Emma Geliot's picture

The Dancers 150, National Theatre Wales. Marc Rees, Royal Opera House Stores. Aberdare

For the first time the two national theatres of Wales National Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru have joined forces to mark the 150 year anniversary of the migration of 150 men women and children to a remote part of Argentina in an attempt to preserve a way of life under threat. Emma Geliot finds that style triumphs over substance against the green hills of the Rhondda Valleys.

Marc Rees production, {150}, is in the Royal Opera House stores, near Aberdare (and I can only wonder at the logic of storing all of this theatrical paraphernalia so far from its home in Covent Garden). It has all the trademarks of immersive theatre: an unusual and, on this extraordinarily sunny evening, stunning location; lots of video and a lorry, while the audience is promenaded around this vast warehouse to observe different elements vignettes of historical memoir, dance, film and song.

Part narrated history, part performed fantasy, and with music, dancing and schoolchildren offering a Patagonian eisteddfod, this is a string of beads rather than a glittering jewel. This trilingual, multi-artform necklace is highly decorative, but somehow fails to deliver a narrative arc or to make a point about what might be said, in these times where the termmigrant can only be used as a negative, about perspective, acceptance, change and assimilation.

Let s make a necklace

The little gold cross: The preacher Michael D Jones proposes a Welsh Utopia in South America word-painting a picture that is somewhat different from the reality of Patagonia. His voice booms around the cavernous warehouse as he galvanises his flock from his pulpit.

 Mark Douet Dafydd Emyr as Michael D Jones Image: Mark Douet


The jet bead: Darkly dressed, no bonnet, Eddie Ladd moves as only she can, to the memory of sea travel and a rather lovely text describing insects that are disguised as leaves and twigs are they fairies? Ladd isn t seen again until towards the end, which seems a shame as she s one of the few female settler characters to have a voice.

 Mark Douet Eddie Ladd in {150} Image: Mark Douet

The sea glass: A group of dancers in mid nineteenth century frocks, with poke bonnets obscuring their faces. Their function is unclear although they introduce (muted) colour and movement. Wheeled down a corridor on prop boxes, like ships in full sail, to clog dance on those boxes clumped into stage formation. Most bizarrely, they offer sandy tea from outsized pots, on a pallet catwalk, after inexplicably rave-dancing. Perhaps they fill the gender void as the majority of memoirs are masculine and, despite the fact that to found a colony both sexes are required, the female story is pretty much omitted. The bonnets, which create a fantastic silhouette, seem to impede their ability to see each other and dance together in time on occasion. Perhaps the women just made the tea.

 Mark Douet The Dancers Image: Mark Douet

The ruby: Elizabeth is an actress. She learned Welsh in Patagonia and then headed to Wales to join the cast of Pobl y Cwm. Returning with a suitcase full of Welsh tea, her story plays out via projections on the corrugated walls and old Royal Opera House flats (some with ghostly images of their past incarnation casting strange shadows on the Patagonian landscape). This is the only real narrative and it s a little labored to make the point that young people are leaving, the Welsh colony is dying and she s under pressure to return and help save it. The cinematography is stunning but, like much else here, style and visual look dominate over substance. I am sure that the use of red (suitcase, coat) means something here, contrasting with the muted tones of the physical performance, but I m stumped as to what that might be.

The emeralds: Lime perspex boxes, embedded amongst the Royal Opera House props and scenery, lit and shining enigmatically as we sweep past to our next vignette; astro turf and a green tarpaulin thrown over the dancers at the end. The boxes look great but what are they for?

The Tiger s Eyes: two men in shades of brown and dun, taking the roles of the early settlers, cartographers and photographers. Split into two, the audience is guided down the endless corridors (at first glance down one as I passed I assumed the effect had been achieved with mirrors but they really do merit motorised transport). We are treated to bilingual (Welsh and English) diary entries, well-delivered with some imaginative use of pallets and a saddle and some archive images.

 Mark Douet Gareth Aled as John Murray Thomas Image: Mark Douet

Unfortunately, this bifurcating of the audience was too much for Sibrwd, the interpretative app designed for static audiences receiving the same information at once. Mine got stuck on a description of the atmospheric string music until, suddenly, it went bonkers and gave me the text that the other half of the audience were receiving (or possibly not).What s that then? ,I thought I d try something a bit post-modern , on my phone screen as the memory of land surveying plays out before me.

The silver nugget: Billy Hughes has travelled 8,000 miles to perform for us. His first song is interrupted by a posse of children bearing placards of female portraits with the wordpioneer emblazoned on them. He doesn t get to finish and we re led away to re-join the other half of the audience. At the end we are treated to a full song and the little hairs on my neck prickle.

The chain: the story, via reminiscences, of the first settlers, owes much to Mike Pearson s production of In Patagonia for Brith Gof in the 1990s. Rees explains that he was in that production, and much use is made of the original text. But, like the chain on a necklace studded by outsized beads, the story thread is only occasionally seen; we have to assume that it continues behind the glitter.

The fixings: there is no doubt, this is a remarkable location, and there is much to admire in the design, the sound and the staging. These, along with an indefinable but rather nice smell, jiggle the senses and keep us on our feet and moving around for nearly two and a half hours. There are elements that seem a little surplus to requirements a juggernaut as stage for the opening phase in the car park, reappears a few times. As it turns up again with some fine woven curtains from, I m guessing, Melin Tregwynt, sound blasts from the reel-to-reel tape recorders and fans billow the fabric out. Why? This is so distracting that I find myself thinking,well, if you re going to fork out for a juggernaut you might as well get the use out of it . Probably not the intended effect.

The clasp: Marc Rees, taking a less than characteristic performative back seat to MC and orchestrate proceeding. Of course he has created this performance and so is stamped across it. He has brought all of the beads together and, for good or ill, created an adornment.

 Mark Douet Marc Rees and Gareth Aled Image: Mark Douet

And here I have to abandon my metaphor to get to the heart of my response to {150}. There is much to admire in Marc Rees output. He is a showman with a fine eye for detail. But this production needed editing. As it developed it should have been tested for drama, for narrative and for message. There were no real dramatic high points but neither did I recoil from any element.

I left without learning much more about Patagonia 150 years ago or now than I had from the recent Huw Edwards documentary for BBC Wales (not currently available on iPlayer, sorry). My eyeballs were tickled with detail and, when I sat down to analyse my response, I realised that I felt I had been walking through a storyboard a sequence of visual moments.

Was the story a line drawn from the lone female pioneer in the car park at the beginning (who will later return to haunt Elizabeth and provide the visual punchline), to Elizabeth leaving and returning and conflict of loyalty and ambition? Or was the line from the preacher as we went in, outlining the vision for the new colony, to memories of travel, of experiencing a new place exploring, charting and settling it to the ultimate decline and the loss of a dream? This is a story that could have been told more succinctly and with more clarity.

The nature of the collaboration between Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and National Theatre Wales isn t clear and I wonder if this is where the editing and refining, testing and questioning might have been fruitful. As with most site-specific shows, this one won t be touring so there is little scope for taking stock and honing back to foreground the elements that really worked and to examine the pacing for a more dramatic effect.

 Mark Douet Dafydd Emyr as Michael D Jones Image: Mark Douet

{150} is certainly worth seeing, so don t sob if you ve just bought tickets. But I think it s time for a conversation about our expectations for theatre, performance and if we re too dazzled by multi-media glister.

{150} continues at the Royal Opera House Stores in Abercwmboi until 11.07.2015Book Tickets here www.nationaltheatrewales.org www.theatr.cymru


All images: Mark Douet courtesy National Theatre Wales