Theatre in Wales

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

Shake the World

Heike Roms on the short season of performances at Chapter Arts Centre during the Rugby World Cup

It was without doubt the theatrical event of the year. It offered everything a good drama could wish for: passion, pugnacity, pain and pageantry. Highly skilled performers played to capacity audiences. The action unfolded in a perfect dramaturgical curve, from the insecure beginnings of the first act to the tragic, yet heroic defeat of the fifth. Its climax saw the male lead being rewarded with the ultimate accolade for his selfless exertions on behalf o his country. The Rugby World Cup'99 proved that the theatricality inherent in competition and display makes the world of sport theatre's closest relative, and thus a rewarding subject for theatrical treatment. On the occasion of the World Cup, Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff organized a short season, entitled "Shake the World", which brought together several examples of contemporary performance work that investigated the many similarities between the two realms. Three companies, one from Germany and two from Wales, set out to explore such common elements as rule-bound choreography, communal appeal and cathartic outcome to intriguing and often very comic effect.
The season opened on Saturday, 9 October, the day the Welsh rugby team beat Japan 64-15 in their second match of the tournament. The attention of the German performance collective Showcase Beat Le Mot that day, however, was directed at a different ball game. Their Grand Slam -A Game in Five Sets reversed the notion of the sports ground as theatre and turned the theatre into a tennis court, complete with ball-machine and umpire's chair. The performers, five distinctly non-athletic looking young men dressed in the immaculate white of the sport, played serve and volley with the metaphor. They hit balls with electric guitars, recreated a tennis computer game with live actors, and lectured on the history of a sport in which "love is the aim of the game".

But behind all the fun lurked the cultural abyss that is today's world of organised leisure activity, a world, so we were told, that in a near future of rising unemployment will take centre stage. In Germany, Showcase Beat Le Mot's relaxed performance style, with its seemingly loose composition and self-conscious dilettantism, has been called "theatre muzak in the best sense of the word". But Grand Slam was a meta-comment on the workings of theatricality, which aimed in both directions. It suggested that at the precise moment when theatre lost interest in the development of characters and straightforward narratives, sport stepped in and gave us a world where rules still applied; individuals could become heroes and the whole of human drama unfolded between first serve and match point.

Two weeks later, on Saturday, 23 October, Wales lost to Australia 9-24 in the quarterfinals. In Chapter Theatre, two Welsh companies presented a double-bill inspired by the ubiquitous culture of rugby in this country. In Caligula Disco, Mare Rees took a personal look back at his upbringing in the south Wales valleys of the 1970s under the influences of disco music, male sporting heroes and pink bathroom suites. The thirty-minute choreography, which Rees devised in collaboration with German-based choreographer Angela Guerreiro, was originally part of a trilogy of dance-theatre pieces that examined the formation of identity in the space between self-image and stereotype. Like all of Rees's recent work, Caligula Disco took as its starting point the "square mile" of his childhood, which the performer evoked in an often funny, always moving manner, using personal anecdotes, recordings of his parents and images of their family home. But at the centre of the piece was the very poignant story of a gay man's attempt to negotiate his sexuality between the role models provided by gay porn on the one hand and rugby machismo on the other. Rees told the story of how he used to wear a Balaclava at night to keep in check the girlish curls of his hair. The woollen garment fitted his head as snugly as a rugby helmet, and we were left wondering if the hard men of rugby may also be wearing their headgear for coiffure purposes.

The second performance of the evening, Lifting by Pearson/Brookes et al, (i.e. Richard Morgan, John Rowley and students of Performance Studies at the University of Wales Aberystwyth), offered another take on the predominantly male physical culture of rugby. While outside the theatre drunken Welsh fans were roaming the streets, drowning their disappointment at the day's defeat, a group of young men in shirts and women in short skirts entered the room, carrying pints of beer and smoking cigarettes. As in countless Welsh town centres on a Friday night, they started their usual game of social routines and physical encounters, only this time their actions were prescribed by the movements and set pieces of rugby. Tackle, scrum, rucks and mauls, touches and throw-ins, line-outs and kicks were performed solo, in pairs and in groups. They provided the usual dramaturgy of rugby, from pre-match warm-up to the post-match exhaustion, with a subtext of social competition, sexual tension and gendered imagery.

But Lifting could also be read as a self-referential comment on the culture of physical theatre in Wales. Pearson, ex-Artistic Director of Welsh company Brith Gof, and his former colleagues Morgan and Rowley presented a kind of ironic inversion of their past work on Welshness, which often celebrated the body's fetishisation in visceral theatrical depictions of tragic, yet heroic cultural defeat.

Although very different in content and style, what linked all three performances in the "Shake the World" season was their joint attempt to undermine the workings of theatre as a spectacle that would reassure our communal self-image by holding up a mirror to our society. This past social role of theatre has today been taken up for good by the spectacular world of sport. This was nowhere more apparent than in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Rugby World Cup. Like other celebrations of this kind at major sporting events, they provided an occasion for the host country to display its own self-image to the world in a great theatrical extravaganza. Wales used the chance to present itself as a truly post-modern nation, in which the great icons of traditional culture are now worn as fashion accessories. The Rugby World Cup'99 thus revealed once again that the true National Theatre of Wales is not to be found in a darkened auditorium somewhere, but on the vast green stage of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Other cities have in their midst an opera building or playhouse that manifests how theatre was once believed to be the privileged locale where a society could publicly reflect upon itself. In Wales's capital, where the grand architecture of the new stadium dwarfs the town that surrounds it, the central position of the rugby arena leaves no doubt as to which institution currently offers the best insight into this nation's psyche,

author:Heike Roms

original source: Planet Magazine #138
01 August 1999


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