Theatre in Wales

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

Small World at 40 Years Old

Exhibition Celebrates Work in Many Countries

Theatre in Wales is a garden rich in hue and variation. It has its great survivors- Volcano, Arad Goch, Marc Rees- still active after thirty years or more. But there is a company- small in name albeit not in spirit- which is still more venerable. Exhibitions of theatre in Wales are not frequent. Small World's photograph, text and puppet exhibition reveals 40 years of artistic activity.

Michael Billington has written of three strands of theatre he takes pains to avoid. Puppetry features as one of the three. The aesthetics of puppetry are intriguing, quite distinctly their own. We are a species hard-wired in fascination with ourselves. The puppet is both instantly human, but a-human at the same time. Faces may be moulded into expressions of exquisiteness carrying loss or pain. They lend themselves well to didactic purpose. Live actors are not the best medium to convey, for instance, a public service message about sewage. Through the life of puppets it can be done and done well.

Ann Shrosbree and Bill Hamblett have done it once. As the exhibition shows, their forty-year collaboration has taken them many places. The room in their own distinct Cardigan venue allows for just a small selection of the activity. In 1985 they were in the Nile province of Sudan working with the Sudanese Forest Department. Young men of the area were recruited and trained in puppetry. The subject of the show was life in the desert villages, the tensions as always between nomadic and settled ways of life. Good stories require villainy. The goats and charcoal burners who harm the trees took that role.

Small World were once Dandelion Puppets and it all started with “Dora's Dilemma”. Its theme was the interconnectedness of everything and it played appropriately over the summer of 1979 at the Centre for Alternative Technology. The company name changed and the place is recalled. The occasion was chips on the pier at Ramsgate.

Over 1990-1992 they played in 180 schools. The school halls hosted a shanty town and the children saw the struggles of poor Kenyans to achieve the human rights that were their due. A part of the story had a child falling ill after drinking unclean water. In Draperstown in County Derry the players found some children poking around the bottom of the set. “Where's the stream?” they asked.

The collaborators over the year impress. The Nuffield Foundation sponsored the research in Kibera, the vast slum city on Nairobi's edge. Save the Children supported the tour. The British Council in Kampala enabled “These Rights Are Mine” developed in six secondary schools. It too toured widely, culminating in a performance at the Uganda National Theatre. The British Council with the Irish charity GOAL saw a return to Uganda to work with the orphan children of AIDS-infected parents. The text does not flinch away. “Sadly most of these young people have since died.”

In Tanzania “Your Vote Counts” took street theatre to poor communities to increase democratic participation. In Kigoma in Tanzania the subject was women's reproductive rights. Consultancies have taken place in Zambia and Liberia. The country list across the Middle East and Asia takes in China, India, Nepal, Syria, Vietnam.

A picture from Hong Kong shocks. A high razor wire fence divides the photograph. It contains a camp for immigrants from the mainland. The administration of the Territories was at the time still colonial. That within the camps was the province of Triad gangs. When the players took the children outside they faltered when they encountered the modest gradient of a small slope. They were unused to terrain that was not the flat surface of their camp life.

The chronology moves on latterly to Wales. Sean Vicary and Steve Knight came on board to add animation for “Mufaro” in 1999. Toby Downing and Debbie Howlett became collaborators as performers and makers of puppets and costume. “One Way Street” (below 6th June 2014) was a long-term ambition. Puppets are malleable creations and villains from the Kenyan city and Sudanese forests were re-modelled to walk the mean streets of the United States.

Small World last featured on this site in the summer of 2018. See below 21st July. “Cragen” was seen by 40,000 people in all.

Cardigan is a good way west. It's not quite the edge- there are three miles more to Poppitt and Gwbert which watch over the estuary. But the company took a call this year from a town a long distance east. The result was that a twenty-five foot high Brân was to be seen this past July on Hartlepool's waterfront. Cleveland has had its difficulties and there was a line from “The Healing of Brân” that they liked: “There is no leader who is not a bridge.”

Small World: small maybe by name, not small in ambition.

The exhibition has now ended.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
22 October 2019


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