Late March is a time all of its own in the course of a year. The road verges in the valley of the Aeron are thick with clusters of daffodils. In the sun they are a glorious yellow but the sky at this time is just as likely to be gaunt and grey, the wind of a piercing strength so as to get through layer on layer of pullover or jacket. The last row of nights has seen frost.
In its mix of promise, joyfulness, caprice of temperature and unpredictability this time in March makes a nice metaphor for a life in the arts.
Theatr Felinfach is part of a low-built complex of arts-related buildings where the Aeron makes its turn to the sea. A long time back Dylan Thomas frolicked on the river banks right here and it is where, on the last Saturday of March, Theatr Pena finished its national tour of “the Royal Bed”, its version of Saunders Lewis’ “Siwan.”
Arts Scene in Wales met Erica Eirian, director of the production and one of the company’s co-founders in 2008.
ASIW: This is the fifth production for the company and you’ve said that it has a particular significance for you. Is that because it is Saunders Lewis and a part of the Welsh canon?
EE: For us as a company it is our first national tour.
ASIW: Eighteen venues, as far as Denbigh.
EE: And it is our first play by a Welsh writer. We chose “Siwan” because it’s an important classic of the Welsh language. This English translation-adaptation is clear and accessible but keeps the heightened language of the original.
ASIW: A women-led company doing plays of significance from the repertoire. What was the original spark?
EE: When we started I was having lunch with Ros Shelley and we were discussing the lack of roles for elder women, the lack of opportunities to be in challenging classical plays. We love words, the power of words. It was in 2008, January 2008, imprinted in my mind and Ros said “Set a company up”. It started there, and a little seed grew in my mind. I floated the idea of staging Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba”, “Blood Wedding” and “Yerma” with a number of friends – Christine Pritchard, Olwen Rees, Betsan Llwyd, Kathryn Dimery, Adrienne O’Sullivan, Eiry Thomas, Hannah O’Leary, Catherine Capelin and Ros. They were all so enthusiastic saying “Count me in if you are going to do it”. Christine- who is a realistic- said “Maybe we should begin by having a reading” and I said “We’ll start with “the House of Bernarda Alba.”
ASIW: This was in the translation by Gwynne Edwards?
EE: I just happened to pick it up. After we read it we all decided we thought it would be wonderful if we did this. At the time we did not meet the Arts Council’s criterion of two years in existence. I got the license. Chris Ricketts gave us free rehearsal space in the Sherman Theatre. Kate Perridge at the Sherman knew Nic Young and he offered us the use of the Riverfront Studio for a week and a technician. And then with the others we came up with the idea of raising some money by begging. So we had a fund-an-actress campaign.
ASIW: That is now perfectly respectable. Even Cabinet Ministers are now extolling crowd-funding.
EE: No-one got paid but we had fourteen actors on stage. A large part of the appeal was to see a play that you do not often get the opportunity to see. And to see that range of women. The performances were sold out- it was only in the Studio. And Nic invited us back, which took us completely by surprise. We then decided to do “the Trojan Women” which was as successful with audiences. Not so much with one reviewer.
ASIW: Which was where I first became aware there was a new company around, mainly performing over a hundred miles away from where are now. The audiences being good from the start says something.
EE: We attract a lot of writers to our work. Which is surprising because it is not new work. But I think it is because at the heart of everything we do is the play and the importance of any process being led by the author’s voice. And the power of that spoken word. I always in my mind start with stripping it back to time, place, what is absolutely essential.
ASIW: That’s interesting. I might have thought that the company would end with a few white boxes on stage. Coming back to “the Royal Bed” the design, and the soundscape, are stunning. And I try to avoid throwing adjectives around in a loose kind of way. Was there a particular process by which it emerged?
EE: Holly [McCarthy] and I have worked together a number of times. I work quite visually. Although I invest in the language and the performances- after all what is a play other than what actors say and do? But I like creating pictures that tell the story. Holly and I quite like minimalist sets which are almost like canvases on which you place the vital pieces, to convey a sense of time and place.
ASIW: But “The Killing of Sister George” had a lot of detail, specific period detail.
EE: It did. It was different from our usual style. I looked at our actors and thought “Sister George. That’s different. That’s a different challenge.” Even with that we stripped it back as far as we could- the dolls, the painted wallpaper- as far as we could to serve the action, the staging.
ASIW: Moving to “The Royal Bed” the Saunders Lewis strand of theatre is quite austere. Was the design intended to capture this?
EE: Holly and I start every process in the same way. It’s time and place. What are its colours, what are the textures? Where does the action take place? It’s a castle tower, it’s North Wales and the years 1230-31. That means height. So we come out with all these images. Height, stone, granite. The play itself demands very little so we knew our preference for minimalism would work. We imagined high walls, a room flooded with candlelight. The bed is a kind of fifth character and then there is the chest where Siwan’s royal duties, her responsibilities are shut away.
ASIW: The crown.
EE: And the gown. The colour and the texture worked into the set suggest slate, stormy skies, the waters of the Menai Straits. We wanted to create a world, which didn’t try to simulate reality, but with a set and costumes which would suggest the time and a place, but with touches of the modern.
ASIW: My own reaction to the lighting design- this was a month back in Aberystwyth- was “Holly McCarthy’s design, reinforced by Kay Haynes’ lighting, has a statuesque grandeur to it.” The lighting was crucial.
EE: Holly and I wanted candles but knew that using real ones would be impossible. I happened to be in a National Trust house and saw these candles, artificial ones, and suggested them to Holly who then ran with the idea of working artificial candles into the design. This suited Kay, our Lighting Designer, who wanted candlelight – and moonlight – to be incorporated into the lighting design.
ASIW: The Torch has turned out to be a friend to the company. “The Maids” was, I think, the first.
EE: Yes, but if the Riverfront and Nic not given us the opportunity to stage “The House of Bernarda Alba” I doubt Theatr Pena would ever have got off the ground. Both venues have been good friends to us. I think Peter would be the first to say that our plays are quite difficult to sell to his audiences. Nonetheless, we get to the Torch because he wants to support us. I think he likes it that we challenge ourselves with these plays.
ASIW: And where now for Theatr Pena?
EE: We are a project-based company but we are at a cross-roads I think. We have gone from being a group of friends around a table. And this year a national touring company. We don’t do this because we have to, we don’t do it because anyone has asked us to, we do it because we feel we really want to.
ASIW: The best reason there ever was. It’s fifty minutes to curtain up. I’d better leave you to your cast. I look forward to whatever the future brings.