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At National Theatre

The Gathering/ Yr Helfa- Migrations and National Theatre of Wales , Hafod y Llan Farm and the Watkin Path, Gwynedd , September-19-14
At National Theatre by The Gathering/ Yr Helfa- Migrations and National Theatre of Wales “Leave the EU and hill farming, forget it! The Treasury will never make it up. It’s dead!.” For emphasis the speaker snaps his finger. That is the First Minister at an event on the Hay Maes in 2013 “What are you going to do about the sheep monoculture?- you’re supposed to be in charge of ecology and diversity.” That is one of the questions lobbed at the Chief Executive of the newly formed Natural Resources Wales on the same day.

Upland farming is as good a subject as any for theatre. The Samaritans have had a tent at NFU events for years. Farms are unwanted on a huge scale by the next generation of children. Faming is deeply implicated in the political texture and its possibilities for theatre are rich. Better than any other medium theatre is able to go to that heart of what, and who, the rural landscape is for in an urban civilisation. Heritage and leisure has three times the value of agriculture- Mike Parker in “the Wild Rover” raged how back in 2001 small-scale tourism businesses were sacrificed in favour of land-owning interests; land is still power. That is what theatre is for; it engages with what matters in our lives.

Residents of Bangor report an unawareness of advertising or promotion for this event. The audience for national theatre are those theatre-goers who might attend Y Galeri or Theatr Harlech maybe once or twice a year. The national company has visited before, to Penygroes. On that occasion Gwynedd was denied theatre, an art installation in a let-yourself-in terrace offered as substitute. In mid-winter and in the critical climate in Wales it eluded notice or comment,

The first and most obvious feature of “Yr Helfa” is that it has been specifically designed to restrict an audience of size. The numbers are hard to gauge. On the surface the total might be three times eighty but the ascent requires a sizable number of marshals. The first day it appeared also to contain a good quotient of theatre professionals. It is unlikely that the total number of theatre-goers from a double “l” postcode will have exceeded one hundred and fifty, and probably fewer. Those residents who speak of being unaware of the event do so for a reason, because they are not really wanted, at least not in any number that constitutes a meaningful audience. Gwynedd may only have four percent of the population of Wales but it is their national theatre too.

The description prior to the event misleads. Its language speaks of a peripatetic event in the foothills of Snowdon. It is in fact simpler. The audience is required to ascend half-way up the Watkin Path, an ascent of eight hundred or a thousand feet. So to be very young or old or infirm or unfit is to be excluded. But it is their national theatre too. It may well be another first that a national company bars its own writer from witness of the result of her work.

A third level of exclusion exists after the restriction on number and the requirement for a degree of physical agility. Theatre is a mysterious and alchemical bond between performer and viewer. But a third presence is here too. As in Monmouth it is a condition of sale in the purchase of a ticket that the viewer forgo a right to privacy, that she become an object of surveillance by a camera. This condition is not reserved for one specified performance but for all, with no opt-out permitted. There are citizens of Wales who may who wish to assert their right to privacy and it is their national theatre too.

All of these exclusions could have been avoided. The valley floor at Hafod y Llan is broad and flat and an audience of size and diversity could easily have been made welcome. But this is not an event made for an audience of local citizens. It is material made as part of a submission for a performance studies degree in Scotland.

On a surface level “the Gathering” might bear comparison with Barmouth and Wepre Park, productions both well-received. But a look back to the record reveals the difference. Marc Rees, Mr and Mrs Clark and company brought wit and lightness, fun even, to their production. “Spirit and good humour that is wholly winning” was the verdict on this site. For “Branches: the Nature of Crisis” the review read “arresting and hyper-real Constanza Macras’ choreography has a Dionysiac strand to it that, in the shaded settings, touches on something quite deep.” Their creators understood that performance is about rhythm, rise and fall, with culmination in climax that unifies. The difference with this event is revealed in the programme. A note outlines the narrowness of the scope, necessitating a few days’ work on the part of an industrious researcher.

“The Gathering” is a thing of parts, some very good, and some not. A real sheep farmer is likely to whiz at speed on a quad bike. Here muscular men stand on rocks in stalwart poses that are straight out of Socialist Realism. A group of small children is deployed to hold photographs. Under order not to speak, move or smile they are chilly Midwich Cuckoos, not children at all but directorial objects. Some video screens are covered up within a fleece. A sheep-shearer does his job, an activity viewable at many a National Trust property every year. He gets a round of applause from the tourist-watchers.

The centre of the event is a twenty-minute piece of action in which actors come together. The time taken to witness it is an hour and three quarters of ascent. En route there have been things to see but the inattention to audience has resulted in a flaw in the concept. There are arresting images- verse written on rocks, a lone musician in a field. But the audience is allowed no time to contemplate these images. The marshals are nice, volunteers and mountain walkers many of them, but they are under orders that no-one be permitted to contemplate. Into the second hour a member of the audience says “I get this now. It’s us who are the sheep.”

The Silver Band from Deiniolen is wonderful. The verse as might be expected is filled with metaphors to be treasured. Like many an area of upland tourist Wales Snowdon’s southern side is a post-industrial landscape with former tram tracks, quarry scars, remnants of copper mining and ruined buildings. The verse captures this blend of protected rurality and mining background in lines like the trucks’ “pollen of rust”.

The company has had great luck in the weather, bright without humidity. The dryness of the previous weeks has meant an early turn of the season and we walk through leaves that flutter down. The walk is comradely- the audience ignores the instruction that they should not chat. The peaks of Snowdon and Crib Coch are free of cloud. But this event is not for me. I, and many if not a majority of the assembled, are tourists engaged in an event for visitors. It is an event that is Welsh in a touristy way, but is tangentially theatre, certainly un-national, debatably even local. It is not just that a Gwynedd theatre audience deserves a theatre that engages with their real lives, it is their right.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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