Now the Hero/Nawr yr Arwr is a complex and multi-layered three-hour ambitious art experience that is comfortably bi-lingual. It puts centre stage the political conflict about war by giving a pivotal position in the promenade drama to the hero, a female anti-war protester, played by a boiler suit wearing Eddie Ladd.
The action started on Swansea beach with three warriors from different eras arriving by boat to rush through the wave streaking onto the city’s shoreline. For this performance it was a peaceful sunny evening with the sea as a glistening backdrop. However, the sounds relayed on the beach from loud speakers reminded us of dark things to come.
This central tension between the horror of war and the beauty of the human – what the composer Owen Morgan Roberts calls the ‘beauty within chaos’ – was largely sustained throughout the intricate work. The music has started as collaboration with Johan Johannsson before his death early this year. The outstanding Requiem, with a libretto by Owen Sheers, performed by Stephen Layton’ Polyphony, was a powerful emotional manifestation through sound of this theme.
Now the Hero is certainly ambitious – in its origins, its concept and its execution. It forms part of the national (UK-wide) 14-18-NOW arts experiences programme designed to connect people with the First World War which most famously includes the cascading poppies at the Tower of London.
The concept has been germinating in the mind of the director Marc Rees for three years and forms the major piece for the Swansea International Festival, produced by the Taliesin Arts Centre/Swansea University in partnership with the City and County of Swansea. While not visible to visitors coming just for the event itself, it does not stand in isolation as it has included collaborations and events with groups and individuals in the city in the run up to these live performances.
The drama brings together three periods of war – Celtic (through the epic Welsh war poem Y Gododdin); the First World War (through the inspiration of the Sir Frank Brangwyn commemorative British Empire Panels that had been rejected by for the Houses of Parliament) and contemporary (through a serving soldier from Swansea). It is courageous in its implementation: an immersive, promenade piece combining beach, street and Guildhall locations using the spoken word, music, visual effects and even the horticultural.
Three warriors from different eras, WW1, Celtic and Contemporary representing the three narratives of war, emerge from a boat.
For the audience, or participants perhaps, it is exciting to anticipate and then see what comes next in our collective and individual journey, from the beach being led on a peace demonstration by the Peace Protester, played by Eddie Ladd to the imposing interior of Brangwyn Hall.
Ladd proved a charismatic leader in fine voice with strength and power in her slight frame as we moved through a closed off side street towards the Guildhall for the Requiem, the atmosphere and layout were changed seamlessly from light to dark. The use of lighting in the Brangwyn Hall to illuminate the Brangwyn panels, the Celtic Warrior and the First World War sequence was particularly effective. Joe Perron as the Celtic Warrior demonstrated vividly through his body both the brutality of war and the almost balletic beauty of a man at war. The Requiem provided a powerful backdrop to this sequence.
The interval offered lots of opportunities to appreciate the beauty of the Guildhall and to observe some interesting and unusual exhibits. Although we were able to see parts of the building most of us will probably never see again, the interval did disrupt the flow of the piece somewhat. The final scenes outside came as a bit of an anti-climax despite the Peace Protester’s best efforts.
Overall, there was some lack of unity and direction to the piece with some sections much stronger than others – the impact of the First World War and the contemporary soldiers was less powerful than the Celtic Warrior and the Peace Protester.
The logistics of this ambitious piece could have been overwhelming but were accomplished in style. The extensive involvement of people in the local community of Swansea is to be more than acknowledged. As well as being a celebration of Swansea, Swansea should celebrate Now the Hero as overall and exciting and challenging contribution to theatre in our city.
Now the Hero, until September 29
Main image: The Celtic Warrior enacts a slow motion battle sequence
Images: Warren Orchard
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