Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

The actors take over the asylum

JOHN GOWER reviews Brith Gof's Hafod project at Ely Hospital , Cardiff

Brith Gof's latest production was literally a case of the actors taking over the asylum, with a three month residency in a disused psychiatric ward at Cardiff's Ely Hospital. They presented their work in progress at monthly intervals, offering the audience a frank and revealing account of their working methods, their disappointments and departure points. This was intimate and engaging enough a process to make you feel a part of the company, rooting, tooting for them at this difficult time. Certainly in many years of dutifully going to witness a dizzying and sometimes disappointing mixture of theatre both big and small scale, in Welsh and English, cutting edge and predictable, this was an experiment that drew me in, close up. After the first work-in-progress presentation I felt genuinely excited about the ones to come. Thus in one session this company managed to dispel a growing feeling that here was a group of serious and gifted artists no longer sure what to do with their scaffolding and video cameras.

The audience did, on occasion, genuinely change things. Jenny Livsey undertook to learn thirteen ways of walking with difficulty, mimicking the spinal affliction which dismantled Mariamne Johnes's body - only to be castigated by the audience on grounds of political correctness. It was striking to witness the gargantuan efforts of the other members of the cast. Eddie Ladd decided to learn to move without the least echoes of those formative influences - her mother and father. Thus liberated, she went on to interpret the French revolutionary calendar within a precise choreography that gave avacillating sense of coiled springs and flowing freedoms. Similarly, Richard Morgan, who admits that even from childhood he has enjoyed climbing around, learned to describe this theatre space, this virtual Hafod by negotiating the walls of the room without touching the floor.

With that wit the company so often employs when harnessing technology he then projected an image of himself making the same moves which he shadowed exactly, an experiment in time and motion.

Project director Clifford McLucas listed many reasons for the residency, including allowing the performers to be co-creators, and to bring the audience into the heart of the creative process. Since 1980 Brith Gof has created 80 shows from scratch usually in periods of four or five weeks. To achieve this rapid turnaround they have had to employ a "theatrical shorthand" so Hafod - the Plan, the Elevation and the Lunacy in his Common Sense would liberate them from these constraints and allow them to take a look at that process. This all happened, of course, at a pivotal, some might say critical time for the company, with the docking of 20,000 from its Arts Council grant. And in opening themselves up in this way one had a glimpse of how hard the performers work, how deeply they all think about what they're doing but also how, somewhere in the transmission, the messages become fudged.

The piece took its cue from the tale of Thomas Johnes and his long project to create Hafod, a Welsh Xanadu in the upper reaches of Cwm Ystwyth, where this pioneer of agriculture created a perfect and picturesque world and lived with his wife and disabled daughter Mariamne like "peacocks in paradise."

It was left to new cast member and techno-whizz kid Gerald Tyler to transform the old wards into a theatre space. They decided, for the final show to split the audience and run the show on two levels, the actors appearing and disappearing through holes in the ceiling. An evocative sound-track, rippling piano and spacy ambience was provided by Stewart Lucas and Richard Morgan whose researches into Handel's seemingly apocryphal visit to the Hafod estate led to his playing various records through a series of Dansette players, thus creating a weird soundscape of industrial drone and classical echo.

Having seen the research and the punishing physical preparation which went into the in-a-sense rebuilding of Hafod one perhaps already intimated that the final production could only give some vague senses of all its parts, a sort of theatrical palimpsest. Clifford McLucas, had mediatated long and hard on the subject - as evidenced by the back-up material we were sent as the piece evolved - reading deeply to achieve two things - "one has to get close enough to smell his breath, and yet far enough away to remember his strangeness."

This was indeed strange theatre; the final production lacking explanation of what the actors were doing, how they had arrived there. It was an exercise in semiotics where, in the final analysis you only got a series of signals while meaning, like a stubborn flower does not open itself up. Getting inside Brith Gof's collective creative process was a necessary glimpse of their abilities and ambitions, both singularly and severally. It now remains to be seen whether they have the time and perhaps the political sense to re-invent themselves sufficiently to stay in business. There is no doubt that they have talent and intelligence in abundance. But sure as eggs is eggs, they need a new direction. This was, one hopes, at the very least a positioning exercise to chart that course.

author:Jon Gower

original source: New Welsh Review #37, Summer 1997
01 July 1997


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