beneath the World is the city’s latest artistic offering. Taking its cue from performance installations like the haunting Overworlds and Underworlds you might remember from back in 2012, ‘The Wood Beneath The World’ is a delightful trip into the dark and eerie underbelly of human imagination, and the primal things that roam in the wild and overgrown spaces of the world.
Without giving too much away, the basic premise is this: hundreds of years after mankind demolished the great forests of Europe to make way for offices and town halls, the wild is crawling up through the cracks to take the land back. Hidden away in the crypt of Leeds Town Hall (did anyone else know that we even had a crypt?), a forest is growing.
You enter the venue space by descending a short flight of stairs to the right of the hall’s main sweep (don’t make the mistake I did and wander confusedly into the central reception area, blearily asking about a “magical forest”), and hustling in through a neat pair of double doors. Once inside, you’ll receive a delightful ticket stub, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and printed like the tram tickets of a Leeds gone by.
What I mistook for scruffy housekeeping is actually the first step on your journey to the wood beneath: brown and curling leaves scattered about the carpeted hallway you wait in before your tickets are checked and you start the descent below. As you venture through the town hall’s labyrinthine basement, you’ll see more and more of this woodland detritus building up around your feet, along with vines bursting through cracks in the wall and skittering up concrete pillars. It's this attention to detail that makes the experience at ‘The Wood Beneath’ so enjoyable. The journey is painstakingly constructed, and so subtle that, before you know it, you find yourself pawing fascinatedly in fascination at the walls, convinced that the growing forest around you is real. To say it was immersive would be an understatement.
As you start your journey, a City Hall caretaker named Jack greets you: he will be your erstwhile and paranoid companion down into the deep. Jack narrates the story of the wood, from the first rumblings of roots pushing up stone to the small piece of wonderment sitting deep in the crypt. What wonderment is this? For those uncomfortable with intense, lingering eye contact in dimly lit corridors, this may not be the experience for you, but I think you’ll find any sense of acute self-awareness fades very quickly. The actors are unflinching in their portrayal of souls lost to the woodland, with, as the creator of the whole event told me later that evening, multiple scripted one-to-one interactions with members of the audience. As well as Jack, there’s another caretaker figure whose identity, in the interest of not spoiling too much for you, I’ll keep secret for now.
At one point in the evening, I lost my photographer to her, watching slightly forlornly as she and another audience member were led down a separate corridor, with the rest of us remaining on the other side of a locked iron gate. For an eerie minute bordering on the frightening (I’m big enough to admit my sense of giddy anxiety), we remained behind the gate, listening to the lilting music playing from somewhere further below our feet, and watching flickering torchlight from somewhere around a corner, just out of sight. Jack was soon back to collect us however, leading us in to one of the most beautiful office spaces I’ve ever seen. Clearly the product of someone deranged (or perhaps enlightened) by whatever he’d experienced in the wood, Jack’s office is littered with layer upon layer of notes on mythology, astrology, religion, trees and the movement of the season. Take this opportunity to have a look around: flick through the books, read the hand scribbled notes, gaze at the strange constellation maps hanging, suspended by tape, on the walls.
Reunited with the two who had gone on their own adventure with caretaker number 2, this was when the magic really started. Handed a small torch each, we were let loose into the forest. It is also at this point that my recounting of events will stop. Suffice it to say, it was an unexpectedly raw and emotional experience. Thankfully for me, there’s an incredible pop-up bar at the end of the show, serving mulled wine, hot chocolate and a selection of craft ales, where you can perch on log benches, wrap yourself in blankets and recount your tales of the wood beneath the world.