Theatre in Wales

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For Mountain, Sand & Sea- National Theatre Wales / Marc Rees , Barmouth Various Locations , July 1, 2010
At National Theatre by For Mountain, Sand & Sea- National Theatre Wales / Marc Rees An actor in a waist length velvet cloak and absurd wig and pigtails speaks into a microphone. He stiffly declares four and a half acres of cliff and heath land a gift to the nation. The year is 1895 and the newly formed National Trust is in receipt of its first donation. The setting is three hundred feet above Barmouth and the audience is holding plastic windmills to symbolise flowers. On the last glorious day of June the view stretches clearly to Llyn with Ynys Enlli at its end. Vertically below sits the town's doughty Dragon Theatre. Up above a very different kind of theatre is unfolding. The National Theatre of Wales continues to unveil an aesthetic that is quite distinctly its own.

The exploration of nation through place rather than identity or history; that was a part of the dialogue that passed last week between the artistic directors of the National Theatres of Wales and Kosovo. Marc Rees’ artistic direction, or curatorship, leads his audience to ten or more locations up, down and across Barmouth. The artistic accomplishment of his production is to tease out points of history, caught not just with sincerity and affection also in their sorrow and fragility. Not a visitor centre or interpretation board in the world can begin to evoke and touch in a way that performance can.

A bronzed couple in thirties bathing gear, far out on Barmouth's sands, engages in thoroughly hearty and healthy acrobatics. It is vaguely suggestive- man wears a saucy sailor hat and blows on a football whistle. Slow-motion running mocks a once film convention. Even when the viewers have moved on to the next location the pair wave on and on and shout “yoo hoo”in a parody of some lost merry travel film.

Marc Rees himself in a classic sixties suit stands in the doorway of an unreconstructed drapers' store. He tells the tale of Tommy Nutter, the path-breaking tailor who overturned Savile Row convention. The dresser of Mick Jagger and three of the Beatles on the “Abbey Road” cover he was dead at forty-nine from an aids-related illness.

The production opens in St John's Hall, itself emblematic of a past that is unreclaimable. With its stalwart timber interior it was, like thousands of its kind, heart to the collective community. Carnival queens were crowned here, scout groups and the W.I gathered. Now with its plaster peeling and with panes of glass unrepaired it is lost to communal use. Even in these recessionary days it is posed for private redevelopment.

Barmouth's physical location is a tiny space between cliffs and beach. The visitors who quintuple its population in summer might take it to be as far from the great currents of history as anywhere might be. Far from it, Gareth Clark tells us. Darwin visited on one of his many North Wales trips. A French naturalist took up residence in flight from the tyranny of the France of Napoleon the Third. He sings us a song which in truth has its silliness. “My friends they all say/ Come to the cit-ay.” But such is the spirit and good humour that it is wholly winning.

The occasional episode needs elucidation. But then the nature of audience has changed for a production like this. Three teenagers burst on the scene firing rifles. A Barmouth veteran explains that this wartime incident was of such seriousness as to be referred to Churchill himself. If a Boer war veteran puzzles then he is happy to explain who he is. A French matelot and glamorous companion mysteriously sing beneath a railway bridge a song taken from Oscar Wilde's “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” They are succeeded by a video in a darkened shed. In truth eight minutes of an everyday activity look not a lot more than everyday.

As the audience moves towards Barmouth's unique Estuary bridge a lone chorister sings “Ar lan y mor” in memorial to a blind harpist. The action does drift slightly with an enactment from a Powell-Pressburger film. A discursive mention of two other films looks like a reason for Marega Palser to do something rather interesting. But then the enacted scene from “A Matter of Life of Life and Death” clicks in place another connection, that of Sabu the Elephant Boy. He too visited Barmouth and went on to feature in two later Powell-Pressburger classics. Maybe the connection was intended; if not it shows that if a work has sufficient complexity it will create inner echoes on its own.

The last location is spectacular and host to a climax that is not just joyful, enthralling and unexpected but refers back to an earlier performance. On its first stop the audience has been led into the Sandancer night club. In its haunting lonely space Cai Tomos’ forties soldier dances in the steely fluorescent light. His movement encompasses the hazard of conflict and the physical demands of military training. When the music shifts from a choppy beat to easy forties dance music he is joined by a much older woman. Thus, says the production, is the harshness of history made palatable with sentimental overlay.

A visual motif runs through the programme and is enacted at the close. It is that of semaphore, a fitting metaphor for signals from the past, reduced but visible from afar. Credit to the many who made this production, including associate artists Holly Davey and Guillermo Weickert, and the volunteers, guides, helpers and elephant-walkers from Barmouth itself.

The territory occupied by national theatre is staked out just that bit further with “For Mountain, Sand and Sea.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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