Theatre in Wales

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Mary Twice     

Mary Twice I'm going to be honest, because it's too late now for them to fire me: when I was first invited to see the work of Bridgend Youth Theatre, my heart sank. Bridgend gave me most of my early writing material (the really offensive stuff, that makes dozens of people walk out of my plays within the opening minutes) and so hometown loyalty meant I was always going to turn up - but I turned up out of a sense of obligation, expecting to sit through a glorified school play.

Well, they showed me. What I saw was a joyous, energetic and brilliant production of Fiddler on the Roof, which is now my favourite musical. And in meeting Roger Burnell, director of Bridgend Youth Theatre, I met a hugely dedicated and inspiring man who, I've come to realise, half the professional actors I work with credit with kicking off their careers. When Roger asked me if I would write a play for the youth theatre my heart didn't sink – it skipped a beat or three. I was delighted, but not a little frightened. Could I write something that would be worthy of these amazing young people?

This was no false modesty. I'm a professional playwright and my work has had dozens of productions, but the economics of putting on a play mean I usually only get to write for four or fewer actors. Roger was offering me a cast of 'up to four hundred'. And writing for a youth theatre means creating parts for some performers who might be very young indeed, while the older participants are at the level of young professionals, and are hungry for demanding roles. It's a lot to juggle. Usually I just have to come up with a story and write it as well as I can - and that's enough of a challenge.

I'm a huge fan of the new Dr Who, and I love the way Russell T. Davies manages to tell stories which entrance the very young, but have a humour and depth that keep adults hooked as well. I decided to try and take a leaf from Russell's book, and tell a fantastical story primarily aimed at younger children, but hopefully with enough to keep everybody interested. This was always going to be a risk: I was aware that some of the older actors might be disappointed not to be working on something a bit grittier, a bit more contemporary – a bit more like the kind of thing I usually write – but Roger had asked me to come up with something that could include everybody, and I was eager to do that.

So I knew I wanted to write a big, spooky story. I just didn't know what that story might be. The idea itself came from something very simple and practical – the fact that we originally planned to do the play in January 2008, and that it was Bridgend Youth Theatre that had commissioned me. Bridgend County is home to the Mari Lwyd, a tradition that involves a gang of merry-makers parading on New Year's Eve, knocking on doors, holding rhyming battles and demanding to be given food and drink. The Mari Lwyd itself is a horse's skull, stuck on the end of a pole, wired up so the jaws will snap, and decorated with ribbons. It's an incredibly odd and disturbing image, and I knew there had to be a story to be built around it. But for a long time I was stuck finding what the story might be. A breakthrough came when I discovered that two of Mari Lwyd's entourage of followers were Punch & Judy – the very same Punch & Judy we know from English seaside resorts, stolen and slotted into this Welsh winter ritual. Seeing this cheeky theft within the Mari Lwyd tradition made me realise what I was doing wrong. Mari Lwyd is an anarchic tradition, it's a bit of midwinter carnival, and I was being far too precious about it. I could be cheeky myself – I could take what I wanted from the tradition, and twist it to make a new story. Mari Lwyd became Grey Mary – not a skeletal horse, but a girl, a ghost-girl, a representative of the dead and the dreamed-of, barging into the life of her mortal twin, a bored 11 year old, also called Mary. And so – Mary Twice.

The play's been in rehearsal for weeks now. Bridgend Youth Theatre have been meeting twice a week, transforming my little play into a massive show, with music, dance, song, multi-media, and an accompanying art exhibition and video installation in the foyer of the Grand Pavilion. I am still quite nervous: not about how the show will go, but about whether I have done well enough for these brilliant young performers, and for people like Roger Burnell and Guy O'Donnell, who are doing all they can to make sure that young people in Bridgend have a sense of confidence and aspiration. Whether I've suceeded or not I can't say: it has been a huge privelige to try.

“Mary Twice” is at the Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl, on Friday 4th April and Saturday 5th April, 7:30pm. Box Office: 01656 815995.
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Gary Owen
Saturday, April 5, 2008back



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