Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Masterly, Multi-media, Magnificence

At National Theatre

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, National Theatre Wales & S4C- {150} , Royal Opera House Stores, Abercwmboi , July-01-15
At National Theatre by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, National Theatre Wales & S4C- {150} The “Mimosa” sailed in May and arrived in July. These months of commemoration have seen three seasoned interpreters and communicators of Wales make three substantive works in dedication, memory and reflection. Marc Rees, Jon Gower and Marc Edwards work in very different media but they have the same qualities; a mature mastery of their chosen genre, allied with the best qualities of vitality, enquiry, open-heartedness and a fearlessness unto truth.

The three works, interlocking in their subject matter, make for a troika of over-lap and deserve to be perceived as such. Jon Gower brings to Gomer’s two hundred and fifty pages of “Gwalia Patagonia” a prose style that dances. Marc Edwards’ one hour television film, Huw Edwards in front of the camera, captures the texture of the physical, geographical and social Patagonia of the present day.

But Marc Rees and his producers capture with more emotion the great space of the empty quarter of Latin America’s most southerly provinces. A part of the side wall of the Royal Opera Company’s vault of a Welsh storage space carries a giant image. With just two actors “{150}” fashions a meeting of metaphorical power between present and past, the location a high point above a valley of breadth leading to snow-topped Andes. The giant screen makes that of television a small thing in contrast, in the same way that the cavernous size of the location reduces a lorry and forty-foot trailer to a drive-on-and-off accessory.

Some elements from one hundred and fifty years of history feature in all three works, some in just two, and each has episodes that are just its own. Two do the ominous arrival of Governor Tello. All visit the Valley of Martyrs, the site of a triple killing by marauders from Chile. Rees and Gower describe the savagery of desecration visited on the victims. Huw Edwards spares his television viewers with the phrase “in rather brutal circumstances".

Bruce Chatwin gets his rightful kicking from Rees and Gower. “God save John Bull” is a loud shout from the shore when the British Navy brings emergency supplies. That is television only. An 1889 notion of secession from Argentina is in the book only, as are the privately printed bundles of money bearing the signature of y Wladfa Treasurer, Thomas Ellis, proving of small use in a new land offering barter but not purchase.

History in prose or documentary is a thing of reference. In performance it is evocation, that goes straight to the emotions. In “{150}” the rhapsodic descriptions of Andean nature scenes by Eluned Morgan are accompanied by ecstatic dance. A heavily whiskered preacher of the “Mimosa” era preaches a stentorian, impassioned sermon. A last interviewee, with a face of near-Audenesque tracery, filmed at the time of the centenary, relates that the role of Chapel has waned but not the persistence of language. The presence of the Divine was crucial for those early years. Marc Rees in an eloquent contribution to Radio 4’s “Start the Week” on 29th June spoke affectingly of his reaction to encountering a lesser anglicised, biblically-flavoured language.

A production from two national theatre companies and a national broadcaster might make “{150}” as establishment as it can get. But it is not Heritage with a capital “H”. The creative choice has been wise. Marc Rees does not lack a respect for history. The escape of John D Evans from terrible murder on his horse Malacara is one of high drama. But Rees has a sense of audience and an element of mischievous levity too. Six women of Y Wladfa are of such demureness that their extended bonnets even hide their faces. They first appear to a backing of calming chapel organ. It abruptly changes to the thunder of bass-and-drum.

The network of irrigation channels that emanated from the Chubut made the settlement and made too the wheat that won the award at Chicago’s World Fair. A five-foot pyramid of wheat is reminder of the agricultural prowess and dedication. The women of Gaiman stride along trestle tables bearing kettles with rainbow–coloured cosies. They indicate to audience members to hold out their hands. The kettles tip and the upturned palms receive a stream of wheat.

Later an Eisteddfod has an air of irreverent disorder to it. A song to guitar, sung in Spanish but with an ache of heart beyond language, is peremptorily interrupted by a gang of teenagers. “Next we’ll be getting the coconut shells out” says the leader eventually, a knowing nod to Monty Python’s King Arthur. Sure enough the group, a confident and high-spirited group of real-world teenagers, do just that and exit as a group of Rifleros on hoof-clopping horseback. .

Marc Rees is guide, curator and actor-out of his own visits to Argentina. He is joined in a Buenos Aires interior by historian Fernando Williams. Performance is connection across time. In Patagonia he recalls lines of text from Mike Pearson’s artistic treatment a generation back. He himself, he reminds us, was a company member in that Brith Gof production. With beard, Panama hat, grey waistcoat and shoes of suede Rees comes across as a figure of bucolic authority. If he is perceived as such it is only because memories of a sharp-suited Tommy Nutter in a Barmouth doorway are still so sharp.

The setting itself is of such size that a roof may easily be transported and set upon the frame of a new building. But the storehouse of an opera company is also metaphor for both performance and travel. The audience walks along hundred metre long gangways, past the stuff of stagecraft piled high- scaffolding, hardboard, Corinthian pillars even, presumably retired from a set for “Aida.”. Trunks of wicker are in profusion. Later on boxes are heaped up, the labels carrying the names and places of origin of the “Mimosa” passengers.
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All art-making is risk but a site-specific venture has that added element of inbuilt unpredictability. The report from Barmouth in 2010 was on the exact same day of the year, 30th June, and the weather was the same. The skies of Patagonia that show on the giant screens inside are bright but always streaked with cloud. The skies above the Cynon valley on this day have not a wisp of cloud. It makes all the greater the contrast of entry into the Royal Opera House’s dark cavern.

The two and a half hours of unbroken Patagonian visitation end with a literal tearing down of the curtains that divide theatre from world. On this particular day, nine-thirty at night, the woods above Abercwmboi are still basking in light and a twenty-four degree heat. There is inspiration to the making of art and there is then the whole heap of perspiration to make it happen. And sometimes there is the sheer serendipity of circumstance. No-one among the planners and makers could have decreed that the last image for Press Night of this cross-media collaboration would be a landscape painted in the colours of Richard Wilson. But so it was.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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