Constellations: The Garden of Good and Evil [2023]

Where: Spier Wine Estate
Dates: November 3-18, 2023
Time: 7pm. Arrival time 6.30pm
Tickets: R250 to R375 per person and include a glass of Spier wine on arrival
Bookings: Webtickets
Direct booking link:
Age advisory: No under 16s      

“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in this life has a purpose, there are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.”― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I was reminded of these inspirational words at the start of Constellations: The Garden of Good and Evil at Spier, There is a sign at the start of the Constellations route: “Soon it will be quiet”. We need that. At 2023 Constellations in the woods at Spier, we get the opportunity to be quiet and become embraced by nature and art. The woods are noisy (noise in a good way -frogs singing, crickets chirping, branches swooshing), sure but there is the space to encounter a space without the constant pinging of electronic devices and there is the opportunity to let go of the piercing and fractured world of ours, for an evening of contemplation, in The Garden of Good and Evil.

The Garden of Good and Evil is the curatorial prompt that director Brett Bailey presented to artists who are performing/presenting work at Constellations 2023. Constellations is an annual immersive theatrical experience, in the woods at Spier Wine Estate. Artists prepare a piece and Constellations goers encounter each piece, around mini-camp performance sites. In 2021, the performance areas were lit by fires.  Last year [2022], the performance sites were lit by lamps- because the sites were far from Spier’s buildings and safety is always core to the event. This year, Constellations is located along the Eerste River, close to The River House building. There was considerable storm damage which meant that it was not possible to spread out the sites for 2023. The sites are clustered close to each other and there is less walking than in previous years. The sites are lit by a combination of fires and lamps.

As always, there is the thrill and excitement of walking through the woods and being received into the circle of light at the performance camp sites. There is a sense of “ahhh”. It is not often that the average person gets to walk in woods at night in South Africa and then be treated to a theatrical immersive experience, well, that is wondrous. It is up close, intimate and intense.

There are eight artists on the bill for 2023: The musician, Moodship (aka Gary Thomas); instrumentalist Sky Dlala; singer, songwriter and composer Laurie Levine; improviser and writer Megan Choritz; physical theatre performer Siphenathi Mayekiso; Belgian storyteller Gaetan Schmid; dance artist Gita Galina and interdisciplinary performance artist Mthuthuzeli Zimba. On each night, there are six creatives on the route. They are presenting 15 minute pieces. One of the joys of attending Constellations is that one does not know who will be revealed as one enters into each camp performance site. It is a surprise. One does not choose and select the artists or the route. You get what you get. We did not see Gaetan Schmid and Laurie Levine on the night that we attended.

For Constellations: The Garden of Good and Evil, the eight artists have been assigned characters. The characters are listed in the programme. For instance Megan Choritz presents “Ashes”. She narrates a compelling and moving story, set in the woods. I am not going to narrative spoil. Part of the Constellations experience is not knowing too much and I am wary of writing what it is “about”. The event is very much conceptual and open to interpretation as one experiences each piece. Choritz tells. Choritz is a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award Winning actor and she uses her voice as an instrument as she conveys her emotional story which left me feeling up-beat and inspired. I was intrigued by Moodship (Gary Thomas) – character “Spinal Chords”- and his use of a bow on his guitar (like a violin).

One is asked not use mobile devices while watching performances. Most people stash their phones away. It is dark and although torches are provided by guides, I would advise taking along a torch so one doesn’t have to take out the phone and have a screen flashing. For me, key to the Constellations experience is the forest, which is like a character in its own right– and its rhythms and noises. This year, because the performance sites are close to each other, one can hear sounds from some of the other performances. Some people found this distracting but I liked the sense of dialogue, set up- like little conversations taking place in the woods.

This year’s route started at 7.30pm. I felt that a 7pm twilight start (or even 6.45) would be better as we could then see more of the majestic woods. When we began walking, I was wowed by the giant proteas. I would have liked more light time to see the flora- and nature as a stage.

Constellations involves walking on uneven terrain. There is less walking than 2022 but still this is not an event that I would recommend for people who have mobility issues. One sits on tree stumps (there are cushions to provide some padding) so it is not for those with sore hips and legs. The mozzies and insects are everywhere so spread mozzie repellent liberally (do not forget the neck and face). Wear closed walking shoes (not sandals) and I strongly recommend not to wear shorts; long sleeves recommended – on account of the insects.

I love the Constellations experience – although as I have said to is not for everyone. I don’t use the word “unique:” often, but I think that Constellations is an experience of unique theatre immersion. I relish the solitude, the absence of screens and technology (there are no audio visual interventions) and the opportunity to be immersed in nature, with artists and their offerings. Get there early and enjoy a glass of wine (included in the R250 tickets – wine for adults obvs). Order a charcuterie platter- cheese option available for non-meat eaters – R750 for two tickets – includes the platter.  I look forward to Constellations 2024. Bravo to Brett Bailey, Third Word Bunfight and Spier, for once again activating the woods with vivid interventions – stories, music, song, dance. It is extraordinary to be out in the woods in the dark, with the light of fires and lamps illuminating pathways- through the garden of good and evil- and the shades in between.

Music in the woods: Moodship (aka Gary Thomas), performing at Constellations: The Garden of Good and Evil, Spier Wine Estate. Constellations 2023 is on November 3-18, 2023. Photo: Nick Aldridge/Brett Bailey

Featured image by Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn- Constellations: The Garden of Good and Evil, Spier Wine Estate. Constellations 2023 is on November 3-18, 2023.