Theatre in Wales

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

Fun, feelings and the future

JENI WILLIAMS reviews recent theatre in Wales

Last month I was sitting in Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, watching Chicago-based Goat Island performing The Sea and Poison and was completely filled with delight. Just occasionally the thought that I couldn't be here drifted through my mind and I would shiver with pleasure that I was. This was one of the high points of an autumn of new and original theatre that has more than made up for the paucity on offer over the summer.

Made in Wales seemed to start, showcasing four works in progress at The Space in Cardiff on October 3rd. These were the result of speculative commissions growing out of Germaine Greer's study of the female artist, The Obstacle Race. Of course the main obstacle was sex, from the issue of a 17th-century artist raped by her tutor to the situation of a (mythical) Sensation artist who treats her sexual experience as raw material for art, until it and she becomes one more commodity in a market where everything's for sale. Some of this work was interesting (I particularly liked the use of time in White Gloves) but the true value of the afternoon was the opportunity to develop ideas without undue pressure.

People go to the theatre for very different reasons: a few weeks later I sat in Cardiff's New Theatre with an audience that laughed before the lines were spoken. They seemed comfortable with having memories of the celluloid version of The Importance of Being Ernest triggered by performers who acted as if they were in a costume drama on television. Dora Bryan was perfect as Miss Prism but no one else touched her. As I watched this wooden production, wistful fantasies of another, fresher version, this time starring Julian Clary, kept sliding into my head. Considering the rediscovery of Oscar Wilde it seems high time that his plays were rescued from nostalgia and re-aappraised to allow their sophisticated sneer at hypocrisy and double lives to emerge with a little venom. Camp is, after all, an art in its own right, and Wilde was one of its great practitioners.

I don't understand the attraction of fun, fun, fun, but it seems popular. Last May there was a humorous interpretation of The Tempest; now we've got an amusing Richard III set in a nursery. Richard is blackly comic (see Ian McKellan's stunning film version), but I felt that the English Shakespeare Company sacrificed complexity for laughs. Acting and set were impressive in their simplicity and ingenuity: a hat or a pair of glasses differentiated characters; a block of stairs packed with cupboards, allowed for the imprisonment and revelation of figures (and allowed the circulation of parts among a cast of four). The set opened out to reveal Richard's prize as an inflatable castle (literally) made of air. Displacing the ritualistic violence of a play based on the bloody conclusion of the Wars of the Roses into a nursery with a bouncy castle works well as a comment on the vacuousness of the prized throne and the temper tantrums of the players, while anyone who has read Lord of the Flies would recognise the fear and paranoia such an untended nursery could have evoked. But it didn't it was as if there was a fear that the audience might get bored if the pace was allowed to slow. It is important to recognise what was lost in a Shakespeare play slashed to an hour, and spoken so quickly that the conceit of the nursery took precedence over the manipulation of language: Richard's source of power. Here we lost two important (and relevant) aspects of the original text: language as power and the politics of gender (the laments and curses of the massed women would have been too monotonous). Shakespeare as comedy gains ground. People laughed, I suppose that's the most important thing.

Speed and comedy go hand in hand in conventional productions of Ayckbourne. The middle classes' favourite playwright, Ayckbourne is produced by amateur and professional companies alike, but his cutting social comedies are usually played so quickly that the bleak undercurrents of the texts are lost. In their version of Time of My Life (Cardiff, Sherman, November 2nd), Volcano focused on the text's play with space and time. The fractured Stratton family seems able to communicate only in a restaurant run by 'foreigners'. As neither a domestic nor a workspace, the restaurant allows skirmishes between men and women, older and younger generations, those within and those outside the family,to take place on what seems literally 'foreign' ground. The deadly fixity of the English is highlighted by the mobility of the foreigners all six of the restaurant staff being played by one man and the fact that most of the comedy emerges through the relation of the English to the foreign. In this production everything was slowed down, the various tables set on revolves which slowly turned to reveal the hidden social mechanisms propelling each of the characters. The gradual uncovering of manipulation and corruption within the family through the patriarch (Gerry) in the public sphere and the matriarch (Laura) in the private together with its corrosive effect on the younger generation, is very powerful. Volcano's production heightened the division between the generations, with the younger, freer figures (progressively moving backwards in time as the play developed) chasing each other over the stage, sliding against the walls and leaping onto tables to be serenaded by a waiter. The older generation dominated the centre, the play opening with the erect figure of Gerry standing in the centre of the table as the rest of the family moved confusedly about him. The middle generation, moving forward in time to divorce and disintegrating career, were unable to relax or control space, the philandering son and anorexic wife always rushing in and out, always late, disconnected, pushed for time. This bitter comedy reveals Ayckbourne's connections with other chroniclers of hypocrisy, betrayal and decline like Ibsen and Chekov and, in its restraint, demonstrates a new side of Volcano.

Frantic Assembly's latest offering, Sell out (Swansea, Taliesin, October 3rd) was equally interested in betrayal and deceit, though here the betrayal takes place among 'friends' rather than family. As to be expected from Frantic, the movement was beautifully choreographed, assured and powerful. The set was very stark a few lights, seats, a steel toilet cubicle and imaginatively lit. This was not a study of 'club culture' but of isolation and alienation where there is nothing to fall back onto when friendship turns out to be empty and self-seeking. There was one magnificent piece of physical theatre when one woman, trapped in the toilet, screamed her desire to 'be there' for her friends as they sat, balanced above and around her head, slowly, but with increasing frequency and violence, pushed her down with their feet and thrust her against the cubicle's metal sides. But Frantic deliberately employ banal dialogue to express this denuded world and this flat language prevented the production from achieving this power. Most of the time we watched a series of events unfurling as the characters moved from a birthday celebration, to a slow unraveling of its apparent happiness, to a bitter replay of the opening scene. This seemed a play with a fairly unoriginal 'message': people can't be trusted, people get hurt, and feelings should neither be seen nor acknowledged.

Feeling was much in evidence in the powerful words and images of Firenza Guidi's All the Sundays in May, a Hijinx production (University of Glamorgan , Theatr y Bont, October 7) which supplemented powerful acting with video, dance, music and song Sarah Blackburn's lovely cello and Phillipa Reeves's stunning voice were particularly effective. This production reminded me of Theatre Powys in the 197Os: a bare stage, simple, semi-mythic characterisation, powerful themes. The play opened with a screen showing a close up on the sea that melted into the tortured face of an old woman, tears seeping from her eyes, playing with a medallion as if it were a rosary... a voice over with beautiful haunting words. The plot used the material of the folk tale, the ballad, turning on illicit desire, hypocrisy, incest and insanity. This was a small jewel of small-scale theatre, played in the intimacy of this tiny space.

There are so many good productions on in Wales at the moment: Spectacle Theatre (Swansea, Dylan Thomas Centre, October 22nd) presented a community play. They work to a fixed brief: that of tire Freerelieclers was youth underachievement. Two twins one academically bright, one not are given a tandem and engage in increasingly dangerous races with other boys on bikes to prove themselves. When one fails to get into Grammar school, he feels doubly bound to prove himself with the danger of speed especially since he has already 'failed' to play with a disabled child. This was attractively and simply staged (a central ramp, two sets of handlebars for the tandem), well acted, playful and witty: immediately accessible and particularly relevant to its target audience.

Green Ginger's Slaphead (Taliesin, October 29th) was more bizarre. Life-size latex puppets and masked actors appeared in an offbeat wonky set. Screens were lit up to allow both creepy shadow work and the magical appearance of new spaces. A barber's apprentice whose hair grows inside his head becomes progressively more 'harebrained', scratching his swollen pate with increasing mania. Spitting Image-influenced figures, accidental deaths, improbable disguises and amusingly risqué jokes/movement made this an intelligent delight Slaphead's electrocution for murder, satisfyingly revealed through shadow play, showed a mass of tangled dreads spurting from his distended skull. Brilliant and not just for children

These productions all play with existing theatrical techniques but the last part of this review turns to a series of performances with a very different agenda: the experimental festival of 'iconoclastic theatre' staged in Cardiff's Chapter. I spend some time on these because the issues are significant and need to be debated in a serious arts journal like New Welsh Review. The festival announced its interest in moving 'behind the signifier', in rejecting the symbolic order of language and representation, and throwing up questions about staging, the function of theatre and the relation of production to audience. Because of space limitation I can only discuss three of these productions: Societas Raffaelo Sanzia's Hamlet (October 14); Goat Island's The Sea and Poison (October 30) BAKtruppen's Good. Good. Very Good (November 4). [for more on this festival see the article by Heike Roms also available on this web site - keith morris , webmaster]

The Italian Hamlet was an aggressive futurist production, focusing on the Oedipal structure that lies below the play's surface rather than on the Shakespearean text. There were hardly any words, the single protagonist, Horatio, served as Hamlet's alter-ego, an autistic child, bruised through uncomprehending battles with a hardedged, imprisoning world (steel glittered; bright lights shone directly at the audience). He is caught in the symbolic logic of language and the reductiveness implied through the assignation of meaning to semiotic flux. The stage was full of whirring machines that started up and closed down independently of the single performer who functioned as a figure of vulnerable flesh in this hostile environment. Clear plastic sheeting hung at the two sides of the bleak stage and was torn and tangled around the figure as it/he staggered across the space. The repetitive movements presented a hallucinatory masturbatory rhythm as the figure thrust himself from one side to the other of the stage, clutching and assaulting a series of large soft toys which were invested with aspects of Hamlet's mind and fate (such as his father, Ophelia and death). The production staged the state of abjection, one in which the individual has a sense neither of self nor of belonging. Guns went off at frequent intervals, both in the performer's hand and flashing from behind a door.

The emphasis on fleshliness was expressed through the production of effluvia from the body: saliva, urine and, finally, faeces (used to scrawl on the wall; smeared on the face). Stood on, light bulbs burned with an intolerable white flare and then died. The rhythm of the production moved relentlessly forward, leading to the electrification of a metal bed which glowed redly on the (briefly) darkened stage.

This performance sought to present the body in collision with the objectification represented by technology, depicting the entry into symbolisation as one of trauma and loss. But, being a simple soul, I wondered about the reference to Ha'nk't itself. If this performance was related to the tragedy from which it takes its name, why was Ophelia, alone among the figures, given direct representation (as a female doll)? And why was she, alone among the toys, subjected to language? Is this an attempt to depict the repression of the 'feminine' within a symbolic system or does it refer to a process within the play? These questions lead us to consider the fetishisation of theoretical positions, with their appeal to (partiarchial) authority. The one point in the play when other 'beings' were in evidence was when two sets of fingers emerged, wriggling, from a slit in a large metal box which had stood on struts above head height throughout the performance. This was very effective, drawing attention to the box as a site of birth: the two pointed mounds strategically placed below the slit indicated a technologically appropriated (Cubist) female body. As the fingers gradually became more distracted, muffled sounds and banging indicated that there would be no birth. The entry into language was not achieved letters scrawled on a clean wall were defaced. The production concluded without a sense of closure (no place to applaud) and with just one letter left on the wall. I was disappointed that this was an A in a circle.

I opened this review by singing the praises of Goat Island, a company with a less overt interest in them than either Societas Raffaelo Sanzia or BAKtruppen. This production was immensely powerful, its strength lying in its dramatic texture and pace. The performance rested on staging the violence of poison at every level: the poisons released into the bodily systems by malnutrition, the poisons of the Gulf war, of pollution, of sentimental soap advertisements. Language was used in snippets taken from a variety of films and texts pasted into a bewildering collage. It started with quietly spoken text of. 'The Father of Toads' and Matthew Goulish, plastic frogs tucked under each arm, cast them down onto the floor.

The most striking aspect of this performance was the sense of absolute commitment of the performers, a superhuman effort going into the tireless physical activity, jumping and twisting in unison on the spot over and over, the body unforgettable in its materiality, its muscular strain, its sweat. Goulish's face seemed carved in an incredible raw, half-starved look, sinews standing like wires on his neck. Bryan Saner danced an ungainly 'impossible dance.' There was no set to speak of, though tables were dragged from one place to another. A poison spray was pumped and sprayed into a square within which the figures were caught and around which Goulish's body was dragged again and again as the three performers were driven to exhaustion. At times the ferocious pace of the pounding and leaping verged on the monotonous, but the awareness of the body and the precision of the leaping figures proved hypnotic and then it would suddenly change.

There were surreal moments as when Goulish tipped compost over his head, planted a runner bean in the dirt and watered it with a small watering can. Later, when most of this had fallen off, he strapped a small bird to his head. It is impossible to explain the multilayered texture of the performance, in part because there was no narrative as such on which to hang a story (unlike, for example, flairilet), yet the rhythm of the performance, the sense of the presence of the body (that under attack in Hiunlet), the patterning of the fragments of text ('What is the name of this field? . . . it is the field of poverty') to me seemed perfect, sheer poetry. Performances like this stretch the imagination, they could only be live, this could never be played on television: this is theatre.

The Norwegian BAKtruppen' s Good. Good. Very Good was far less of a 'performance'. It was a feast of parody and cliché, with performers singing and dancing to vacuous drinking songs, dressed in the second-hand clothes you don't buy in charity shops, clothes which were changed frequently and which progressively lost chunks of material, squares from the backs of jackets, parts of shirt sleeves, pieces from trousers. Although the men (in particular) lost clothing as the performance got underway, the production was completely asexual, too thin and playful to make any such demands on the disengaged spectators. Where Societas Raffaelo Sanzia threw the audience into thinking and questioning the relation between representation, technology and death, disallowing any comfort and savaging illusion, this production was at the other extreme: candyfloss that flirted with ideas but didn't rest anywhere. It was this vacuous that seemed disturbing in the end. The audience was placed in little groups around tables, drinking while the smiling company jigged around in front of us, and was projected onto a large video screen above our heads. The drinking songs were complemented by the amplified sound of alcoholic bubbles arising from a small distillation plant set up in front of the performers (and later 'played' like an instrument). We were presented by pre-digested images and reflections of those same images. The world that this piece parodies is that of fun, fun, fun, and even though oppression and freedom appeared as themes, their careless haphazard presentation divested them of conviction or passion, an effect that destabilises our sense of ourselves as 'caring individuals'. When parallels were drawn between the oppression of the Sami (Lap) people and the Chinese, the paraphernalia of tourism and orientalism was attached to both. This was an interesting production though a little long.

Chapter suggests that this is the 'future' of theatre. Such prescriptiveness can seem to have a pompous ring: nothing can be 'the' future and these productions appear to replay modernism, yet productions like these are significant and thought-provoking. It is essential that they be retained and promoted, not just for the audience served by the artistic community but to feed that community itself

author:Jeni Williams

original source:
01 December 1998


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