Theatre in Wales

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

Landscape, Family and Home

Performance Places and Pasts, the latest CPR Conference

The Centre for Performance Research's Points of Contact conference in September appeared to have its own microclimate. This itinerant four-day event that embraced visits to places across west Wales, site-specific performances and more conventional lecture-room presentations, was conducted amid true Sturm und Drang weather conditions that encompassed torrential rain, freezing gusts of wind and the occasional sun-blessed moment.

The assorted crew of delegates - archaeologists, performers, linguists, museum workers, geographers and drama lecturers like myself - may have been forgiven for thinking that the elements had it in for us and were mocking the conference organisers' interdisciplinary ambitions and their foolhardiness in planning an out-door event in early autumnal Ceredigion. However, if one main conclusion emerged from the stimulating and diverse viewpoints put forward, it was that landscape, weather and nature are neutral. It is rather human activity that has shaped, reinterpreted and contested the contours of the natural world. Thus David Austen, Chair of Lampeter's Archaeology Department, demonstrated the artificiality of west Wales's "wild" landscape through a visit to the estate of Hafod mansion, pointing out its deliberately cultivated wildness, and on an excursion to the mediaeval ruins of Strata Florida, once a key point on a religious journey across pre-Reformation Wales and sub-sequently a popular halt on tourist itineraries.

Other contributions looked more specifically at the relationship between language and landscape, in particular the inscription of memories of place in the Welsh language and the dying away of such memories as Welsh has receded in the rural west. The specific attachment of cultural memories to places - and with it the complex process of remembering local histories and events - was brought home in a number of contributions.

One happy and distinctive aspect of the conference was the equal attention given to performers and academics; with practitioners such as Mike Pearson (who convened the conference), Sean Tuan John, Eddie Ladd, Roger Owen, and Marc Rees providing a lively commentary on the nature of locality, memory, architecture, event and physical gesture - topics that formed the aca- demic discussion of the meeting. Some more ambitious contributions fused academic and practical approaches, transmuting the lecture form into a performance event. Dance practitioner Margaret Ames, for example, attempted the difficult task of re-enacting contemporary Welsh body languages (including those of Vincent Kane and Gwynfor Evans) in her demonstration lecture. In a sophisticated multi-media presentation, Brith Gof's Cliff McLucas reviewed and interrogated both his own working method and the particular physical and emotional landscapes of Wales, showing how the predilection for the pictur-sque from the eighteenth century on has fostered a way of "feeling emotion through the eyes

The organisers had taken pains to guide participants through key cultural locations in the Welsh countryside, and events took place in farmyards, schoolrooms, oak groves, burial sites, atop mountains and, in one of the most lucid contributions to the symposium, from the pulpit of the chapel in Pennant. Here Lisa Lewis of Aberystwyth's Theatre, Film and Television Studies Department gave witness to "the demographics of experience and identity" in her own family, charting her personal journey to Welsh-language Wales from a bi-lingual Cardiff home alongside her memories of her grandfather Lewis Lewis who had been the minister at Capel Pennant a century ago. Again, like Margaret Ames, Lewis's lecture/ exhibition concerned itself with capturing the performance of Welshness through a distinct body language, most notably here in the preacher's display of emotion through the face and hands.

The whole habitus of Welsh rural life was skilfully documented, performed and debated in "Points of Contact", and CPR is to be congratulated for opening up discussion between different disciplines and interest groups. The hope now would be to support the kind of work Lisa Lewis was demonstrating, and to provide an additional, performative layer to cultural studies within Wales

Swansea-based Volcano Theatre Company may have very different intentions in their work from CPR. However, in their latest production, Alan Ayckbourn's Time of My Lrfe, the company demonstrates a desire to cross boundaries by employing their distinctive physicalised style of playing to suit the needs of Ayckbourn's drama. Director Paul Davies justifies what might be seen as a surprising choice for an experimental theatre company by stressing the underlying seriousness of Ayckbourn's play and its affinity to Ibsen's domestic dramas which exposed "the unspo- ken horrors of domestic life. Horrors of com mission and omission that rob us of vitality, joy and honesty" In the case of Time of My Life, the horrors centre around the older generation's (here a self-made businessman and his dominant wife's) control of their two sons' lives which has resulted in one being underpraised but aspiring and the other much preferred but completely unable to achieve anything.

The drama takes place over a number of family meals in the same restaurant; and in a series of flashbacks, and subsequent scenes, we are invited into the complex layering of lies, truths, failed aspirations, unacknowledged feelings and misunderstandings that form the basis of the Stratton family's history. The pivotal moment is the impossible mother's fifty-fourth birthday celebration. Andrew Jones's extraordinary monumental setting, which includes revolving tables and starkly expressionist lighting, emphasises the fluid movement between past and future in Ayckbourn's construction of the play, and also conveys the sense of relationships within the family spinning out of control. In darkening the mood of the play and in veering away from the caricature that is a common feature of more mainstream Ayckbourn productions, the director has allowed Brendan Gregory and Belinda Low, as the overbearing parents, to develop great complexity of character and relationship. By way of contrast the two sons are under-realised, pale shadows of the parents - a somewhat risky directorial strategy which, although natural, at times tilts the emotional balance of the production.

At some point in the 1980s Alan Ayckbourn's plays ceased to be funny, as it became more and more apparent that he viewed the project of family life in Britain as a remorseless trap; its constricting structures echoed in the tight patterning of time and place he employs in his work. If anything emerges that links "Points of Contact" to Time of My Life, it is a sense of crisis. The key locations of our personal worlds - family, employment, heritage, language, region, nature - are all in a state of turmoil and reassessment. In this stylish and illuminating production, Volcano realises Ayckbourn's Ibsenite intention to reveal the untold horrors that can lurk behind the fagade of seemingly comfortable family life.

In a similar vein, archaeologist David Austen reminded delegates admiring the Ceredigion landscape of the precariousness of contemporary rural life; that the agricultural project (partially initiated by agronomists such as Thomas Johnes of Hafod) that tamed the Welsh countryside was now in serious decline with disease-ridden cattle, suicidal farmers and widespread poverty

Perhaps on this Cassandra-like note, I should refrain from writing any more, as contrary to my conclusion I enjoyed "Points of Contact" and Volcano's new production enormously.

author:Anna Marie Taylor

original source: Planet #131 October/November1998
01 October 1998


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