The location: somewhere in darkest Wales. The occasion: a theatrical tragedy from Brith Gof. The props: a ruined house and a dead sheep. The observer: Jon Ronson; "I had been worried that the play might be in Welsh; but it is something far worse than Welsh. It is Meaningful Mime"
A chilly darkness has already fallen on Aberystwyth Arts Centre, as the buses arrive to take us to another - and even more remote - place. Information has been tantalisingly slight: we are heading deep into a forest deep into the night to witness a theatrical "Tragedy in 39 Parts", a ghost story entitled Tri Bywyd. The company, Brith Gof, is famed for performing in "site-specific non-theatrical environments" - a disused factory, a railway station - aiming, it says, to provide Theatre for people who don't like theatres.

"Apparently," says the man next to me - an aged, bearded local in a chunky sweater - "last night the bus had a puncture and nobody got home until dawn."

"Oh God," murmurs everyone in earshot. "I've got a new hammer," adds the man.

"Anyone like to see it?"

"Ooh yes," reply two women to my right. "Heavy, isn't it?"

"Show it to Meddie James. She likes hammers."

"Like to see the hammer?"

"Very much," I say. "Heavy, isn't it?" And so on.

This was a nice gesture - including me in the hammer business. At first I'd been eyed with vague suspicion: the only person on this icy night not wearing a big jumper and wellies (cripplingly unprepared, as always), the only non-Welsh speaker, the only person here who doesn't know everyone else (this is a tight community). Then a man comes around, handing out brochures.

"Ah, Barry! What time will we be home?"

"I'm afraid," says Barry, a little sternly, "I'm not at liberty to divulge this information. You must have an open mind." He pauses. "Open mind, you see."

"Ah! Open mind." This is scant cheer. Perhaps I am overly cowardly about these things, but my mind - in these trying, damp forest situations - has a tendency to slam itself shut. But one roots for these audacious, lavish, theatrical endeavours, and I dutifully scan the brochure.

Tri Bywyd tells the story, it announces vaguely, of three strange Welsh deaths: the murder in 1988 of Lynette White, a Cardiff prostitute; the apparent suicide of a cottage dweller in the forests above Lampeter; and the death by starvation, in 1869, of Sarah Jacob - "The Fasting Girl" - who didn't eat for two years and became something of a local celebrity. The specific-site we are heading towards, continues the brochure, is the actual ruined cottage where the "suicide" occurred: a neat conceit.

"What are the rules, and who writes them?" ponders the brochure, with disturbing pomposity for this time of night. "Who owns the story of this or any place? Who has the right to speak its history?"And so on.

"This had better be good," I murmur ruefully to myself, two hours later, as we continue to trundle painfully along the forest roads. On the way we have picked up various others - standing on the roadside in the middle of nowhere - who silently take their places on the bus. Who are they? ("Let them remain a mystery, best not ask" - I write in my notepad, attempting hopelessly to immerse myself the enigma of it all.)

Finally, we arrive at a clearing lit by neon strips, are informed annoyingly that this is a "non-smoking forest", and then led up some steps on to a wooden podium supported (expensively) by scaffolding. An ambient soundtrack of wind noises (unnecessary, it is windy enough) and the obligatory eerie piano bongs permeate the darkness, like the tawdrily overbearing soundtrack from some am-dram production of The Woman in Black. As our eyes become accustomed to the dark, we see a large edifice (scaffold and wood) built into the ruins of the cottage, five actors standing like statues, a chair, a bed, and, quite excitingly, a dead sheep slumped on a table. Then, after many more piano bongs, the play begins.

If, of course, "play" isn't too generous a word for this prolonged travesty of movement and sound. An old lady rotates slowly clutching a tea-towel; another woman wraps a tea-towel around her head and spins a bit faster; the "prostitute" runs up a ladder, dances around a bit and runs down again. I had been worried that the play might be in Welsh; but it is something far worse than Welsh. It is Meaningful Mime. After a while, people start talking - some in Welsh, some in English - a series of monologues so wooden that they make our chilly benches feel like the snug, red velvet chairs you get in proper theatres. For instance: "She smiled and walked," says the prostitute's killer. "I followed. She should have talked. She shouldn't. She shouldn't. And so I stopped her talking."

"It's a job, you know," says the prostitute. "You don't have to enjoy the job. I feel dirty afterwards, although I am clean."

Really? Prostitutes don't enjoy sex with their clients? Well, the scales have certainly been lifted from my eyes.

In all fairness, the play has its high points. Eddie Ladd, who plays "The Fasting Girl", performs with something other than heavy-handed, austere solemnity, and the subject-matter is well chosen (in fact, the Fasting Girl story could make an excellent scenario if treated rather less pretentiously). The play is attempting to suggest that "facts" die with the characters, decay like the ruins of the cottage, and it's down to "theatre" to fabricate the mysteries of the past. An interesting notion, but are secrets really this banal?

"You could cry GBH or rape," says the prostitute of the hazards of her profession. "But who would listen?"

And after 90 minutes of yelling and so on, the play ends with the spotlight on the dead sheep - never explained (maybe they just found it there and thought it would be neat and symbolic to stick it on a table) - and we all get back on the bus. We are subdued and a little outraged.

If you're going to lure 200 people on a Saturday night into an icy forest you'd better be offering them something memorable when they get there. But mediocre, meaningless symbolism in an extraordinary environment is not enough. "Well, well, well," says the man with the hammer. "I didn't understand that one bit." "Nor me," says a lady. "Bit of a cacophony if you ask me."

"Was it Arts Council?" asks the hammer man.

"I think so."

"Hmmm. Well. I suppose that explains it then."

n Brith Gof Internet information: http:// www.acs.lamp.ac.uk/-brithgof

Comments