Rhod Beard discusses the new, innovative settings at which Welsh theatre productions are starting to be staged such as a National Theme Park Wales production.
Jesus in dungarees and clown make-up – hasn’t Welsh theatre been just sensational these past few years? My formative experiences of play-going began in the early 80s with a panto that starred several paedophiles de jour and a bewildered Stefan ‘Don’t it Make You Feel Good’ Dennis. Later my sink estate high-school drama club took me to a Welsh-language adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird featuring many of the cast of Pobol Y Cwm, which was so bad it could not be ironized and made palatable for this hipster in-utero. So while the Rhodster has mainlined a steady diet of Lukas Moodysson films, David Foster Wallace and faux folk music for decades, the Loseley ice-creamed world of red velvet curtains and people shouting at each other in the dark has always left him somewhat cold.
I was only tempted to return to theatre when several genii came up with the counterintuitive masterstroke of producing shows outside of theatres. Some even began to live-stream digi-drama – you don’t really appreciate the epic sweep of Goethe’s Faust Parts I and II until you’ve watched them on a 3in. iPhone Dwarf.
Why would I want to watch some heroic wanker take an epic journey that climaxes in some form of self-discovery (yawn), when I can be the heroic wanker taking an immersive experiential voyage that ends in my child-like wonder at a sound and light show? Waiting for Godot? I’d much rather be waiting on a rain-soaked street corner for my secret contact to whisk me off, as arranged in a coded text-message, to an abandoned sewage treatment plant for a three-hour promenade performance of Woyzeck – retitled Ain’t Life Shit? – translated by Tim Price with a soundtrack by a reformed Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
So, for your edification and life-enhancement, here are a few of the highlights from the 2016 Welsh theatre calendar already logged in my Forget-Me-Not cultural calendar app:
We Got A Golden Ticket: Roald Dahl ‘Centenerized’ by National Theme Park Wales
This seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-pound extravaganza promises to be the jewel in the Roald Dahl centenary celebrations of next year. The Burtons’ Biscuits factory located in Llantarnam, just outside Newport, will cease production for three months so that it can be transformed into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for a six-hour promenade multimedia reimagining of the renowned misanthrope’s much-loved children’s classic. Amazingly, given the expense and logistics of the show, there will only be one performance given for five lucky children (each accompanied by an adult) who can find each of their winning golden tickets inside packets of biscuits distributed right across the Vale of Glamorgan. A spokesman for the Dahl family said, ‘I’m sure there will be many thousands of disappointed children out there, which I’m sure is exactly what Roald would have wanted’.
Konsumer Krush by KrashBangWallop Kollective
The provocateurs of KrashBangWhallop guide audience members through a maze of cheap plastic rubbish and pinewood crap in a powerful evocation of the tragic furniture store riots of 2011. Audience members will be tasked with fitting out an entire semi-detached house in ersatz Scandinavian cool via an app, while members of KrashBangWallop assail them with flying soft cushions and the panicky-mutterings of irate shoppers. The final act of this site-sympathetic production features a make-off between winning audience members, who will compete to see who can construct a Nordic spice-rack the fastest. ‘We have no narrative. There is no narrative,’ warns show co-creator Maddy Morris, ‘but making any sort of sense of our human experience is so any other century, isn’t it? This will be immersive theatre as Xtreme sport’. Event sponsors Ikea add that meatballs of indeterminate origin are available from the café for a special price of £5.99, which includes a soft drink of your choice.
First World Problems by Theatr Agitprop
Undisclosed location in Roath, Cardiff
This potentially controversial site-specific show invites non-paying audiences of asylum seekers and illegal migrants to participate in a fully immersive theatrical dining experience, in which they will eat an organic vegan meal with a middle-class family of professional academics. The audience, drawn from a diverse range of ethnicities, will each wear headsets through which they will receive simultaneous translations of the general dinner-party twaddle that accompanies each gluten-free course. Project originator Gower Swper explains the purpose of the show is to break down barriers of misperception: ‘We in Wales are used to witnessing the suffering of other nations on our TV screens, but the trials and travails of the Welsh middle-classes remain a complete mystery to your average Syrian or Iranian refugee’. Audience members will learn about a range of ‘first world problems’ from this multi-sensory experience; from the problems of finding the right catchment-area for your desired Welsh-language school to those bloody commissioning editors at S4C who stupidly refused to greenlight your documentary on the Welsh settlers of Hawaii.
Witness for the Prosecution by Verisimilitude Theatre.
Touring and Cardiff
Perhaps the most radical and daring site-specific theatre production to be staged next year, will take place in what is arguably the most unlikely of settings – Cardiff’s New Theatre. ‘We thought it would be absolutely amazing to give theatre-goers the now rare experience of actually going to the theatre,’ says Peter Churn of Verisimilitude Theatre. At the heart of this immersive experience will be a retro-staging of Agatha Christie’s moribund courtroom-drama Witness for the Prosecution that will, according to the press release, star people ‘off the telly’ including; Jenny Seagrove, Jenny Agutter, Jamie Theakston and that bloke from Emmerdale.
‘Christie’s rather boring old war-horse will be performed in a manner that is quite deliberately boring and artistically redundant,’ explains Churn, ‘which will allow everyone to absorb the glamour of this traditional building, read a reassuringly expensive programme and plan their post-show dinner in the relative peace and quiet of a seat in the stalls’. The audience will come directly to the venue, where they may purchase a drink or perhaps a packet of Maltesers. Unlike with most site-specific shows, seats will be guaranteed for all ticket-holders, who will also be given the luxury of an interval toilet break. ‘A visit to Witness for the Prosecution’, concludes the press release, ‘is a site-specific, time-traveling journey in to theatre’s long-forgotten past’.
With tickets priced between £10 and £48, audiences will be able to enjoy the familiar distinctions of wealth and privilege embodied in price-tiered seating. This reassuringly comfortable experience will be preferred by many to jostling in the dark, straining to catch a glimpse of some bonneted Welsh dancing women from behind a clueless hipster who doesn’t realise he can download a clip of them to his smartphone.
Are you being specific?: Recommendations for the immersive theatre producer
1. Go Disney. On your right-hand side ladies and gentlemen, you can see children in pre-war costumes playing hop-scotch in the streets of Llareggub. Who’s that up there in the window? Why, boys and girls, it’s only good ole, dear old Captain Cat! And if you listen closely enough everyone… you can hear the sound of Dylan Thomas spinning in his grave.
2. Go literal. Audiences can’t seem to imagine play settings for themselves. So, horrors of World War One? Put them in a trench. Celtic animal spirits? Put them in a forest. Hell on Earth? Take them to Newport.
3. Go large. Make sure that all your public funding is ‘up there on-screen’ by eschewing intimate settings and the human scale and plumping instead for vast aircraft hangars, huge warehouses, rolling hillsides and other GINORMOUSLY BIG SPACES.
4. Big Spaces, small parties. Book your audiences in groups of 10 or 20 people. This will help you to advertise your show as ‘SOLD OUT’ when only a few hundred punters turn up across the show’s seven-day run.
5. Digi-do or digi-don’t? When Hamlet ponders: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Have your audience make their choice by using the hashtags #slingsarrows and #outrageousfortune. Make the vote-count public on your website and advertise your youth engagement. No app, no dice.
Rhod Beard is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review