Hello everyone! This is a little essay/story I wrote about when I first got excited about live performance, and what I am excited about today as a member of TEAM panel (is it sposed to be capitalised?? who knows!).
THE SHEEP was torn in half in front of us. It happened in a school playground on a hot night in summer – but the playground was also a Cornish fishing town, a courtroom, a valley, a mountainside, a mineshaft, the gateway to Hell.
I must have been six or seven years old. I think, even then, that I knew it wasn't a real sheep they were sacrificing. It was blatantly not real – that was the joke, the blatantness – it was a comedy cuddly toy, cut in two and then resewn, with velcro, so that the men in the devil costumes could rip it into pieces and patch it back together night after night, for the length of the run. I knew it wasn't meant to be real, or to seem real, and that was sort of the point – it was funny as well as scary, and the falsetto bleat of the poor old sheep in its death-throes was quickly drowned by a hearty gale of laughter, from all the grown-ups in the audience. The kids, I think, were more troubled.
The play I saw that night was an open-air performance of Kneehigh's Tregeagle, and I have never forgotten it. Adapted from a Faust-like Cornish folk-tale about a man who sells his soul to the devil, it was a great, dark, bawdy, guttural, tragic, hilarious piece of theatre. At least, that's what I imagine it probably was when I look back at it now: from the perspective of a child, it was pure magic.
As well as the sheep sacrifice, there are a few other disparate images which stand out in my memory: Tregeagle swanning around in his Devil-bought finery to the mordant strains of a saxophone; or a pack of out-sized, glow-eyed Hell-hounds roaming the crowd, noses to the ground, hunting fresh new souls. One other memorable moment was something of an accident. One of the actors was describing how Tregeagle's town had been cursed by his satanic pact, and that in twenty-one years no bird had flown in the sky above it – and at just this moment a fat seagull passed overhead, emitting a single, unmistakable squawk. The actor played it for laughs, as any good performer would, momentarily stepping out of his role with a face of exaggerated dismay. But somehow I understood then that this apparent threat to the play's illusion actually confirmed its power. It was like the disembowelable sheep: it wasn't real, but that didn't mean it wasn't real. And I saw that Tregeagle had taken – appropriately enough – an almost demonic hold on us all.
I would bet at least...100 pounds that there are plenty of kids living in Wales today who in ten years time will be looking back on similarly potent memories of their first experience of theatre. For a start, the theatre scene here feels like a pretty exciting, dynamic place at the moment, and there have been several productions recently that at least matched Tregeagle in their levels of innovation, creativity, and commitment to the scope and possibilities of live performance. This last quality is the one I always look for in the plays and productions I go to, and it's one I strive to capture in my own writing. The most awesome thing about theatre is that its meanings are not to be found in the pages of a script – they are live things, constantly in the process of being made and contested throughout each new performance, shaped not only by writers and directors and performers but also, crucially, by the audience.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, theatre practitioners have known how to draw on and exploit the unique conditions of live performance. The best phrase I've come across to describe this phenomenon was in an essay I read during my degree on the medieval mystery plays. These were dramatisations of Biblical stories, acted out by untrained craftsmen on the backs of wagons, but the best of them display amazing levels of sophistication in the way that they acknowledged and engaged their audiences. The mystery plays were the centrepiece of a special occasion for a close-knit community, and their players were able to draw on feelings of heightened religious emotion, civic pride, local knowledge and social tensions, exploiting all of these things as central ingredients of their drama. As Greg Walker writes, the anonymous mystery players were experts in the way that theatre only ever makes its meanings and realises its agendas in a live moment, through the negotiative alchemy of performance.
But coming back to the present – as I said, the Welsh performance scene feels like an especially exciting place right now. It seems pretty appropriate at this point to turn to NTW's Passion, which, after all, was conceived of as a modern-day mystery cycle. The Passion found amazing, innovative ways to tell stories and make meanings which were shaped by the place and people of Port Talbot; like the medieval productions, this was 'community theatre' in the truest sense of that phrase. And at the risk of sounding like I've been secretly paid by NTW to write this (I honestly haven't!), their output in the past year has included many other great examples of negotiative alchemy in action. Special mention would have to go to the brilliant and irreverent Village Social, which was self-aware in a playful and purposeful rather than wanky and post-modern way; and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, which turned my old secondary school into everything from a cell in Quantico brig to an American base in Eastern Baghdad, and also gave me my first opportunity of being involved with TEAM.
There's one other important connection between NTW's program and the Kneehigh show which gave me my first memories of theatre. That performance of Tregeagle took place in a local school playground. If Kneehigh's tour had confined itself to traditional, established venues in the big towns and cities, then I would probably never have seen it. Similarly, the qualities that have so impressed me about NTW are the ones that make it a truly national theatre: it creates theatre in new and unexpected places, all across the country, and it finds ways to involve and attract audiences who might not otherwise have thought that theatre was for them. That's why I'm confident that there are plenty of kids across Wales today who are going to grow up with memories similar to my recollections of Tregeagle – and people of all ages who for the first time, thanks to NTW, are being inspired, excited and engaged by the possibilities of negotiative alchemy. That seems like a mission worth signing up to.
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