In a brand new immersive production Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr, as part of 14-18 NOW season at the Swansea International Festival, interdisciplinary theatre maker Marc Rees works with a compelling creative team to bring to life the epic poem ‘Y Gododdin/The Gododdin’. This extraordinary show includes a immersive requiem (originally commissioned by the late, twice Oscar-nominated, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) with a libretto written by Owen Sheers, composed by Owen Morgan Roberts and sung by Stephen Layton’s twice Grammy-nominated choir Polyphony.
Interdisciplinary theatre maker, Rees discusses the inspiration behind this pioneering work, which takes place between the beach and Swansea’s busiest streets. He also talks about the challenges he faced planning and creating this individual work with a huge creative team, and the types of things to expect at the Swansea International Festival 2018.
When did you realise theatre making was your calling?
I grew up fascinated by performance, theatre and music. I almost went down the route of traditional theatre – I was a member of the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre which was a fantastic company. I was fortunate to discover I was more interested in dance and weird stuff. I went to Brighton University where I met Liz Aggiss who introduced me to the likes of Pina Bausch, and I realised that that’s what I wanted to do. It opened up other worlds.
When did you first come across Y Gododdin?
I first came across it 30 years ago. I had just left Brighton and had got my first job with Brith Gof – a physical theatre company that is one of the most important companies in the history of Welsh theatre. We created a reimagining of the poem (Y Gododdin) with an industrial percussion band in the old Rover factory in Cardiff. It was an immersive piece before immersive was a genre. It’s sited as one of the most seminal pieces of Welsh theatre. It was really important, and extraordinary to be involved with. It was my foundation and if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have done Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr. The poem had a profound impact on me, and I wanted to use the power of it. Written in 600AD, about the slaughter of 300 Celtic warriors by the Saxons, it still resonates today and is still so powerful. I can always hear the words in my head.
What kind of things can audiences look forward to in Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr?
Audiences can look forward to an unusual and unique experience. It’s difficult to pigeonhole, but my work has been described as ‘installation theatre’ – I like that, I think it describes it well. This time, however, there is a requiem at its heart. It’s not a conventional requiem by any stretch, you don’t sit and be passive. The action happens in front of you while you’re guided from the beach by Eddie (who plays the Peace Protestor) and explore dramatic scenes both inside and outside. It’s a multi-sensory, visceral experience. You’re even going to eat, taste and ingest food inspired by the colours of the Brangwyn Panels – it’s all directly linked.
There’s quite a lot going on in the production – immersive theatre, a requiem, poetry, music from the Polyphony singers. For the scale of this work, taking visitors from Swansea Bay to Brangwyn Hall, did you come across any challenges? For example, planning logistics, making all of it come together etc.
We’re using the beach and Swansea’s busiest roads, one of which has to be temporarily closed, which is challenging but we’ve been working closely with the council who have been on board from the very beginning. As we’re closing one street, we spoke to the residents and invited them for tea and Welsh cake as we were worried they’d say no and be against it, but they actually thanked us for bringing Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr to Swansea. We offered them tickets, and even the opportunity to be a part of it. Logistics have been complicated but we have an extraordinary crew and Production Manager. I’ve been working with my Creative Producer Isabel on and off for three years to plan this and avoid the pitfalls – for something like this you need to spend a long time planning. We’re fortunate to have support from 1418NOW, Arts Council Wales and Visit Wales. I feel privileged to explore and research how to do this – I’m very waring of calling things epic theatre, but this is epic.
Would you say producing historical works is your area of expertise or do you meddle in different types of theatre?
The subject matter is historical but I like to reimagine and reinterpret that history. I compare myself to an archaeologist – I discover and explore a site, digging down to find stories and artefacts, then give them to artists and communities and together we create an experience. It may be fact or fiction but we use historical elements to then look through a different lens and extort it to make it more surreal. Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr is about World War I, contemporary conflict and Celtic history – mixing them all together with the Brangwyn Panels, which not many people know the significance of.
I’ve never been to Swansea International Festival, or even to Swansea – what kind of things happen at this festival?
Swansea International Festival are our partners and we’re launching this year’s festival. The festival will be closed by world famous Welsh composer Carl Jenkins, with lots of other events going on around it. We’re also hosting micro-festival Now For More which is taking place in art and cultural institutions big and small, led by the Elysium Gallery. We have 100 artists responding the themes of Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr, ranging across 40 free events which includes everything from life drawing classes to the GRAFT gardens. There’s a huge amount going on – if you’re wanting to go to Swansea, now is the time to come.
Do you have any up and coming projects you’ll be working on next?
I’ll be working on my wedding!
For someone coming to Wales for the first time, what would you recommend is a must-see or must-visit?
If you come to Swansea you have to go slightly further on and visit the Gower – it’s absolutely stunning with so many beautiful beaches, wonderful walks and places to eat. Swansea itself has had a tough time, often neglected and overshadowed by Cardiff. In Swansea you can follow in Dylan Thomas’ footsteps, even stay in the house where he was born. You can go to Laugharn where he spent most of his life and inspired him to write Under Milkwood. Base yourself in Swansea – give Swansea a go. Now the Hero / Nawr yr Arwr is for Swansea.
Any advice for aspiring theatre makers?
It’s important to get yourself out there and see as much as you can, even the more conventional stuff. If you’re going to reject it you have to see if and understand it. I couldn’t do this alone so find collaborators – have interesting dialogues and find how you can create interesting and challenging theatre. Feed your imagination, go to galleries, watch films – immersive yourself in stimuli.