Molly Jones casts a critical eye over National Theatre Wales Yr Helfa (The Gathering), set against the dramatic backdrop of Mt. Snowdon.
The craggy peak of Snowdon half hidden in cloud, the rugged landscape enveloping the audience. There is no doubt about it, National Theatre Wales certainly chose a spectacular setting for their latest production Yr Helfa (The Gathering). With just three performances and a maximum audience of two hundred, it was a crying shame then that the scenery proved to be the most dramatic element of this four and a half hour long show.
Herded into small groups of twenty, each helmed by a friendly and helpful guide, we at first enthusiastically bounded up the mountain’s lower flanks eager to see what theatrical treats were in store. A lone musician in a field some distance off played a sonorous brass instrument, a woman dressed in red hung half upside down off a rock, making repetitive movements. It was weird, beautiful and vaguely unsettling. We were off to a good start. And yet in many ways it was downhill from here – except in the physical sense where it was very much uphill. With the path harsh and unforgiving under foot, it was difficult to choose between focusing on one’s feet to prevent ankle breakage and glancing up to see the few sparse moments of performance.
We followed a red clad performer, who appeared to be doing some form of semaphore, up the mountain paths passing hidden speakers, tucked into the rocks, which churned out some form of faint industrial clinking, strangely unconnected to the rest of the show. A poem, etched into the mountain in white loomed out at us from the other side of the valley. We paused for a moment whilst one of our fellow audience members with better eyesight than me, recited it in a wonderful voice reminiscent of Richard Burton – an impromptu highlight that showed up the lack of theatre provided by the show itself.
By the halfway point it had become painfully clear that the mountain would play a bigger role in Yr Helfa than any actual performance. Some might argue that this was half the point, I would argue that it was lazy theatre making. After three years spent observing the shepherds of Snowdon, who I imagine do not have a particularly easy life, I would have expected something punchier and more engaging from creator/director Louise Ann Wilson than a month by month recitation of a ewe’s life cycle and a brass band.
Credit where it’s due – each and every one of the cast were superb, wringing the most out of what sparse material they were given and when the words came, they were beautiful, evocative and utterly magical. It is just a huge shame there were not more of them given what a gifted poet Gillian Clarke is.
After several hours of walking and all of about half an hour of actual performance, we were herded (see what they did there) back down the mountain, alongside a distinctly undramatic number of sheep, to a sheep farm. There was a bit of live sheep shearing, a fair amount of waiting around, some poor quality video, a baffling but strangely entrancing short dance by an athletic member of the cast across some beds in a barn and another tune by the brass band before we were eventually released back into the wild after a very long four and a half hours.
There were some truly beautiful and breath-taking images – red cloth draped on the mountain like scars, a figure dressed in white descending on a red staircase that reached up to the sky, hand written poems etched in white on the rocks and lone figures playing lone instruments. There were some lovely moments too, of shepherds high up on the rocks crying out to their barking and howling hounds, the sound echoing around us, and some exquisite singing from the small but excellent cast. We even got to meet the real-life shepherds but only for a matter of minutes, a wasted opportunity for a much needed human connection with those that live off the barren mountain.
Wales has a strong and deeply rooted tradition of storytelling. Alas, there was little of that on show in Yr Helfa. When one of the highlights of an outdoor theatre performance is the unintentionally amusing sideshow of a fellow audience member slowly and methodically skinning a kiwi fruit before attempting to break the record of the quietest volume of noise made whilst eating a packet of crisps, you know that something, somewhere has gone quite horribly wrong.
Theatre can mean many things to many people – it can be provocative, startling, surprising, challenging and accessible. It can be funny, tragic or moving. It can be political, educational, it can be sheer joyous nonsense. Yr Helfa was none of these things. For the culmination of a three year project, it lacked focus and did not do justice either to the brave souls eking out a living through sheep farming or to the animals themselves. Perhaps as a city dweller, if I had never seen sheep being herded or strolled in rugged terrain there would have been more of a novelty value on offer but with less content than an average episode of BBC’s Countryfile, Yr Helfa was a disappointment. This was not theatre, this was performance art at its most self-indulgent.
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