National Theatre Wales’s Lifted By Beauty: Adventures in Dreaming takes the seaside town of Rhyl as inspiration for a series of bizarre, surreal and yes, dream-like promenade installations. It’s a walk-through 90-minute show which is sensually immersive, but not interactive. After being sung to in Welsh by a man hiding in a cardboard box, and then had poetry read to them by a man dressed as some kind of SOCO/ beekeeper hybrid, the audience is ushered into a dingy, gloomy, dank underground car park, where real life is left at the door and fantasy takes over.
The audience is led very organically between the different installations, which seem to emerge without notice in different locations around the car park. You don’t know it’s there until you hear a voice in the distance behind you, or when the characters you’re watching lead you to the next stage. We first see a runway made of top soil, lit beautifully from different angles by Ceri James, creating a kind of Martian landscape. A man sows more soil as he moves barefoot through the earth, followed by a woman apparently pregnant with soil, who is in turn stalked by a Puck-like man dressed in silk pyjamas. So far, so weird…
The soil runway is revisited numerous times during the series of tableaux, which range from the bemusing to the downright impenetrable. A woman leads a blindfolded man by a gossamer length of string between sites, then abandons him. Fumbling about, the blind man is teased by three men splattering him with red and blue paint (or is it fruit syrup?). He writhes in the colours, mixing red with blue to create a murky brown, and then removes his overalls to reveal pristine white clothes beneath. It looks great, but what does it mean?
The meaning of most of what is presented is open to interpretation. Maybe it means more to the people of Rhyl, who know Rhyl and its socio-cultural history, than it does to an “outsider” (I live in Llandudno). Why does a red-hatted young man sit cross-legged in a greenhouse doodling on the glass in white pen? Why does a man create an origami bird? Why are they trying to balance dolls’ house furniture on a slowly rotating woman? You could have a good guess – does the attempt to domesticate the slow-motion woman represent the proliferation of HMOs in Rhyl since its seaside heyday? Is the origami bird a seagull, so prevalent and troublesome in Rhyl? I did spot the artist draw a submarine called Resurgam on his glasshouse canvas, undoubtedly a reference to the Victorian submersible which sank off the coast of Rhyl in 1880, and wasn’t rediscovered until 1995. Resurgam, pointedly, also means “I shall rise again” in Latin, a recurring theme for this experience.
I felt pleased with myself for clocking that reference, as I was at the end of the experience when the performers began moving in unison and I recognised Laurel and Hardy’s distinctive dance routine from their 1937 film Way Out West. Laurel and Hardy, of course, visited Rhyl in 1952 during their UK tour, and have a special place in the resort’s cultural timeline.
There’s plenty of other oddness too: the pyjama-clad young man develops a narcissistic obsession with his own reflection and writhes around on a bed of mirrors, eventually stripping to his underpants and running off into the distant gloom of the car park, wailing and flailing a bedsheet. We see a woman sprinkling flour onto a prone body through a sieve. Once a complete outline has been formed, the body gets up and resets herself elsewhere, at which point the flour lady resumes her sprinkling. Round the corner, another woman showers in a rain of flour sprinkled by a man on top of a ladder.
Music boxes are wound up and play a creepy rendition of Francis Lai’s theme from Love Story. A figure made of bedsheets seduces the narcissist. People in hi-vis jackets knead dough on a trestle table. What does it all mean? Over to you…
The walk-through section is topped and tailed by a freer trail experience. Starting from the railway station, participants are given a picture map and told to visit various locations around the town centre. This lead-in to the main attraction works less well. At the beleaguered Little Theatre, the auditorium has been transformed into a shadowy cave with projections of theatre staff talking about their love for their work, while a daydreaming woman plays with razor shells on the stage. An empty shop unit is transformed into a gallery of endearing cartoon-like art by Osian Grifford. And most baffling of all, Liffey’s Cafe window is host to a bizarre live installation featuring a woman on a table talking about doing kindnesses, as she is fed tea through a syringe. Quite apart from the challenge of performances like this, the location was a little unwise, as onlookers risked life and limb to see what was going on as cars raced past.
By far the most awesome aspect of the entire presentation was at the end, when the audience emerges from the dingy underground car park onto the dusky promenade, and see characters and tableaux from the previous 90 minutes situated on the sprawling beach.
Participants can move among the live exhibits: a stilt-walker carries chairs, a camper builds sandcastles, there’s a Christmas tree planted in the sand, and in the far distance – out almost as far as the evening tide – we spy the narcissist frolicking with his bed linen. He’s still in his pants too. The entire beach experience becomes a wondrous, Lewis Carroll-like joy. Nobody knows quite what to make of it, but one thing’s for sure – it’s A Good Thing to be part of.
As to what it means, who knows? Reading the accompanying brochure gives few hints, written as it is in the purplest of prose which seems designed to turn people off to the arts. Using such florid, ostentatious language to communicate with audiences is an all too common mistake in the arts. How can you hope to attract new people to experiences such as this when you alienate them with talk of “philosophical resonance”, the struggle of “stepping away from documentation” and every day being “illuminated by profound tendernesses”. For heaven’s sake, just say what you mean, please!
Lifted By Beauty: Adventures in Dreaming is a brave and challenging experiment, particularly for somewhere unaccustomed to such pretentions as Rhyl. It’s thought-provoking and aesthetically fulfilling, but whether the messages buried deep in the work actually get delivered clearly, I’m not so sure. Nevertheless, there’s no other way to see a beach lit by table lamps at sundown.
Performed Fri Mar 31st to Sun Apr 2nd, 2017 at 6pm