Theatre in Wales

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Nawr yr Arwr/ Now the Hero

Marc Rees & Collaborators , Swansea , October-08-18
Nawr yr Arwr/ Now the Hero by Marc Rees & Collaborators Marc Rees is a big figure and “Nawr yr Arwr/ Now the Hero” a big event. It slipped off being reviewed directly on this site. This was not for reason of its lack of appeal. Even the most assiduous theatre-goers travel now and then. The production is part of the artistic response to the centenary of the First World War. Unintentionally, I was in a place that was forged, like all, via bloodshed but has not participated in war for 203 years. But Marc Rees' event left a strong critical footprint in its wake. That it also provoked different reactions is good; a culture, like a politics, that is in dispute is a culture in vibrant health. A culture of uniformity is one that travels in a hearse.

The Guardian made the trip to Swansea on 27th September. The paper's opera critic strongly evoked the event. In excerpt:

“Remembrance is not enough.” These stark words, hurled through a megaphone from a bridge that looks out over the expanse of Swansea Bay, set the tone for this three-hour epic. From the opening moments as three soldiers – a Celtic warrior, a first world war officer and a modern soldier in camouflage – land on the sandy beach, Marc Rees’s “Now the Hero/Nawr yr Arwr” combines the histories of the 20th century’s two world wars with the seventh-century battle memorialised in the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin. The poem’s opening line, “Gwyr a aeth Catraeth” (“Men went warring to Catraeth [Catterick, North Yorkshire]”), becomes the mantra-like refrain throughout, as the phrase had for David Jones’s poem “In Parenthesis.”

“This immense piece of immersive, promenade-style theatre was commissioned by 14-18 Now to mark the end of the war that was supposed to end all wars. It takes its audience from shore to street and into Brangwyn Hall, where Sir Frank Brangwyn’s flamboyant decorative panels were commissioned – but then rejected – by the House of Lords to commemorate the 1914-18 war. As the panels fulfil their original purpose, the floor is depicted as one great, red killing field of bloody entrails into whose trenches young soldiers slowly fall.”

“...Yet, against the images of war and its foot soldiers, the heroine of the night is Eddie Ladd’s peace protester, clad in a Greenham Common boiler suit. Her slight but dynamic presence threads its way through the action, ever more breathtaking than harnessed and walking down the vertical drop of the Brangwyn Hall’s central exterior tower. In a series of thought-provoking tableaux, this could risk seeming a stunt, but it is the single image that more powerfully calls to mind this emphatic statement against the futility of war.”

Audience reaction, via the paper, diverged. “The pre-publicity for “Nawr yr Arwr” seemed to promise more of a narrative to the piece than we got. It also seemed to have to fight against the space such as the traffic noise down the Slip or the narrow entrances of the Guildhall, and against the audience's reluctance to get too involved when invited to chant or dance. What I got out of it were some great images and moments but no clear idea of what it was ultimately about. I found the most technically impressive part was the choral speaking of the Gododdin which was beautifully precise. They must have spent weeks being drilled to be that good.”

The critiques followed a theme. “It should have been a fantastic experience but at best it was just a string of (sometimes) eye catching scenes. There were so many parts that needed explanation that it's hard to know where to begin. What, for example, were the tape recorders dangling from the ceiling meant to suggest? Why was there a long table in the street with sewing machines on it? And how was anyone meant to take anything from the series of tableaux set up in the side rooms of the Guildhall? I don't think I'm naturally resistant to challenging performances but this tipped over into inaccessible pretentiousness.”

Another: “Heard a great deal about Rees’ show and all hail the man who maketh a spectacle. However, there was no narrative thread here whatsoever and emotionally barren. Rees has ploughed his dough into creating a few dazzling spectacles but it’s ultimately no more that a circus show.”

These are tough words. Experience is moulded by expectation, and these viewers' responses are validly felt. However, they feel also as if they are unfamiliar with Marc Rees' aesthetics. Aesthetics are absent in the life and letters of Wales. The debate on the place of national theatre has yet to touch on the powerful set of aesthetic assumptions that underpin the company.

The performance that Marc Rees creates is essentially big but it is allusive. Rattigan it is not. That particular set of aesthetic values has been described, and hailed, here in “For Mountain, Sea and Sand” (2010), “Adain Avion” (2012) and “{150}” (2015). If he were in the visual arts his equivalent would be Rops or Redon. If a theorist were needed- which it is not- it would be Jean Moréas and his call to do away with “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”.

As for the absent reviewer, the coverage achieves what all good criticism does. It evokes, provokes and makes me wish I had been there.

The Guardian in full at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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