Theatre in Wales

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National Theatre of Wales- Food for Thought , Y Plas Machynlleth , June 10, 2012
At National Theatre by National Theatre of Wales- Food for Thought If theatre in Wales had a medal for valour in the face of hostile circumstance, then the award for 2012 would have to go to Abdul Shayek and team for this third piece in National Theatre of Wales’ strand of community-rooted performance. He has just a few tight days to transform an issue of popular concern into a two-hour performance event. The week chosen, wisely or not, is Diamond Jubilee week. On the Ceredigion-Powys border holiday means Holiday and there is nothing, just nothing, happening in Mach.

When the day of the event arrives Britain is being battered by gales that stretch from the Irish to North Seas. “Battered” is not a figure of speech. The Dyfi has burst its banks. A fallen tree has severed the main road through Aberystwyth. The rail link east is closed. The main route in from the west is an unnerving slew of water.

Machynlleth’s Plas has an elegant entry hall with delicate mouldings and a portrait over the fireplace of a Marchioness of Londonderry. At seven-ten of an evening it holds just three people, myself, the partner of an actor and a guest of the company visiting from Kosovo. In the rain-besieged homes of Mach there are five hundred channels and a billion websites to view. The new Baron-Cohen film has opened, but twenty minutes later the hall is full and a local choir has kicked off “Food for Thought.”

Machynlleth’s Tesco war seems to have been going on for years. It is given a succinct summary by Mike Parker in Seren’s “Real Powys.” It is a topic that flows in any direction, health, employment, the environment, politics, morality even, the notion that developers can buy their way in by paying for infrastructure. According to that most feisty of environmentalists, George Monbiot, the supermarket definition of “local” is quite distinctive. Every single item, if by a miracle there is any spin-off of benefit to local suppliers, will go by truck to Avonmouth and then back again via the spindly roads of Mid-Wales.

Theatre is a superb medium for exploring this kind of forensic content. A Hare or Edgar would do it, but on a timescale and budget way beyond National Theatre of Wales’ fast devised piece of performance-installation-citizen forum. Abdul Shayek has focused on the contrasting spaces of Y Plas itself to create four types of shopping environments.

First Owen, age eleven, moves among the participants handing out pieces of fruit. “Don’t eat it, yet” warns actor-facilitator Matt. The fruit is used to divide us into groups; bananas, pears and apples make us into smaller, more manageable groups who can move in different directions.

A part of the building’s legacy of the ill-fated Celtica venture is “the Vortex,” a deep, tiered, circular screening space. David Ian Rabey, normally one of Aberystwyth University’s most incisive theatre writers, is here a dark-suited corporate “expansion manager” presiding over technology’s ultimate end-point. The Vortex, filled with pasted images of bar-coded food items, is a food shop without actual food or cash till. Far better, he smoothly informs, for our “comfort and security.” Such places already exist in the world’s besotted techno-laboratory known as South Korea. Marcus Dobson- a veteran of eleven years’ acting on the Aberystwyth stage now all of twenty-two- is a “software encounter executive”. He runs his smartphone over us test shoppers to activate “personal identification implants.”

A few walls away Mr Pugh presides over an aged general store filled with pots and copper pans and sweet jars. Charmian Savill is a head-scarfed housewife with her comic tale of a pig running amok. A member of the audience has memory of shops like these. They took forever and most of the stock was in cans. They could only function in an environment where women did not work and could top up four or five times a week.

Outside, in a red and white striped marquee, performance poet Frank Thomas is a butcher who has to raise his voice against the beat of rain on canvas. Abdul Shayek’s last installation-cum-performance piece is close to the present day. It is one of those places where the company is family, the managers are associates, the tannoy is filled with matey announcements. It is a genus of supermarket that does not play, as yet, with Cardis but it is certainly there in Llanelli. Two market researchers bob up and down and bubble with niceness. To their credit they do serve us tea and biscuits.

Does this strand of theatre have the engagement of true community-based companies? The answer is probably no. But it has a vitality all of its own, and a company with “Bradley Manning” and “Little Dogs” to its credit this Spring could easily rest on its laurels. It gives young performers experience. School kids see the adult world can be entertaining. The timescale and budget are tight, but right. If a young director gets to feels a little pressure that is good for them. Besides, don’t choose a three-day working week.

The switch between performance and discussion forum is at times a jolt. As for the content it is a small section of the community that turns up; in the real world a fifth of the town’s population are already signatories to letters of protest. The forum is going to be discussion rather than debate. But nonetheless the “Pears” group comes up with pertinent views; sadness at the closure of the last bakery, a family with four kids balancing the petrol cost to Aberystwyth with the gain in range and freshness, the pride in Mach’s Wednesday market, now seven hundred and twenty-one years old. Genuine disquiet is expressed over rumour that the newcomer may buy its way in by paying for a bridge and some token housing.

But there is only one real validation for theatre. Is it worth the stepping out? It is evident from the faces, the smiles of amusement, the participation, the enlivened chat in the bar. It works for an audience or it doesn’t; everything else is decoration.

This concept of the Assembly for the company’s second year is a good one; next stop Gwynedd in the summer.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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