What can contemporary Welsh theatre offer to social critique? Merlin Gable speaks to Chelsey Gillard and Jac Ifan Moore.
‘Audiences are intelligent enough to receive different things!’ Jac exclaims in good natured frustration, ‘democratic doesn’t mean hegemony’.
We arrive at this point because I’m trying to understand the shape of Saethau Cwningod / Shooting Rabbits, the first production by PowderHouse, the Sherman Theatre’s company in residence and brainchild of directors and writers Chelsey Gillard and Jac Ifan Moore. The show is a blend of music, physical theatre and the story of a Welshman going to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. But it’s clearly not simply that. It’s delivered in Welsh, English, Spanish and Basque, and Jac and Chelsey tell me that this ‘collagic’ piece is by no means conventional narrative theatre.
My prompts to elicit these responses are, admittedly, somewhat willfully naive, and Jac and Chelsey know so (I think), but there’s a serious point. Surely a piece of theatre about the Spanish Civil War – during which socialists from across the world and, indeed, significant numbers from across the south Wales coalfield, travelled, fought and died in service of a struggle between different visions of society – should have at its core a commitment to a democratic form of storytelling? ‘Because of the multiplicity of storytelling methods and the fact that somewhere at its heart there is quite a simple story I think… you know sometimes Shakespeare is hard to follow but I love to go see Shakespeare. I find Brecht difficult but I love to see Brecht… there’s an ease of understanding that something that’s visual and musical presents’.
Theatre in Wales has been better than other forms of art at breaking barriers between Welsh- and English-language output. (Prose fiction, I would say, for instance, is still some degree more divided.) For what appears to be one of the most outwardly notable aspects of the production (and of course there’s always a certain heightened consciousness to language issues in Wales), Chelsey and Jac are pretty dismissive of the significance of the multiplicity of languages. ‘In the room it’s not a bother at all, it’s not even something we’re conscious of. It’s the least standing out aspect of it for us.’
It is a demand common to the increasingly promising stream of bilingual, or at least realistically mixed English and Welsh, theatre in Wales that a largely monoglot audience must act to some extent as their own interpreter. In this sense, such theatre must always be to a degree non-realistic in that the intellectual work required in watching it serves as a constant reminder of the artificiality of the work in front of us. I think there’s something vital and liberating here though: the French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote that the ‘driving force of translation’ is to ‘relinquish materiality’. I think we can see this concept at play in this sort of theatre: in the face of the need for interpretation, what we experience can take on different meanings, further levels of significance, as that intellectual process sits in between us and reality, relinquishing, as Derrida says, that sense of the materiality of theatre.
Jac and Chelsey admit a similar interest not just in content but in the mechanics of stories: ‘yes there is an aim to be narrative,’ Chelsey admits, ‘but that’s not the interesting thing I don’t think. It’s more about what are we learning from this story, why do we love telling these stories from Welsh history?’ Jac agrees: ‘that’s what we’re interested in really… using elements and stories and phrases from the past to define who we are now’. This is another form of translation – the way we use our past to make the present – which is at the heart of myth, a sort of storytelling that the directors admit is important to their thought in developing Shooting Rabbits.
And it’s certainly true that we’re good in Wales at constructing mythologies. We list a few during the conversation – the miners’ strike, the flooding of Capel Celyn – but there is a narrative approach to Welsh history going right back to the Mabinogi. ‘Something we’re very good at in Wales is nostalgia and defining ourselves through past figures and past action,’ Jac says. ‘And there’s a sanitisation that comes with that,’ they both stress. ‘Things become simpler shapes when you look back in history.’
Roland Barthes, the French semiotician and literary theorist, outlined a general structure of myth in his book Mythologies. To Barthes, myths aren’t just stories about the past, but also a metalanguage: they are forms of narrative which arrest the meaning of history in a fixed interpretation and are thereby a structure by which we receive ideology. Myths are always a ‘language robbery’; they’re not the real thing, not an actual confrontation with history. So too we in Wales have received sanitised representations of our mining heritage and our country’s complex but deep socialist and communitarian history, that obscure a proper understanding of the political solidarities that gave rise to many men’s participation in the Spanish Civil War. This sanitisation thereby hampers us from incisive use of the past to form opinions about the present. It’s arguably this relationship with the past – rose tinted, always looking for a golden era – that is at the heart of the cultural shift that has given rise to Brexit.
In prefacing a later revised edition of Mythologies, Barthes describes an evolution in the analysis of myth that necessarily occurred following the near-revolutionary events of May 1968, where dissecting myths can represent a route to ‘a certain liberation of “the significant”’. I can’t help but feel that this is some of what Shooting Rabbits is aiming to do: through the abandonment of a certain kind of ‘materiality’ of conventional representation, we might find a route to the ‘significant’ in the stories we use to know ourselves, an incisive use of the past to delineate that which is important in the present. ‘It just feels like we live in very big-P political times and [the Spanish Civil War] was another big-P political time when people were discussing not just how to manage your life within the political system but what in fact the political system is and should be,’ Jac muses.
Chelsey seems to confirm this: ‘You can’t deny everything in the news. We can’t say we’re writing a show about Extinction Rebellion, we’re definitely not making a show about Brexit, but when you’re making a show about Wales and Europe of course you are whether consciously or not. [The murder of journalist Lyra McKee] in Ireland on Good Friday; Sri Lanka as well. You can’t deny everything that’s happening, even if they’re not direct references in the room’. ‘That’s one of the other things that makes the performed form different from a literary form,’ Jac says. ‘The context is what you perform it in; it changes slightly every night but it’s also really specific about where you’re doing it.’
Theatre in Wales tries admirably hard, I think, to justify its continued receipt of public funding in straitened times – certainly in our conversation Jac and Chelsey are conscious of this and the concomitant responsibilities that come with it. It’s hopeful, however, that this practical requirement doesn’t seem to be dulling the stylistic and representational ambition of theatre, nor its desire to cross boundaries of language, in attempting to connect audiences with the inheritance of their history.
Saethu Cwningod/Shooting Rabbits shows at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff 1–4 May before touring to Theatr Clwyd, Mold; Aberystwyth Arts Centre; and Miners, Ammanford on 7, 9 and 10 May.
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