Michael Harvey, Storyteller
Lynne Denman, Singer
Stacey Blythe, Composer/Musician
Paula Crutchlow, Director
Sophia Clist, Designer
Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
How does a contemporary audience relate to the tales from The Mabinogion about lovers and heroes, magic and shape-shifting rooted in the landscape of ancient Wales? Written re-workings such as Alan Warner’s The Owl Service or the recent Seren series put these stories into modern contexts. But there is also without doubt still a place and an appetite for storytelling, continuing the oral tradition in which these stories originated. And this is the root of what Derbyshire-based company Adverse Camber set out to do in their productions.
In 2014 Adverse Camber produced Fire in the Night Sky, in which UK storyteller and singer Nick Hennessy teamed up with musicians from Finland to create a performance piece drawing on the epic poetry of that country from the book of The Kalevala. I was charmed by that show, and keen to see how a different team would tackle stories from the parallel Welsh epic that is The Mabinogion.
Musicians Stacey Blythe and Lynne Denman have worked together for many years, originally as members of the Celtic folk group Ffynnon. Together with storyteller Michael Harvey they made an ensemble version of the Mabinogion story Culhwch and Olwen in 2003, and subsequently developed this for Adverse Camber as Hunting the Giant’s Daughter, working with director Paula Crutchlow. This is the team who have now created Dreaming the Night Field.
The material for this production is taken from the fourth branch of The Mabinogion, in which Math, Lord of Gwynedd, can hear every single word spoken in his kingdom, no matter how softly, but cannot stand on his own feet. In which a spear can pierce a rock. In which Blodeuwedd, the woman of flowers, is turned into an owl. In which, as Michael Harvey tells us at the end of the twists and turns of the journey and the transformations which it entails, the world is not of one form.
After the opening song ‘Mae’r ddaear yn glasu/The world is greening’, we hear a spoken litany of the elements of nature, including the beautiful words “A hazel balancing the weight of the wind”. Michael Harvey invites us to travel up the A470, that road which runs through the heart of Wales, until we arrive at the mound of Tomen y Mur in Gwynedd which is central to the story. Here is a powerful, pivotal moment as the singing stops, for a moment there is silence, and the view which we are invited to look at in our mind’s eye is of “The biggest nuclear power station you’ve seen in your life.”
But if the past is connected with the present briefly in this way, the story is told in a traditional form. Michael Harvey carried me along with his fluid account, conjuring some beautiful images, although sometimes, sadly, I lost the words when he dropped his voice. I loved hearing of the connections in The Mabinogion between the constellations of the night sky and the characters in the stories – that, for example, the Milky Way is Caer Gwydion, named thus for that master magician and storyteller. At times Harvey himself created moments of magic, for example when he told how Blodeuwedd, turned into an owl for her transgressions, could hear Gwydion’s heart beating.
The stories are interwoven with music throughout. As composer for Dreaming the Night Field, Stacey Blythe has taken the words of traditional Welsh songs and created new music for voice, harp, accordion and percussion. Lynne Denman’s voice is pure and sweet and when she and Blythe sing in harmony the blend is exquisite. Overall the music is an eclectic mix, mainly folk-based, but sometimes pushing into discord and discomfort to mirror anguish in the stories, and at one point there is a brilliant outburst of edgy bluesy jazz.
The trio of performers have an easy relationship on stage, obviously born out of their long experience of working together, but sometimes in this performance the dramatic tension flagged. This was not helped by sound balance issues. During the first half I was sitting in the circle of the Richard Burton Theatre. How much the balance problems were a feature of the acoustics of that space, how much to do with the way the performers were miked I do not know. Whichever, the result was a distancing of the sound. People sitting near the front of the stalls reported no problems and certainly I found the sound more immediate when I moved downstairs for the second half. However there is still an issue of balance when, as happens for substantial sections, there is spoken English together with sung Welsh, creating for me an aural confusion. Also, in the absence of English translations in the programme, for those of us without a good understanding of Welsh much of the music can only be impressionistic. I found that those sections where English as well as Welsh words were sung came into sharper focus for me.
The set is bare apart from an array of sticks, an installation created by designer Sophia Clist in collaboration with the performers, around and through which they move. The lighting design by Gethin Stacey employs the shadows of these sticks to pleasing effect, but one which could have been developed further I felt. The sticks may also be of immense significance to the creative team, but at least in this formal theatre space they failed in their supposed role of linking the audience to the action. Maybe they work better in that respect in smaller venues, and when the performance takes place in the round rather than in this proscenium-arch theatre space.
From the enthusiastic audience reaction at the end of this performance, it was clear that many were more engaged in it than I was. I suspect that the dichotomy was between those who were looking for traditional storytelling, with its informality and asides – who got what they wanted – and those of us who sought the dramatic engagement of theatre, which this was not. Given the magical elements and theatrical possibilities of the stories of The Mabinogion, that was, for me, a disappointment.
Cath Barton, a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review, is an English writer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella for The Plankton Collector, which will be published in 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She is working on a collection of short stories inspired by the works of Hieronymus Bosch, the first of which, The Wood has Ears, The Field has Eyes, is included in issue 8 of The Lonely Crowd.