Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Mappa Mappa Returns New and Fresh

At Mappa Mundi

Still Life- Mappa Mundi/ Theatr Mwldan , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October 22, 2015
At Mappa Mundi by Still Life- Mappa Mundi/ Theatr Mwldan Mappa Mundi took a year of rest in 2014 from their regular cheering tour. With their established track record for irreverent retakes of old texts the company had already done something different in 2013. A modern dramatisation of a historical subject gave Francois Pandolfo the opportunity for a hugely juicy part. In 2015 the process has been taken a stage further with actor and company stalwart Keiron Self taking on the script. The result is a careful concoction with moments of genuine fright, a lavishness of set and costume and a densely textured sound design.

The subject of “the Compleat Female Stage Beauty”, the 2013 show, was an episode from the history of theatre. Theatre itself is a seam that runs through “Still Life.” Keiron Self and Francois Pandolfo, who displays his considerable circus skills, make a sinister clown pair who exercise vengeance on a producer (Gwawr Loader) who has dismissed them. A music hall fan (Gwawr Loader again) sings a favourite song from a dark spot behind the Aberystwyth audience. The narrator, also a character himself, (Richard Nichols) in frock coat and fob chain explains that we, the audience, are witnessing a narrative that is in itself an unfolding performance. The apparently innocuous title “Still Life” takes on deeper hues.

“Photography is a young art form” declares the photographer-narrator. Across the Atlantic George Eastman is on the cusp of making his industrial fortune. The technology is at the stage of “silver halide suspended in gelatin” declares adored wife, Lizzie Rogan’s Sarah. The narrator belongs to that generation of image-makers who aspired to the depth of paint. His first wish to paint like Millais was foiled because he could not grasp the complexity of the human hand. He has turned to camera and tripod as substitute for oil and canvas.

Keiron Self brings in themes of the era, among them the vogue for spiritualism. The photography starts with conventional portrait-recording of loved ones. But then the photographer finds himself gazing into his productions wondering- akin to the photographer-hero of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”- whether he has not caught something unknown and disturbing. Carl Davies’ elaborate design has two large mirrors-cum-pictures at an askew angle. They are host, courtesy of ingenious back projection, to images of ambiguous and disturbing effect.

“Still Life” arrives at a pivotal time in the development of the industrial image. This month Christopher Nolan used the platform of the British Film Institute this season to argue for the artistic superiority of photo-chemical process over the pixellated simulacrum. Writers like Julian Barnes have returned to photography’s pioneers. Those billions of virtual images have turned out to be legally toxic. Corporations are obliged to run up huge legal costs in seeking to bridge the divergent jurisdictions of Europe and the USA. Above all the manufactured image has lost all claim to being truth. At the time of Don McCullin’s eightieth birthday there is an irony to the fact that front-line footage may now be dismissed as fabrication.

Formally “Still Life” links a series of stories rooted in Poe and M R James, and often given a local flavour. The victim in “the Tell-tale Heart” becomes an adept player of the Welsh harp. “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” incorporates a couple on honeymoon in West Wales. Lynne Seymour is at the directorial helm and creates some moments of authentic scariness. “Still Life” did what no other theatre has done in 2015. It provoked goose pimples that ran down both arms and legs.

The production also revisits a truly grisly episode from our not-so-far-back past. The obsession over images of a loved one has a long heritage. Sir Kenelm Digby spent hours in lone company with the image of his adored Venetia. But Van Dyck’s portrait is of a figure in sleep and that is beside the fact of the supreme artistry in its painting. But “Still Life” brings back the habit for the memento mori, the photographing of departed dead ones. The gruesome aspect to the modern sensibility is that the dead are not recreated in a pretence of sleep but harnessed and yoked into seated postures. “I wouldn’t go looking too far online” advises a company member after the show.

“Still Life” is itself a study in theatrical image, what it can and cannot achieve. The less embodiment there is the better it works. Professor Parkins and the person within the crumpled linen, as told in in James’ prose, scares. It scares because it is not actual but at a remove conveyed via a symbolic system, language. On stage, however, the sheet contains a body that is actual. Apprehension is in the item only half-glimpsed..

The subject of “Still Life” is image. Theatre has entered an intriguing relationship with cinema, at one end for source material- successfully with “Let the Right One In” also a story of ghosts, and least convincing when it seeks to mimic film. One sequence in “Still Life” tries to compete with cinema. An electrocution is performed on stage and Francois Pandolfo does it well. But as staging it runs right up images that have gone before. The electrocution of Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces” was all in the imagination and Fred McMurray’s death in “Double Indemnity” is the most famous scene in film history to be left on the cutting room floor. But “the Green Mile” did it and so famously and potently that any representation in theatre is fated to be its shadow.

“Still Life” marks a good development for Mappa Mundi. It has a structural strength in that it moves to a climax that fits perfectly. Like any skilled ending it makes what has gone before inevitable and inexorable. The stories within are, however, dependent on the narrator impelling their action. Characteristically, they comprise an initial situation with the switch to a spectral conclusion dependent on the telling rather than enactment. The first story makes a rapid switch from adoration to slaughter with little in between. But the pleasure to be had in the company’s return after the year of absence is considerable.

Morgan and West are consultants in magic. Once again Mwldan are co-producers, Dilwyn Davies and Ceri James taking producer credits.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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