Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Frank McKone in discussion with Karla Conway.
When I reviewed 35º 17 South (CCC blog Sunday 14 April, which you may like to refer to as you read on) I found myself asking questions about drama games, audience involvement, risks, and results of experimenting with new technology. After being present for just the very beginning of a work that continued over a whole week, I was keen to meet the creator, artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre, Karla Conway, to find some answers.
What I discovered is a new kind of theatre. In recent times theatrical forms have been merging in new ways: I have been particularly interested in the new forms of Dance Theatre, for example. But here we have “location gaming theatre”. As Karla explained the process of creating the work and told stories from the experiences of the 400 people who took part over the week, I bit by bit saw my understanding come into focus.
Gaming Theatre sets up a new relationship between the audience (or “players”), the actors, and the location (in this case the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia).
A starting point for discussion was whether 35º 17 South was really no different from a large-group drama improvisation workshop, of the kind often used in drama education and theatre rehearsals. Were the paying “audience” simply participants alongside the CYT “actors”, all improvising in an unstructured way on a theme of refugee issues? In this kind of process, I would have established the theme via some kind of stimulus in an acting space, let the improvisation develop, and follow up with a reflection and debriefing session to explore what happened and what the participants learned about themselves and the theme.
But, no, explained Karla. She was the author of a complete narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. In fact she holds the copyright on that creation, which in its final form looks rather like a flow chart, with optional pathways at certain points, rather than a single-spine narrative. The structure is supplied by the game, which is played by the audience – that is why they are called “players” rather than being a static observing “audience”. They pay for a theatre experience as they actively play the game, rather than for a conventional passive absorbing of theatre.
Each player in Gaming Theatre has the same objective – to complete the narrative and find out what happens in the end – just as an audience member has in a conventional play-watching situation. What the game provides are multiple possible choices after the first task (counting the bolts on the Diamond sculpture), taking each player through the flow chart on an individual set of pathways. This process is dramatically enhanced by the basic scripting of each of the characters they meet, allowing the actors to improvise, strictly in character, in response to each player’s questions or expectations of them. One of the major successes of the week’s work for the Canberra Youth Theatre as a training institution was that so many players were surprised and very impressed by the actors’ maintaining their characters so well in the face of unknown and often highly unexpected demands made by players who were trying to work out how they, as refugees, could find the shelter they needed.
It is at this point that I recognised what is new in this form of theatre, especially compared with experiments in the past about changing the relationship between the audience and the actors. In the Open Theatre of the 1970s, or action taking place in the auditorium or the foyer, or in street theatre of all kinds, including all those different arrangements of audience participation, the actors are in control.
In this Gaming Theatre, the players are in control, making their own decisions as they seek out the codes to take them further, and decide what to say to an actor and how to respond to the actor’s character’s decision in return. All this takes place within the game structure with its explicit and sometimes hidden rules, and so the theatrical experience is much more like playing out situations in real life than can happen in conventional theatre.
Here it is important to recognise the crucial role played by the writers of the code for the game, the Academy of Interactive Entertainment team, who worked over a lengthy period to make the game work consistently with Conway’s original narrative. This was more than a clerical exercise, of course, but a creative work complementary to hers. (I didn’t ask who holds the software copyright!) As Karla pointed out, one of her disappointments in theatre of recent times has been the use of multi-media which is no more than illustration or distraction, instead of being fully integrated into the creation of the drama.
Here, the gaming code, the use of the tablets to find one’s way, and the narrative are all integral to the action and the player’s sense of satisfaction with this new form of theatre. The location might be seen as more peripheral, since the main achievement here was to open up the players’ and the actors’ awareness of the artworks. I suppose the only other way to integrate the location would have been to do what SBS did with Go Back to Where You Came From – and play the game for real starting in Afghanistan and ending up in Canberra!
But something like that reality happened, on occasions that Karla observed. In the story there is a baby – represented physically by a doll – in “radioactive” mist. To rescue the baby (and save themselves from the radioactivity) a player must find the code as quickly as possible and move to the next position with a digital “saved child”.
However, one player, male, took the doll physically to the actor who was a black market trader and tried to sell it to him to obtain other resources, like a weapon, to get further along the road to safety. How’s that for something Brechtian. Mother Courage and her Children you could say. After negotiations, in character, the baby was returned to its “radioactive” location for another player to find it.
But then (I think on a different day), a woman picked the baby up to comfort it, refusing to hand it to the nearby actors because, she said, she couldn’t trust them to treat it properly. So the actors had to improvise, within their various characters, bringing in others to help, until they established trust enough for the player to hand over the baby – so it again could be returned to its location. So there you go – The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the Sculpture Garden, except that empathy provided a positive solution to who owned the child, rather than the threat of cutting it in half.
Other stories too showed how deeply players became immersed in the ethics of the drama and the emotional effects of the situation of being a refugee. There was no formal de-brief for the players, just as they would have left a conventional theatre having to work out for themselves whether it was right or naive of Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin to bang the drum which warned the village below of impending attack, from the very soldiers who then killed her as a traitor. But then, Karla reported, every player completed the game, and so reached the safety of the Skyspace – both as a player in the role of refugee, and in a different sense, as a person experiencing theatre.
Not only, then, is Gaming Theatre an exciting original new form, especially for the young for whom apps and tapping tablet screens is entirely normal, but – in the right author’s hands – is as valid and powerful as any other good quality theatre.
Monday, April 29, 2013
Music by Jimmy Roberts
Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan
April 24 to May 5, 2013
Directed by Stephen Pike
Review by Len Power 24 April 2013
Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan
April 24 to May 5, 2013
Directed by Stephen Pike
Don’t get me wrong – ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ – is very funny and nicely performed and directed, but I wish I had seen it closer to when it was first staged in 1996. Back then it would have been delightfully original and I’m not surprised it was a smash-hit off-Broadway, running for over 5,000 performances.
In this, and similar shows, you shake your head ruefully as you recognize yourself in the funny and awkward relationships played out in short, revue-like scenes. The only problem is we’ve seen a lot of these shows in recent years and the formula is getting a bit hackneyed.
The director has chosen a group of six excellent actor/singers. Very impressive were Christine Forbes’ country-style song, ‘Always a Bridesmaid’ and Nick Valois with ‘The Baby Song’. Also delightful were Krystle Innes – who seems to be able to play any age at the drop of a hat – with ‘I Will Be Loved Tonight’ and Greg Sollis’s reactions during a nightmare visit to old friends who are focussed on their baby to the exclusion of everything else. Jenna Roberts was especially notable in her powerful scene, ‘The Very First Dating Video Of Rose Ritz’, as was Dave Evans with ‘Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You?
Musical director and pianist for the show, Lucy Bermingham, with Vanessa Driver on violin and Jason Henderson on bass play the score by Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro well, but it’s not the kind of music you’ll be humming on the way home. The set by Brian Sudding with its bright colours and heart motifs looks good and works well with its various playing spaces and levels.
The costumes by Christine Pawlicki were well chosen, especially Dave Evans’ delightfully awful golf outfit and Christine must have had a great time designing the hideous bridesmaid’s dresses gamely worn by Christine Forbes.
Stephen Pike’s direction of his cast is excellent. The in-depth characterizations, especially, make this a standout production. However, the music for the short interludes covering scene changes was rather dull and resulted in a drop in the show’s energy wherever they occurred. With the set design and lighting causing the focus to be on the musicians during these interludes, the energy drop may not have occurred if Lucy Bermingham had been directed to make at least eye contact with the audience, while playing.
While I feel like I’ve seen this kind of show enough now, I still had a good time, laughing out loud at various moments and admiring the skill of the performers, their fine singing and Stephen Pike’s clever direction.
Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 28 April 2013
Friday, April 26, 2013
Directed by Stuart Maunder
Music Composed By Gavin Lockley
National Gallery Of Australia, James O Fairfax Theatre
April 20 - 21, 2013
Review by Len Power 20 April 2013
Music Composed By Gavin Lockley
National Gallery Of Australia, James O Fairfax Theatre
April 20 - 21, 2013
Review by Len Power 20 April 2013
Composer, Gavin Lockley’s ‘Orchestral Songs of Australia’ and ‘Symphony of Australia’, presented at the National Gallery of Australia, proved to be an exhilarating program in celebration of Canberra’s Centenary.
Eight songs were presented from ‘Orchestral Songs of Australia’, based on words by A.B. Paterson, C.J. Dennis, J.L. Cuthbertson, Bruce Simpson and John O’Brien. The music by Gavin Lockley accompanied the words very well and ranged from the intimate to the spectacular, with an occasional hint of Aussie larrikinism in some musically humorous endings. Of special note amongst the vocal soloists was Stuart Maunder’s fine rendition of Bruce Simpson’s ‘The Packhorse Drover’, Renae Martin’s, ‘The Ant Explorer’ by C.J. Dennis, complete with unexpected whistling finale, the composer himself, Gavin Lockley, with, ‘A Bush Christening’ by A.B. Paterson and Darryl Lovegrove’s stirring ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
‘Symphony Of Australia’ in six movements, takes us through major aspects of Australian history. Highlights included the atmospheric didgeridoo playing by Glen Doyle in the opening Dreamtime, Australians at war with a haunting Pie Jesu beautifully sung by Renae Martin and the stirring ‘Sunburnt Country’ finale.
The program was hosted by the director, Stuart Maunder, who also gave us a rare opportunity to hear his fine singing voice. The orchestra was conducted with great feeling by Simon Kenway and the music was accompanied by excellent projections by Hamish Siddins. An added bonus was seeing the joy on the composer’s face hearing his own music played so well.
Originally published in 'City News' 24 April 2013 Edition
Written by Dylan Thomas
Canberra Repertory Society, Theatre 3April 12 to 27, 2013
Review by Len Power 17 April 2013
Written originally as a radio program in 1952, Dylan Thomas’s poem about a day in the life of a Welsh village would seem to be a daunting prospect for the stage. Not a problem, though, if you have an imaginative director of the calibre of Duncan Ley and a cast of experienced performers to bring his vision to life.
Duncan Ley retains the sense of a stark reading of the poem at the beginning of the show, but when the lights go down, the magic starts and a captivating pageant of humanity awakens before the audience. It’s a bit like ‘Brigadoon’ without the music. I’m not going to spoil it by telling you how this is done. It’s something you’ll have to see for yourself.
Duncan Driver leads the fine cast as ‘First Voice’, essentially the narrator of the show. He pops in and out as narrator and occasionally plays a character here and there as well. His expert delivery of the words is more real and less actorish than the famous Richard Burton recording. He would have made Dylan Thomas proud.
The ten member ensemble, including Geoffrey Borny, Peter Holland, Erin Pugh, Steph Roberts and Graham Robertson expertly play the full emotional range of a myriad of characters. Every member of the ensemble has their moment to shine and all give memorable performances.
Anne Kay has designed a clever, finely detailed and atmospheric set for the production and Heather Spong’s costumes are just right for the period. The lighting design by Chris Ellyard and sound design by Neil McRitchie are especially notable in this production, creating quite a haunting atmosphere. Helen Vaughan-Roberts has done an excellent job with the huge number of Properties required and the stage crew, co-ordinated by Stage Manager, Carmen King, keep the magic going with their silent set changes.
In less expert hands, this poem-as-play could be a rather uninteresting experience. Duncan Ley brings his imaginative flair and great sense of theatre to this production and I found myself more interested in the way the play was being done, rather than the actual play itself. However, if you love the words of this poem already, Duncan Ley’s magic will double your enjoyment of this show.
Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 21 April 2013
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Reviewed by Frank McKone
This is an up-front musical, quite explicit on matters sexual (and a few other bodily functions), very American culturally speaking, mostly very funny and occasionally touching.
It’s also very well-known, having reached Queanbeyan after productions in more than 400 other cities in at least USA, Britain, Israel, Mexico, Spain, Holland, Hungary, Czech Republic, South Korea, Italy, Brazil, South Africa, Ireland, Argentina, Germany, Hong Kong, mainland China and Taipei, as well as Sydney and its original run of 5003 performances in the off-Broadway Westside Theatre. This production certainly stands up very well in this company, if the various You Tube efforts I’ve viewed represent the standard.
First is the music. Lucy Bermingham on the grand, Vanessa Driver, violin, and Jason Henderson, bass, captured each of the American musical styles perfectly for each song, and for the interludes as scenes shifted from one vignette to the next. Quality here gave the edge to the singing, lifting the performers – Dave Evans, Jenna Roberts, Christine Forbes, Krystle Innes, Nick Valois and Greg Sollis – often to an operatic level, which gave the stereotyped characters in many scenes an extra dimension.
Add to the music a wonderful sense of comedy in Annette Sharpe’s choreography, and precision in the timing which showed Stephen Pike’s strong direction, and we ended up with a show better than might be expected from what is, after all, not much more than a series of revue sketches. The greatest depth, though, welled up unexpectedly – but wonderfully – in the non-singing scene “The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz”. Jenna Roberts was awarded a special round of applause for her characterisation showing guts and integrity in a very vulnerable Rose.
At a different end of the spectrum was the performance of Ted, the bear, as he cheerfully but in a certain sense rather sadly waved us goodbye, manipulated by Nick Valois, as the father reverting to childhood. Very nice work.
I think a reason behind the success of this Australian production is that we are not Americans. There was some discussion during interval about the decision to use American accents, but in the second half the culture, perhaps especially of the American Jewish characters, is so specific that Australian voices just would not do. What we have to offer, instead, is a view of these characters from the outside looking in, and a picture of the absurdity of their behaviour against what we would expect in our culture.
The result is more than a humorous reflection on love and marriage, but a more biting level of comedy approaching satire. In other words, more satisfying theatre rather than mere light-hearted entertainment. Some of those You Tube videos seem to present the latter and miss out on the former. Much of the script and the libretto can easily fall into the guffaw laughter trap, but scenes in this production – such as Christine Forbes’ country and western “Always a Bridesmaid” and Dave Evans’ and Jenna Roberts’ “Marriage Tango” – showed what an Australian perspective could bring to this American life.
So gird your loins and see for yourself at The Q.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Reviewed by Frank McKone
If there is one lesson which should be taught to all young Australian children, surely it must be irreverence. Pea! does it nicely.
On the other hand, children’s theatre must treat its trusting audience with respect – as indeed should all theatre. Pea! does this too.
The Hive Program at The Street Theatre encourages new writing and, with dramaturgical assistance, offers a season on stage. David Finnigan’s work in Pea! is perhaps the most assured and sophisticated product that I have seen so far from The Hive.
He has taken the moral behind the Hans Christian Andersen fable of the princess and the pea – that those absorbed in their own self-importance should be brought down to earth – and turned it on its head. “Princess” is no more than the name given Gwendoline by the wolves who kindly brought her up when her parents had abandoned her in the Wild Wood of the West. Gwen satisfies Prince Gregor’s pea-brained mother’s Princess Test, which she learned from daytime Royal Weddings television, precisely because Gwen is not full of self-importance but only wishes to save everyone from the Dragon-with-One-Nostrilled-Snout.
Gregor is certainly lucky to be taken in hand by a woman who can look after herself and sleep as comfortably on the ground as on 40 mattresses – and can solve the problem of how to use the pea to stop up the One-Nostrilled Snout. The whole kingdom is saved as the fiery Dragon’s internal gas pressure forces explosive farts from his other end, and he flies home in shame to his mother. It wasn’t just the children who could not contain themselves at this point in the story. I’m sure the laughing adults around me were thinking of a number of figures of seeming social importance whose snouts they might like to stop up with a pea, or three….
But the respect and care for the children was there from the beginning, as the actors – Cathy Petöcz and Josh Wiseman – made sure they had found out just about every child’s name and engaged them in conversation – about the other theme of the play: what’s your favourite vegetable? The Pea becomes the narrator, from his pedestal in the Museum of Famous Vegetables, and is even rather boastful of having saved the kingdom – except that everyone soon learns that it was really Gwendoline with a little help from Gregor. But, significantly, when there is thunder and lightning as the Dragon approaches, Pea stops the action to check if anyone is scared – because he or she (according to which actor is puppeteering at the time) is a bit scared too. “No, of course not,” the children reply. “We’re not afraid of the Dragon!” – and on we go to the explosive farts.
Carefully thought-out touches such as this were in themselves educational – for the children and even perhaps for parents. The script, and I suspect work done during the workshop and rehearsal process, shows how theatre can manipulate an audience’s reactions, but good theatre does this ethically. It’s this, the irreverence of the script, and the originality of the set design and use of puppetry, that I would like to praise the whole team for, in Pea!
Monday, April 22, 2013
Majura Park – Canberra Airport until 27th April
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
There’s something completely irresistible about a circus, with its promise of death-defying feats, corny clowns, cute animals, and freshly cooked pop-corn. Michael Edgley’s Great Moscow Circus certainly lives up to that promise in spades, plus some. Staged in an immaculately presented, state-of-the-art big-top, resplendent with striped minarets and multi-coloured lights, this 2013 edition of the circus which has been touring the country for nearly 50 years, may not be as all-new as promised, but each act is certainly a top class example of its genre. What is new certainly are the pageant-type connecting scenes which may be a bit dodgy as historical context, but certainly add to the overall spectacle.
Some of the most impressive acts are not your usual circus fare. There’s a remarkable quick-change dance duo whose rapid costume changes leaves the audience gasping in amazement, and Albert Roubaud’s “Statue Act” which is equally as intriguing. Then there’s the terrifying knife throwing skills of Alfredo Silva and his brave, (some might say foolhardy) assistant Anna, who allows Alfredo to throw knives at her while she is strapped to a spinning wheel
Among the more traditional acts, the gorgeous Oxana Zinchenko, suspended high above the audience on spectacular red, white and blue silks, performs graceful heart-stopping manoeuvres minus the security of a safety- net, and Olksandr and Natalia Gerasymenko whose skilful, captivating routine is performed on a single trapeze.
Among the larger acts, the eight-person Romashov double Russian swing act provides high-flying thrills as its members perform daring mid-air stunts while propelled high above the heads of the audience, and another spectacularly costumed troupe with the rather prophetic name of “Group of Risk”, who perform amazing and amusing feats bouncing and prancing above and around a huge piece of apparatus called a wall trampoline.
|The Romashov Troupe|
All the kids loved the cute little well-fed ponies who performed prettily, particularly the tiny one who managed to steal the limelight at every opportunity, and the larger pony who sat in a lounge chair, before retiring in a real bed, and especially the clowns, young and fresh, whose genuinely funny new routines include a marvellous sequence when one of them manages to get himself trapped inside a huge yellow balloon with hilarious results.
Too quickly the night comes to a climax with the truly impressive Globe of Death, which we’ve certainly seen before, but this year, five motorcyclists (count ‘em) roar around inside a 4 mtr. metal sphere, which disconcertingly parts in the middle while all this is happening.
|The Globe of Death|
Michael Edgley’s Great Moscow Circus has always been synonymous with all that’s best in modern circus, and this latest edition definitely upholds that tradition.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Commentary by Frank McKone
Drama games as I used to know them are being taken to a new space by this CYT experiment. From the drama workshop studio to an outdoor venue, like the Sculpture Garden at the NGA, is one thing. Setting up a kind of treasure hunt, with clues to be discovered and directions to be understood and followed, is another. But to have all this set in the context of a semi-scripted scenario which can only be understood via an up-to-date tablet device is one step further than I had previously imagined.
Computer, keyboard and mouse I can cope with, but a blank screen on a tablet is pure mystery to me. Fortunately a one-time student from my days at Hawker College spontaneously appeared to save my reputation as a drama expert. Catherine Prosser is now CEO and Co-Founder of stagebitz.com, (http://stagebitz.com/) providing software which can make running all the technical side of theatre a whizz. She had no trouble tapping the right bits on the tablet provided by CYT’s front of house coordinator Jim Adamik, and off we went to find the first of those other little mysteries (at least to me) – the black and white squares which look like miniature maps of mazes, stuck on the wall near the Diamond sculpture (Neil Dawson, Aotearoa New Zealand born 1948: Diamonds 2002). The tablet read the coded maze, only to tell us that we couldn’t go further until we had correctly counted the number of bolts which hold the sculpture together.
After four goes we got it right (37 in case you’d like to know), typed it in and then began the game for real – well, sort of real, except that at that stage we only knew that we had to find clean water. Why? Because the only safe place to be was in the Skyspace (James Turrell: 'Within without' 2010) on the other side of the Gallery. We knew this because we had been there with others who were desperate to get in because they were starving and had travelled so far and for so long to find a safe haven. We were now in their situation, but we didn’t know why. But we had not been allowed in until we could find resources like food and water to bring with us. We couldn’t eat the tablets, but we needed them to find what we needed for entry to the only place of safety.
Catherine and I collected some useful resources like toilet paper and chocolate, and discovered with help from CYT writer Morgan Little that there were not only actors as desperate refugees, but others such as a trader who might exchange our chocolate for a weapon which we would need to help defend the community. Not all the game concentrated on the immediate objective of survival: there are some codes which are games in themselves, like one which showed insects flying around in the Sculpture Garden which needed to be sprayed to prevent people being bitten by them.
After an hour or more, we had got nowhere near completing the game – we hadn’t even found the clean water – but as responsible adults we had to leave. The younger members of Youth Theatre were by this time absolutely engrossed in the activity: if they didn’t complete the game on Saturday, they could continue each day next week! This is one very big school holiday activity.
But is it as ground-breaking an experiment as it seems? Is it a worthwhile way of teaching drama? Is it suitably educational more broadly?
I think the answer to the last question depends on the content of the game.The story assumes a “Lucas Heights incident” in 2032 which means the east coast has become unliveable. The refugees are escaping to Canberra as the only safe haven. The refugee theme is, of course, entirely relevant in considering the position of those who recently arrived at Geraldton, after some 44 days in a small boat, from Sri Lanka.
However, there is a further assumption that in 2032, those managing the place of safety, the actors refusing entry to the refugees at the beginning of the game, would be openly aggressive with defensive weapons, and would arbitrarily lay out their demands to be satisfied by starving refugees. Of course, there is a parallel with the way refugees are being treated by officialdom.
But what I wanted to know was, where in the game will the audience/participants have an opportunity to be debriefed and to reflect on the storyline, its implications and truthfulness. This game, by having an “audience” attending, is different from a large group improvisation workshop where everyone participating takes part in the devising, the role-playing, and the reflective debriefing. In this case, only the CYT actors and staff are in the know. Of course, it is true that when an audience leaves a standard theatre production, they are not debriefed but have to sort out what they think about what they have seen for themselves. This game, though, is more like some of the audience participation experiments of the late 1960s / early 1970s such as New York’s Open Theatre (Robert Pasolli: A Book on the Open Theatre. Discus Books, 1970) where the actors imposed themselves on the audience members in an undifferentiated space. These experiments lasted for only a few years, because audiences preferred enough degree of separation from the action to feel they were safe.
Because 35º 17 South is a pre-programmed game, there is a degree of safety for participants, since they have to follow the rules to complete the task. Usually, of course, electronic games are entirely on screen, while this one involves interaction with real actors in a large relatively unconfined space where immediate supervision by CYT staff is problematic. Though things like the weapons are no more than images on the tablet screen, what if a non-prepared participant (as opposed to the partially scripted and rehearsed actors) – a member of the public – were to take on the role of a desperate refugee to the point of a physical argument, say, with the trader of weapons who refused to accept chocolate in payment? What would be the learning, on either side, from this experience? And what are the safeguards?
At this stage I’m willing to keep an open mind until the conclusion of the game, next Saturday. But I would be interested to know how the follow-up, what used to be called the backstage post-mortem, will be done – not only for the young adults and late teenagers in the acting roles, and of course for the CYT staff and the people from the Academy of Interactive Entertainment who wrote the computer code, but also for all those people, and perhaps their parents, who were audience/participants.
Since Karla Conway, the CYT Artistic Director, has invited us to “experiment alongside us and embrace the possibilities that technology can play in the evolution of our artform”, I think it should be encumbent on CYT to see the “experiment” as the lab research, requiring a careful analysis of the results and a public report of the findings.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
For 50 years I have heard the words of Under Milk Wood and allowed them to fill the spaces in my mind with a myriad of images – of the characters and even of their dreams. Now I have a new set of visual and audio memories, created by Duncan Ley and his designers Anne Kay (set), Heather Spong (costumes), Chris Ellyard (lighting), and Neil McRitchie (sound) to add to and renew my old imagination.
This is a great achievement on Rep’s part, and a great joy to me.
Ley’s directing is exquisite. Using Duncan Driver as 1st Voice, physically present but unseen by the village dwellers, as the close-up observer on our behalf, he has created for us a solid personality in place of the traditional disembodied voice of the original radio play. Having an experienced and skilled ensemble cast of 10 – Geoffrey Borny, Alice Ferguson, Sian Harrington, Peter Holland, Terry Johnson, Adele Lewin, David McNamara, Erin Pugh, Steph Roberts and Graham Robertson – enabled Ley and his design team to work out a highly complex scheme to present just about all the characters physically, including the children (the “kiss me for a penny” scene was especially wonderful) and even more detail in the daily life in the street than Thomas’s words describe.
This is done so well because Ley has a clear concept of the theatrical form he is using. Essentially it is expressionist in style, with all that tradition of black, light and shadow, but given what I might call a gentle touch. The only harshness was to throw the main switch to shock us out of the reality of seeing actors out of role and into the black of night to begin the action; and to do the same in reverse at the end. Yet this risky device worked perfectly.
I should also add the properties person, Helen Vaughan-Roberts, to the list of credits because the collecting of all those props hung on the moveable scene sections, representing characters’ kitchens, bedrooms, shops and so on must have been a daunting task. They made the set a visual feast in its own right.
A completely new thought for me was to use recordings of the Welsh crowd singing at a rugby match, and of the traditional Welsh male voice choir at significant points. I wondered about this at first, but the ending especially took any of my doubts away. The sound track put the play into its proper context, and gave it extra strength on stage.
If Dylan Thomas, high up in Rev Eli Jenkins’ idea of heaven, is watching this production, I’m certain he would not be saying the village’s name backwards. He may be wishing he could be here to take part in an exciting improvement on the limited first performance he was able to offer at the YMHA Poetry Centre, New York, May 14, 1953, with only five actors and himself standing stock still, except for when he stepped forward two paces to deliver Rev Eli Jenkins’ morning poem. I now have that recording and Ley’s staging to keep my imagination going for another, perhaps not 50, years.