Theatre in Wales

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Playful, Allusive and Significant

At National Theatre

National Theatre of Wales/Volcano/ Welsh National Opera- Shelf Life , Swansea Old Library , May 1, 2010
At National Theatre by National Theatre of Wales/Volcano/ Welsh National Opera- Shelf Life The demise of the library has a particular resonance for Wales. “The local library was a haven of cultural enrichment and private happiness” wrote the biographer of the young James Callaghan. Aneurin Bevan is inconceivable without the library at Tredegar’s Workmen’s Institute.

A dozen countries plus now have book towns, all mimicking Hay. But there would be no Hay without the wholesale dissolution of the library heritage- not just the country houses like Dynevor and Nanteos, but Ferndale, Tredegar, and the hundreds of other Working Men’s Libraries. Thirty thousand books were scattered from Bala College alone.

“Shelf Life” is an elegy to this great scattering, not that Volcano’s effervescent style would ever be capable of a tone of lament. The production plays out under three colour motifs. There is the evening Spring sky above the elongated courtyard to the back of Swansea’s Old Library. The audience is then divided and guided into the library’s empty confined stack space which is lit weakly in red. Then, for around two- thirds of the playing time, it is up to the glorious circular space of the 1887 reference room. The glass dome is lit with a pale fluorescent tinge.

The production’s theme of multiplying disjunctions is established from the start. The audience is free to wander the courtyard. A book of the finest French rococo art is left apparently casually on a step- in fact a technician is anxious lest I take its one pound price tag for real and make off with it. One side of the courtyard is clean and modern, the other a view of blistered paint, ivy-strewn discoloured brickwork and rusty pipes. High on the rim of the dome a crop-haired actor sits reading a book.

There is a centrifugal quality to the production. While never less than novel and unexpected it has a playfulness and elusiveness to it. But that elusiveness is the point. The demise of the library is an intellectual inheritance that is crumbling. Right from the start the performers have to cope with the intrusions of reality. It is not just the ambient noise of the evening Swansea traffic and the chime of a public clock; their voices are drowned out by police sirens and loud shouts of abuse from a passer-by.

The five actors do embody characters. Introduced at speed all are apparently librarians. Jane is a curious anachronistic figure. She makes and shares an eggnog in the haunted empty stack spaces and recites Spike Milligan. The script is sewn with clues of this kind. Gerard recites a list of all the writers he has never read. He has missed the fashionable ones, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Barthes, but significantly he has read Borges, that seer of the library. Borges’ metaphor of the world as library is a repeated motif. But in the meantime as Gerard celebrates literary culture two library visitors strip off and scamper scandalously among the books and past a severe six foot square portrait of Gladstone.

This apposition of the world of the mind against human physicality is repeated throughout. Down in the stacks are life size paintings of the cast members naked. A long scene of dialogue around a table, piled high with cheese, grapes and olives, has no centre or focus. The characters talk past and through each other in a discontinuous flow. The point is not clear other than showing up the disadvantage of Volcano’s dispensing with a playwright. Within the performance space it can be interpreted that libraries possess an organising centrality that individuals lack. Certainly there is a metaphor of how we read one another, a crucial difference from actually knowing each other.

Scatology vies with history and philosophy. Tales of Kruschev and McCarthy are capped with a tale of a mishap in a South American toilet. A CEO’s ninety-one million pay package is taken from the news of two weeks ago. By contrast complaints of communist actuality being used to taint socialist aspiration now seem as remote as the Middle Ages. A trip to the summit of Mount Fuji or the fate of three Barbies in pre-1989 Poland are juxtaposed with Roman experiments on digestion and the stark observation of physical illness in a poem by Tony Curtis.

The production has a dramaturg in the form of David Britton and a creative writer in Liz Wride. But they are not the same as a writer. As a piece of writing it is fragmentary, impressionistic, concentratedly allusive. The putting to one side of a central authorial voice is an embodiment of the theme. The WNO choir sings of new digital Gods. This is echoed in a tape loop of a voice behind a jigsaw of books, a plain reader born 1915 who left God and found alternative succour in reading Goethe and Shelley. The demise of libraries is compared to a degenerative disease.

The production would spin off its own axis were it not held together by the fact of its glorious location. Mid-way between floors each audience member is given a library card by a dotty Dane in exchange for a requested hug or a jive. This habit of making the audience read, speak, wiggle is a fad. Based on a shallow aesthetics it is bound to pass.

The apprehension over culture’s digitilisation may or may not be right. To my mind it is premature. Demand, and prices, after all have never been higher for live events. But “Shelf Life” is historically significant, the first occasion that theatre has addressed the erosion of a text-based culture that is physically embodied and classified. Certainly it views the digital age as inherently beyond taxonomy. However, heavy thematising is the last thing on the mind of a production that is unfailingly quirky, original, fresh and distinctive.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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