On a floor of sand, four men and two women are limbering up for a battle they can only lose. Pole-vaulting, swinging on ropes tied to metal gantries hundreds of feet above, hurling themselves at the ground with frightening force, they are spurred on by a thunderous barrage of drums caroming round the patch ofwaste ground. They are reliving the final days of the Gododdin (pronounced go-doth-in), a Scots people whose land lay to the south of Edinburgh, and who met their end at Catterick around AD 600.
It’s the most unusual performance to take place in Hamburg for a long time, and a diverse crowd has gathered. Spikey-haired adolescents smoking the sponsor’s free cigarettes rub shoulders with pipe-sucking university lecturers outside the Kampnagel, a disused nail factory converted into a sprawling arts centre, to witness the performance of an early Welsh epic concerning a doomed Scottish tribe of 300 which mounted a suicidal attack on a 100,000-strong English army.
Brith Gof, an experimental theatre company from Cardiff, and the equally unconventional musicians of Test Department are taking Gododdin around Europe, and to describe it as a stunning spectacle is to do it a gross disservice —- especially on this clear, mild night, with a full moon, and red lights winking on cranes in the distance. The set has been built around the factory’s immense old crane structure, towering above a sand-ring which will have become a small lake by the end of the night. At right angles to the wide stage where the kilted Test Department play, two lines of old cars face each other, headlights full on, wrapped in the same bandage-like material that enshrouds a horde of wraithlike trees. One hell of a lot of work has been put into ‘a simple and raw piece of theatre’.
Simple and raw perhaps, but by no means typical. The division between audience and performers has been abolished, freeing the onlookers to gather round wherever the action is taking place. And not many productions come with the added risk of being pelted with wet sand, or standing only inches from where a half-naked, crazed-looking actor is whirling a hefty car tyre on the end of a piece of rope. Or— with an uncanny but unintentional resonance for the West German audience - having a powerful fire hose turned on you.
From my limited knowledge, I’d say that Gododdin is classic tragedy, but one common reaction to performances in Cardiff and Italy has been that it doesn‘t really work ‘as a piece of theatre’. Director and performer Mike Pearson agrees that this is probably because there’s much more to it than just that. Watching Gododdin is as much like attending a ritual, and there are as few precedents for the audience as for the performers.
‘I’m not aware of any piece that has mixed alternative music and theatre quite in this way, and so quite how the audience should react even I’m not sure. I think what is interesting is
; ,, ' V «‘5'- Artluous moments: the climactic battle. in which the opponents are never actually seen.
that the audience is always a mixture ofTest Dept fans and people who come to see theatre. And I think that mix is very exciting.’
‘There’s a lot of argument as to whether it‘s the first Scottish poem or the first Welsh poem,’ Test Department’s spokesman Angus Farquhar says before the performance. ‘I think it depends on which side of the fence the critic comes from.’ Angus’s loyalties are unmistakable. From Edinburgh, a few miles to the north ofthe Gododdin people’s lands, he and the two other Scots in the group have steered a large part of Test Dept’s energies towards their homeland, being instrumental in reviving the Beltane Fire festival in Edinburgh, the Doulton Fountain on Glasgow Green (taking place on 29 and 30 September) and planning ‘the definitive Test Dept show’ for Glasgow in 1990. The parallels in Gododdin with divided modern-day Britain are obvious, but there’s been no need to hit anyone on the head with them. However, he continues, ‘it’s for all people who go through troubles, whether they’re Polish or Welsh or Scots or whoever.’
Angus and I met in the Casino, an upstairs bistro in the Kampagel which serves as a relaxed base of
operations for the show. The British contingent drift through for informal meetings with the German organisers, and there are a lot of meetings today. Last night's performance was ‘good, for a dress rehearsal’, and a lot needs to be tightened up. To add to all this, a Frenchman has turned up for a go at persuading them to bring the show to his country. Cliff McLucas, the scenographer who spent months finding the right venues to put it on, takes great pains to explain the magnitude of the production: a week to set it up, a week to take it down and one godawful racket while it’s on.
The projected three-night run in Hamburg has been slashed to two, due to fears that any longer might leave time for an injunction to st0p it altogether. Last night, one resident had complained, ‘We’ve had pollution, then noise pollution and now cultural noise pollution!‘ Angus is rather chuffed at that one. Tanned and fit in his Celtic Supporters T-shirt he explains the learning process that Test Dept have undergone since they first appeared
: in 1981 , quickly becoming notorious ' for bashing pieces of metal together
in what appeared to be some kind of elegy for the decline of British industry.
Now concerned with the natural world, and with reawakening the knowledge in people that they have roots that stretch back further than ‘30 years of pop culture’, Angus sees their involvement in the Miners’ Strike as being the peak of the old group. It started them working with more traditional music— bagpipes are now a central part of their sound —- in the shape of the Striking Miners Pipe Band and Welsh Choir. Following the path they were on, it was inevitable that they would eventually work with Brith Gof, which has put on both political and mythological work since it was founded by Mike Pearson and Lis Hugh Jones in 1981. Without a Welsh National Theatre, Mike explains, the half-dozen or so theatre companies like his are becoming accepted as a kind of National Theatre in themselves.
Test Dept’s intense music, the presence of the six Brith Gof actors and the wizardry of the technicians and designers, peak in a thrilling and moving ﬁnal battle. The various strains and injuries that have occured as a result are keeping the Kampnagel’s ‘massage list’ full, and some sniggering Hamburgers break the silence at the end when one of Test Dept hobbles off to eternal glory on a pair of crutches. When it’s put to him, Mike admits to feeling that they wouldn’t be doing the piece justice if they didn’t push themselves to their physical limits.
‘You can’t act these things. There’s nothing masochistic in it — I think the six performers had a very tacit understanding that what is needed in any one section is a totality, an extreme, and have simply been willing to do that. In the section with the water hoses, the climbing is incredibly arduous, but at the same time we have an inkling of the images
we’re creating, and all six are willing to undergo that to create that kind of picture.’
One of the distinguishing features of the show is that it has adapted itself to its surroundings: the premiere in Cardiff made the most of the closed-down Rover factory it took place in; in Italy they used a quarry; in Holland a disused ice-hockey stadium stands waiting to be transformed. In Glasgow, the comparatively cramped venue will be packed with trees, sand and thousands of gallons ofwater, old trams probably replacing the usual wrecked cars.
‘The scale has been much more epic for the others,’ says Angus. ‘I think that intimacy will work, because it will really give people a chance to see what the performers are going through, and be wrapped by that music.’
Significantly, no one in England has been interested in putting up the money for it to play there. Test Dept are used to being ignored in the south of England, and are eternally grateful to the British Council for their help.
‘It was interesting that in Cardiff
the only hostile reactions that were shouted out were by people who had come from London,‘ Angus continues. ‘I ended up getting into a fight with a couple of them in the middle of the show. I think one of them shouted “This is just a fashion show”, which is an interesting comment, because it showed that the emotion just didn’t mean anything to them. I was angry, because the physical performers go through hell to make this show. Having pummelled themselves and climbed up nets and having ice-cold water driven at them for ten minutes and then laying in up to a foot of water for ten to fifteen minutes - in Cardiff, two of them were close to hypothermia — if you’ve 500 or 600 people watching that experience, and then a couple of them can just stand up there and shout something, and break the atmosphere . . . poison it. . . I felt it was disgusting, that lack of respect.’
Hanging around, you can understand what Mike Pearson means when he says ‘the beast is bigger than everyone in it’. All involved feel uncommonly passionately for the production. The post-show party is winding down when I join Brith Gof’s dandyish technical director Trevor Turton. He’s had a long but happy day, and doesn’t mind talking about it. ‘The story of these 300 warriors, it awakens something in everyone — even the lighting men up in their tall towers, they’re all affected by it.’
Perhaps, I suggest, it’s got the requisite element of doomed, irrational, totally human stupidity that all the great stories of humankind have at their core. He raises an eyebrow, nods thoughtfully, and for a moment the slightly drunken grin stretches across his face still further.
Gododdin runs at the Tram way, Glasgow, 13, 14,15,16and18 September at 8pm. Tickets £6 (£4) from The Ticket Centre, Candleriggs.
_J The List I — 14 September 1989 7