Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A hugely persuasive piece of theatre

At National Theatre

Shelf Liife- National Theatre Wales/Volcano Theatre Company/Welsh National Opera , The Old Library, Swansea , April 11, 2010
At National Theatre by Shelf Liife- National Theatre Wales/Volcano Theatre Company/Welsh National Opera I confess that the concept of what are known in the trade as "site specific promenade performances" have tended to leave me cold in the past, so I approached the latest offering from National Theatre Wales with no small degree of trepidation.

A co-production between Swansea-based Volcano Theatre Company and Welsh national Opera - produced in partnership with Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea Metropolitan University and Grwp Gwalia Cyf, this piece seemed destined to follow the same kind of formula that Volcano has been pursuing for some considerable time: that of taking audiences out of their "comfort zone" and into unfamiliar territory where they might feel intimidated.

On this occasion, however, I had the upper hand. The site chosen for this performance is one that is not only familiar to me, but one with which I was (until its closure a few years ago)intimately acquainted: namely, the Old Library building on Swansea's Alexandra Road. I spent many happy hours here researching and photocopying, and knew all the library staff by name - so just for once, I knew that not even one of Volcano's off-kilter and ever so slightly bonkers productions was going to take me out of my comfort zone.

For anyone with a passion for words, the persistence of memory and a love of books, this is a piece of theatre that speaks volumes(no pun intended). Such is its power and depth that I am seriously considering going to see it again if only to immerse myself once more in the resonance of the concept and the sheer energy and commitment of the performers as they take their audience on a journey into the world of those who serve as custodians of knowledge - or at least, those who served as custodians in the days before the digitalisation of information and ideas purloined from the retail sector changed the face of British libraries forever.

The piece opens in the courtyard which once served the city's Central Police Station(itself now replaced by a newer building just yards along the road)and sees the procession of a community choir containing several faces from the local musical theatre and amateur drama fraternity: as they sing, an aerial artist performs gravity-defying feats while hanging from the roof of the building, to great effect.

From here we are led into the bowels of the building, known to generations of librarians as "the stacks" - a maze of dark, narrow walkways lined with now-empty bookshelves. Along the way we meet up with some weird and wonderful characters who offer us their memories and readings from well-thumbed volumes, and we are presented with the(hideous)sight of full-length nude portraits of the players involved for no obvious dramatic reason other than the fact that the words "Volcano" and "pointless nudity" seem to be inextricably linked.

Nudity also rears its unprepossessing head upstairs in the old Reading Room of the Reference Section, where it is played to vaguely comic effect during a scene in which the custodians of the old library meet up for one last evening to reminisce and compare notes on a multitude of topics. One gets the overwhelming impression that nakedness has been thrown into the mix to stir up the indignation of those who disapprove of such excesses, and I am by no means alone in wondering about its inclusion in an otherwise thought-provoking and insightful piece of well-crafted theatre.

The Reading Room - which now lies empty but still possesses an air of grandeur that is sadly lacking in the library's efficient but soulless replacement in Swansea's Civic Centre on the seafront - is a fantastic space for a performance such as this, and on the evening that I attended both poet Owen Sheers and actor Michael Sheen were in the audience and expressed wonder at the dimensions of the room with its ornate dome(used to great effect in locvation film for the Doctor Who two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead).

I did feel it was a curious omission that no-one involved in the production seemed to be familiar with the "whispering gallery" effect that can be experienced under the room's glass dome: nobody else apart from me and some of the librarians who worked there originally seem to know about it, which is a shame as it could have been incorporated into the performance.

Despite some niggling gripes about the production's ill-advised excesses, I happily admit that I savoured(almost)every minute of this hugely persuasive piece, and I have no reservations whatsoever in recommending it to everyone with a love of theatre, culture and literature - and perhaps most importantly, to those who mourn the passing of the way that libraries used to be.

Shelf Life runs until April 25.

Reviewed by: Graham Williams

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