Wales thrives on its mythologies and folklore. Whether it’s the story of Gelert the hunting dog, the Mabinogion, the Roman Emperor Macsen Wledig, or the fiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth, they are tightly woven into Wales’s history and heritage, and people are very reluctant to let them die.
But, as My Body Welsh makes plain, these ancient stories and myths are often mere fabrications, lies, or at the very least fairytales built upon grains of truth. And just like the creative shopkeeper who made up the world’s longest place name – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwy
rndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch – as a publicity stunt in the 1860s, the creation and proliferation of lies, half-truths and myths continues to this day, and in much more dangerous ways.
My Body Welsh is an innovative one-man show co-written by its performer, Steffan Donnelly, and director Tara Robinson, and cleverly weaves its own story of small-town deception with the existing mythologies of Wales. On the surface it’s a “myth-tery” investigating the provenance of a skeleton found at the bottom of a well which two prominent local families claim ownership of. Donnelly tries to get to the bottom of the mystery: Is the skeleton genuine? Who put it there? Who was it? How did they die? This narrative gives the 65-minute show a backbone for the audience to latch onto, but shooting off from this trunk are a wealth of branches taking in everything from unrequited love to kidnap, from the importance of having the full facts before making judgements, to having the luxury of choice but not the confidence of which choice to make.
For all its references to princes and wizards and giant dogs, this piece is ferociously relevant today, both socially and politically. Donnelly makes asides about the veracity of messages on the sides of buses (hello Mr Farage), to the “authorisation of lies”, and to the tendency of people to put their names on things, like lunchboxes, geological formations… and skyscrapers. There’s also plenty to be said about the media, including the somewhat quaint notion that local newspapers still have a budget to pay the public for stories – stories which turn out to be fabricated.
And throughout, Donnelly’s touchstone is the nature of Welsh identity. Are the Welsh defined by their history and folklore? Or should Wales keep the past at arm’s length and move forward? Is the red dragon on the Welsh flag fierce and formidable, or has it merely stubbed its toe and licking its wound? There’s even a veiled comment about the rise of the right-wing in this post-truth world, where politicians who talk of segregation and isolation are voted into power, almost by accident. He alludes to the Romans drowning the druids, as well as druids drowning fellow druids, and claims: “If you think about it, anyone who doesn’t fit in could be sacrificed. It’s a convenient way to get rid of people whose stories can’t be trusted. Or don’t seem quite… Welsh… enough.”
The stage set-up reflects the restlessness of the narrative presentation. The floor is scattered with props, mostly containers of differing material and size containing water, which reflect the central theme of the well at the heart of a community feud. Donnelly uses microphones to create sound effects in tandem with sound designer Jordan Mallory-Skinner, who sits at a desk on stage filtering and looping the effects live. Sometimes an audience member is employed to help create what then becomes a sound effect unique to that performance – a whistle, a scream, a mass rubbing of the hands. This inclusion of the audience in the aural make-up of the show it is watching gives My Body Welsh a community feel. It also makes you feel a little like you’ve wandered into a show for children, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to be a part of.
Donnelly has an endearing, winsome presence, delivering a tricky monologue with a lightness underpinned by a confidence in the material. He seems just as spellbound by the script as the audience is for the first time, and delivers a good few laughs along the way (with one particular laugh-out-loud line: “When it comes to finding a girlfriend in Wales, the odds are good, but the goods are often odd”).
My Body Welsh is steeped in the folklore and history of Wales. It examines why people make things up, why other people play along, and why some people dig for the truth. It also asks whether Wales is too obsessed with its heritage (incidentally, the piece is bilingual, with whole passages in Welsh, but everything is summarised in English well). It gives knowing winks to the current seismic shifts in international politics, such as holding a referendum, then not knowing what we want, only what we don’t want when it’s too late. This is intelligent stuff presented in a light, idiosyncratic way which pokes the bubble of Welsh pride and international tensions, but doesn’t prick it. Beautifully balanced, it’s a fun but thoughtful way to spend an hour.
My Body Welsh can be seen at the following venues in January 2017: Y Ganolfan, Porthmadog (12th), Chapter, Cardiff (13th-14th), Riverfront, Newport (24th), Aberystwyth Arts Centre (25th), Galeri, Caernarfon (26th), Theatr Clwyd, Mold (27th-28th).