Theatre in Wales

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

By Any Means Possible

Gwen Ellis looks at prodctions in December 2005

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALY APPEARED IN PLANET MAGAZINE No 174, DECEMBER 2005, and is reproduced with their permission

Rarely do we, in north Wales, have the opportunity to see world class theatrical pieces. I do note that Theatr Clwyd are hosting Peter Brook’s company Les Bouffes du Nord in February, but generally if we need to experience the work of such prestigious and innovative companies, we have to cross Offa’s Dyke. Ex Machina’s European tour of Robert Lepage’s Dragons’ Trilogy came to the Lowry Centre in Salford Quays on its way from London and Paris. Devised in the Eighties it is an epic tale of three generations told in three languages: Canadian French, Chinese and English. Politically it embodies the coexistence and uneasy amalgamation of the three. The floor of the traverse set is sand which is all that is left of Quebec’s Chinatown and a medium with which to build its stories. A parking attendant’s booth serves as an entrance to a Chinese laundry and opium den, a platform for several bedrooms and the base of a human aeroplane. An upturned oil drum is a high table where poker and mah jong are played percussively. The mimed rhythm of the shuffling, dealing, amassing and discarding of cards and the placing, sweeping and losing of money are transformed into sounds of hope and despair. Later, this oil drum will be rolled elegantly on its side to make raked patterns in the sand that will obliterate all traces of the illegal gambling den.

The glory of this production lies in its determination to tell its story by any means possible; a simple enactment is followed by a song or a dance or a moving tableau which picks up some of the themes and highlights them in a different way. It’s as if you were reading a novel and turned the page to find a fantastic musical pop-up picture of what you had just read. An Englishman’s first experience of smoking opium is conveyed by trancelike tai chi gestures, a submissive wife’s longing for the father of her child leads to a passionate dance with him while her family marches noisily around the perimeter of the sand, an Air France pilot turns into the very plane that he’s flying through the Canadian night sky as he recites topological data about the Chinese in Canada.

At the culmination of the second act a Kurt Weill song, sung in French in war time London about the futility of hope prefaces a sequence of joyful skating which turns into menacing marching while two women give birth, one in the West and the other in the East. These actions are repeated with increasing intensity while the accompanying music becomes almost unbearably invasive. It is one of the most moving things I have ever witnessed in the theatre.

Back in Wales, y Theatr Genedlaethol’s production of Hen Rebel by Valmai Jones, Cefin Roberts and Einion Dafydd has been filling our theatres to capacity. Here we have another version of the story of Evan Roberts and the religious revival of 1904. (Mal Pope’s Amazing Grace toured to full houses last year.) This was a straightforward community large-scale production of the sort our audiences feel comfortable with. There’s lots of singing, a sweet heroine (very well played by Angharad Lee), her male counterpart (nicely judged by Rhys ap William) and injections of humour (expertly provided by old favourites Maldwyn John and Llion Williams) and naturally, there is no controversy, no passion.

In fact, were I to sum up Hen Rebel in a word it would be: brown. Sets, costumes, playing were in muted and converging shades of brown. Theatr Genedlaethol seems to favour the same structure of staging for most of its productions: a large floor space with a narrow upper level which is accessible from the ground level by means of stairs. Romeo a Juliet and Plas Drycin were in this style. Here the levels are used largely to accommodate the amateur chorus which swell out the core company and play chapel congregation members and the politest tavern frequenters.

The singing, as we have come to expect from Ysgol Glanaethwy standards, is lovely and harmonious but it doesn’t move us. The metronome seems to have been stuck on the same beat for nearly every song. Well known hymns and folk tunes are sung very, very slowly, with all the verses and then some. I wondered if the idea behind this was to suggest the hypnotic trancelike state that revival congregations would work themselves into, but unfortunately in this case, substitute “hypnotic” with “soporific”. There were exceptions: a clever and complicated number, where a musical hall hypnotist (albeit more reminiscent of Joel Grey in Cabaret) accompanied by a pianist in drag (Owen Arwyn and Dafydd Huw James) performs in counterpoint to Evan Roberts (David Lyndon) and the chorus. In another instance, the chorus taunt Evan Roberts in a song where they conjugate the Latin verb to love; an effect marred rather when a voice whispers that “amant” (they love) sounds similar to “amheuant” (they doubt).

No one knows why Evan Roberts was so popular and what propelled him. Some have suggested that he suffered from schizophrenia for he certainly heard voices and would commune for hours with God. He remains an enigma and enigmas are notoriously difficult to play. Although David Lyndon sang with great clarity, he did not possess that focused intensity that’s a requisite for this kind of theatre. In his programme notes, he says that he has played Prince Charming in innumerable pantomimes and this is what we get in this performance, alas.

It would be interesting to explore the charisma and hysteria allied to evangelical movements and religious revivals in a devised ensemble piece with directors, actors, dancers, writers and musicians creating ways of conveying strong and disconcerting emotions. I wonder what the likes of Robert Lepage would do with such themes? Surely it’s important that we in Wales remain receptive to interpretations from the outside and learn from them when we are in the process of telling our own stories.

author:Gwen Ellis

original source: Planet Magazine
01 December 2005


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