Lament of the Selkie

Theatre | Stone’s Throw, Lament of the Selkie

Cath Barton headed to Abergavenny’s Borough Theatre to witness a performance of Stone’s Throw, Lament of the Selkie – a new production written and performed by Rachel Taylor-Beales in collaboration with Lucy Rivers.

It was doubtless not the intention of Rachel Taylor-Beales and Lucy Rivers, collaborators on this performance piece, that by the time the show reached Abergavenny, Rivers would be nearly eight months pregnant, her swollen belly a visible testament to all that women carry, and also, it seemed to me, her commitment to the story played out on stage.

For this is primarily a story about birth trauma – although Taylor-Beales tells us that, fortunately, her daughter is now seven years old and healthy. On stage Rivers acted as support and almost as midwife to Taylor-Beales in the telling of her story: which begins with an accident falling off stage when she was five months pregnant, leaving her immobilised, and continues through a post-partum haemorrhage and severe attendant pain and grief. 

Rachel Taylor-Beales is a singer-songwriter acclaimed in the folk world. Her collaboration with the award-winning actor-musician Lucy Rivers began when Taylor-Beales was recording her album Stone’s Throw, Lament of the Selkie, released in 2015. The sound of Rivers’ violin added colour to the album, as it does to the show of the same name, on which the two women have worked together, with the directorial eye of Louise Osborn and visual and sound design from Bill Taylor-Beales. 

All four of the artists involved are based and have have their creative practice rooted in Wales; they toured this show in West and South Wales in the autumn of 2019 before bringing it to Abergavenny. Rachel Taylor-Beales’ personal story is central to Stone’s Throw, but elements of other women’s experience of birth trauma are also incorporated, gathered from participatory sessions in Llanelli, Narberth and Cardiff. We hear a tide of voices, see images of other women. The use of a screen and projections by Bill Taylor-Beales enables layers and depth to be added to the story. The images of blood in water in particular are visceral. 

What takes this performance beyond the personal and into an involving drama is the inclusion of the northern legend of the selkie, the seal woman who comes ashore and lives as a human woman, but is fated to find and put on her seal skin again and return to the sea, the only place where she can truly be herself.  Universal themes of belonging, the weight of water and the energy of waves, and the need we all have to keep on changing our coats are intermingled with Taylor-Beales’ own journey. Her songs are heart-felt, and especially powerful when the two women sing in duet, as in A Stone’s Throw from Nowhere. Their instrumental blend – using different strings –  adds heft, but I found their unaccompanied voices particularly beautiful, a strong and affective blend. They also have a recurring riff about the breaking wave carrying the selkie away which is spine-tingling.

This is a brave telling of her experience by Rachel Taylor-Beales. She has achieved her wish to take it beyond the autobiographical by partnering with Lucy Rivers, who has shown brilliance in her previous work with her Gig-theatre company Gagglebaggle and literally puts a shine on this show with her story-telling, playing and singing.

The show would, I’m sure, be different in a more intimate setting, where the post-performance Q&A would allow for more sharing with women affected by birth trauma, which I understand has been done in earlier performances.

At the end Rachel Taylor-Beales sings the song Come On In from her 2010 album Dust And Gold, and if her singing is introspective, there is no doubting its sincerity and power. 

 

Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.