Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Mike Pearson Remembered: Twelve Voices

In Memory

Gilly Adams, Mike Brookes, Richard Gough, Jon Gower, John Hardy, Lis Hughes Jones, Eddie Ladd, Richard Huw Morgan, Louise Ritchie, John Rowley, Michael Shanks, Ed Thomas , Theatre of Wales , May 27, 2022
In Memory by Gilly Adams, Mike Brookes, Richard Gough, Jon Gower, John Hardy, Lis Hughes Jones, Eddie Ladd, Richard Huw Morgan, Louise Ritchie, John Rowley, Michael Shanks, Ed Thomas Jon Gower. Culture Editor for Nation Cymru, has collated a remarkable tribute to Mike Pearson. He opens the tributes, which run to 11000 words, with:

“The range and compass of contributions gathered below from collaborators, fellow directors, actors, composers and teachers reflect the range, integrity, curiosity and unflagging energy of a supremely gifted theatre maker, teacher, academic and all-round inspiration.”

These quotations give a flavour. They can be read in full at the Nation Cymru site below.

GILLY ADAMS: “...I can only write about the man I have known since the 1970s when I arrived to work in the drama department of the Welsh Arts Council. I was much in awe of Mike and it was difficult for us to negotiate our mutual reticence until the day he sat in my office, on the eve of a trip to Japan to study Noh Theatre and shared his extreme anxiety about the challenge of taking the appropriate presents for his teacher – given the complexity of Japanese protocols about such things.

“So, a tentative friendship was formed and Mike offered me some of the most memorable theatre experiences of my life – The Gododdin, Pax, Black and White, The Persians – and then the greatest gift – Good News from the Future.

“In 2014 Mike conceived the idea of a physical theatre company for the over sixties, initially as a way of experimenting with techniques he had used in the seventies. Some free workshops followed and were so enjoyable that a nucleus of the participants clamoured for more and Good News from the Future emerged.”

MIKE BROOKES: “Mike and I spent twenty years imagining the work as places and situations where we might want to meet and be, where other ways of sharing and being together might become possible. We were lucky enough to be able to realise some of them. It is in those yet to be imagined places and possibilities that I am going to miss him most.”

RICHARD GOUGH:”...One of Mike’s earliest solo pieces was The Lesson of Anatomy (1974) based on extensive research around the French visionary of theatre, Antonin Artaud. The Lesson of Anatomywas an athletic, tortuous and mesmerising piece, Mike was to reconstruct and re-perform it exactly forty years later (to the day) in the same venue – the Arena of the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.

“In many ways I think Antonin Artaud guided Mike throughout the last fifty years through an intense exploration of the anatomy of theatre, and in part the realisation of Artaud’s search for a Theatre of Cruelty, a theatre that challenges audiences, all conventions and complacency within theatre, all orthodoxies and limitations and explored the very boundaries of performance.

“...Mike was an inspiring teacher, public speaker, author, and conference presenter. I attended his regular weekly workshops at Llanover Hall in Cardiff (1973-75), a sort of experimental theatre club, a gang of 17- and 18-year-olds exploring the latest theatre exercises and devising strategies garnered from New York’s Living Theatre (Beck and Malina) and Open Theatre (Chaikin) and Poland’s Laboratory Theatre (Grotowski). It changed the course of my life, and I became a devotee of experimental theatre, jettisoning all my interest in university or a professional career and joining Mike in developing Cardiff Laboratory Theatre.”

JON GOWER: “Who else would have managed to transplant the history and indeed the physical lay-out of the Hafod estate in Ceredigion to the former mental hospital in Ely, Cardiff or turn the medieval poem Y Gododdin into a theatre experience to rival anything by the likes of Robert Lepage?

“The latter production, in a disused car plant was simply one of the most exciting, visceral and utterly astonishing productions I’ve ever seen. It overturned one’s sense of theatre and many other things, not least your sense of one’s own national literature.

“This wasn’t usual theatre. Queuing outside a great clanging factory space at night. Then, inside, there was the sheer bloody noise of it, not to mention Test Department’s throbbing, pulsing industrial music and the martial beat of the words, the clash of weapons and words and the swish of words swung like swords!

JOHN HARDY: ...”I first came across Mike in 1973 – I attended [as an impressionable teenager] a Sherman Arena performance of Mariner, a hugely impressive dumb show depiction, in vigorous physical performative style with a team of fit costumed colleagues, of the Coleridge poem.
The only use of words was in two solo songs. Everything else was vividly acted out in silence. Soon afterwards I was able to see Gorboduc and Gilgamesh, all exuding rough male energy, though there were powerful roles for women too, and all using wordless physical movement as the chief theatrical language.

“Soon after these works, performed under the guise of Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, I found myself drawn into the next series of performances for a decade, now bringing the silent world of no text and no music to life with songs, instrumental music and collaborations with a variety of brass bands, string ensembles, choirs, percussion, harmoniums, accordions and grand pianos.

“...In Moths In Amber [1978] pre-recorded music started to make an appearance, and by the time we arrived at The Disasters Of War series and Gododdin, ten years later, now under the Brith Gof brand, loud and powerful pre-recorded soundtracks were added to, with live musical performance, while the ‘acting’ or ‘physical performance’ group achieved bigger and more impressive feats of leaps, pole vaulting, crashing into walls and siege nets, lifting each other into impressive human pyramids, repeatedly falling into cold water which made their kilted bodies steam like industrial machines or battle horses, and lying defeated among ruined cars and a forest of indoor fir trees, while audiences stared on in shock and sympathy.”

“...Another large-scale show, commissioned as part of Valleys Live [1992] was also seen by large audiences from the Valleys and across South Wales. Haearn / Iron was performed in the vast historic iron foundry, now demolished, in Tredegar, dealing with the ideas of the industrial revolution in the area, and the myth of Prometheus bringing fire to human society, with the help of many physical performers, narrators, plus solo operatic soprano [Gail Pearson], three choirs from the area, the Tredegar Youth Brass Band, and, as usual by then, an enormous PA sound system. This featured in an S4C documentary Haearn in 1993.”

LIS HUGHES JONES: “It was in 1977 that I first met Mike, the quietly spoken and charismatic man who introduced me to his world of physical theatre. I soon gave up my doctoral studies to make performances with him, initially joining him at Cardiff Laboratory Theatre.

“Then in 1981 we co-founded Brith Gof in Aberystwyth, where we lived and worked together for much of the 1980s. It was an extraordinarily intense and creative decade.

“Mike’s endless curiosity, breadth of mind and remarkable imagination drove our work. He was the director, the conceptual thinker, the magnetic performer. I was the maker, the writer, the singer, bringing my cultural heritage as a Welsh speaker to this new form of performance we were co-creating.

“He learned Welsh; I learned the craft and discipline of physical theatre. We wanted to make theatre in Welsh that reflected our roots in European Third Theatre. A theatre that spoke also for the generation of young Welsh practitioners who engaged in our process.”

EDDIE LADD: ...”I was taught by Mike and Lis Hughes Jones in my first year at Aberystwyth in 1982. They had been immersed in physical theatre and principally influenced by Polish theatre. I knew nothing of this but I never had the feeling that my own culture was less important than this world of experimental theatre.

“I remember Mike giving our Welsh medium class some advice, namely to include collective recitation. It was a form of utterance I connected with chapels and Eisteddfodau, but he made me think of it afresh. The whole world of our upbringing mattered!

“It was sufficient in itself and a phenomenon which could be woven into progressive continental theatre. With this, Mike also learned the language so he could teach us in Welsh.”

RICHARD HUW MORGAN:...”My first memory of Mike is in extreme close up. It is December 1st, 1988, and I am standing with my then girlfriend in a freezingly cold shed in subrural Cardiff. I’ve dragged her along to see one of my current favourite bands, the industrial percussion group Test Department. But this is no ordinary gig.

“It would be several years before I’d hear the term ‘activated environment’, but activated it certainly was, not just with extremely amplified sound, but with lights, trees, fire, water, sand, trashed cars…and with highly animated kilt wearing nutters soaked to the skin.

“And here is an extremely tall, bald, semi-naked nutter holding part of a trashed car screaming in my face to get out of the way. I don’t actually hear his words, but I know what he needs me to do. It is difficult now to remember the live experience, I’ve watched the Gododdin TV documentary too many times to distinguish between the live and the mediated.

What I do remember is that I went back the following night to experience it all over again, without my girlfriend. This was my first encounter with Brith Gof. I’d never had any interest in theatre. But this wasn’t theatre was it? It was real.”

LOUISE RITCHIE:...”I first met Mike over twenty years ago as an undergraduate student at Aberystwyth University. I can picture him now standing at the front of the lecture theatre with a captive audience. He played Gododdin and that was it, the hair on end moment that opened up a world I didn’t know existed.

“Conversations with Mike were always energising, wonderfully creative, and full of warmth, good humour and generosity. He had an incredible ability to make you feel that your ideas were important. I always came away from our chats feeling good and with a spring in my step.

JOHN ROWLEY:...”I went on to make many shows with Mike and Brith Gof over the next decade. The work was exciting and thrilling to be a part of. There was nothing like it. It was tough, physically and mentally demanding work. Often like going into battle. A lot of sweat was spilled…and, frequently, blood!

“In Prydain, I was shoved out of a van into a cold derelict factory. I proceeded to cut my suit off with a Stanley knife, revealing my naked body emblazoned with the words of William Blake upon it written in indelible ink. Mike then blindfolded me, thrust two hefty antique books into my hands and set them alight with lighter fuel before pushing me into an unsuspecting and terrified audience, leaving me to find my own way out of the situation…I smashed straight into a scaffold pole!

“The thing with Mike was that, although he was the Director, he didn’t really like directing performers as you would in much of traditional theatre. He found performers he could trust to work instinctively within the framework and aesthetic that he created for any given piece without telling them, minute by minute what to do. He had a firm grip on a production and always came armed on the first day of rehearsals with a whole series of cards filled with details of physical action and timings and diagrams of intended audience/performer interactions.”

MICHAEL SHANKS: “It was 30 years ago that Mike arrived at my archaeology lab in Lampeter, University of Wales, with a video to show me – Pax TV – an experimental work from his company Brith Gof.

“Layered frames and scanning cameras offered windows on a house in Wales and the woman who lived and died there. In this mélange of memory, media and event, Mike was an angel, Hermes. I didn’t see this then.

“When Mike asked what I thought, I could only reply vaguely that it was a fascinating experiment in media and performance. Mike said that he wanted to show me the video because it was archaeology – just as I had described in a recent book of mine about the archaeological imagination.
I didn’t know what he meant, and so started the conversation and collaboration between us that has been interrupted, that has taken such a sad turn with his death last week.”

ED THOMAS:...”He had such a range of interests, too – he was a historian and a keen birdwatcher who would go off to see a sedge warbler when I had no idea what a sedge warbler was!

“I remember him telling me when Brith Gof was at its peak – going to Barcelona and so on – wouldn’t it be great if we could put on a performance like the Neath rugby front row of the early 1990s, because he wanted a production to be that physical, like the hard rugby then played at the Gnoll.

“Even though he was very clever and intellectual he was also a great friend, a very special man. He could do the little things in order to make sure that the big things worked and he could and would pull people together. He had such clarity of ideas and was so original but he also had a genuine gift for collaboration, for working together with others, sharing ideas, nurturing talent along the way, such as the time when he was a professor in Aberystwyth but also managing to do so when he was performing at a very high level indeed.

“Mike was as thoughtful as he was kind, always willing to help anyone. He saw no difference between doing a show in front of 30 people in Cwmgiedd, Ystradgynlais or in a working sand quarry in Lombardy with 3000 people in attendance.”

Extracts from the full tributes to be read at:

Picture: Heike Roms

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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