The Mare Rises in 2015


An exhibition is currently being planned for 2015 that will draw together many of my 2001/2002 Mare’s Tale drawings from private and public collections, plus stage designs, puppets, models, poster-art and animation sequences produced in 2013 for composer Mark Bowden’s and librettist Damian Walford Davies’ ‘chamber-work with narrator’ that took its inspiration from the drawings. There will also be new designs and animation sequences currently evolving toward a next stage of the project.


Here are a few original Mare’s Tale drawings that haven’t before appeared on the Artlog


Conté pencil on Arches paper. 56 x 76 cm. 2001

Stumbles and Falls

Conté pencil on Arches paper. 56 x 76 cm. 2001

Last Meeting

Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm. 2002

Detail from Last Meeting

Deposition II

Conté pencil on Arches paper. 56 x 76 cm. 2001

Below: some of the 2013 Mari Lwyd material, produced for the staged chamber-work, that will be in the exhibition

Detail of a Mari Lwyd drawing made for the 2013 staging of The Mare’s Tale at Theatr Brycheiniog

Model used for filmed sequences in The Mare’sTale

Below: puppets used in the production

Actor Eric Roberts rehearsing on my set for The Mare’s Tale

Animation sequences from the production will be screened in the gallery

Poster artwork for The Mare’s Tale

Further announcements about the exhibition, soon.

the mari rises: working the set

Above: the Mari rises

Over at Theatr Brycheiniog it’s not just our actor, Eric Roberts, who must familiarise himself with the set. The puppeteers, too, have to find ways in which to incorporate their performances into the fractured and tip-tilted world suggesting Morgan Seyes’ disconnection as his grip on reality falters.

Morgan’s visits to the churchyard become a daily obsession, until it’s the only place he wants to be.  But not even his habit of sleeping on his wife’s grave can bring relief from grief, as fears awakened from the distant past begin to dog his dreams.

All the puppetry for The Mare’s Tale is being done on a small scale. The reasons for this are multiple, and though a restrictive budget was the starting point of our realisation that we wouldn’t be able to work with ‘life-sized’ puppets, it also made us think more creatively about how we’d bring to life the buried memory at the heart of Morgan’s fears. One of the bonuses of a largely darkened stage, is that size becomes more difficult to judge, so that small puppets can look as though they may be large figures placed further away.

The figure central to the Mari Lwyd mumming tradition, was the ‘Grey Mare’ itself, always represented by a horse’s skull fastened to a pole, carried by a man hidden under a white sheet attached to the crown of the construct. (It’s a hobby-horse of the ‘mast’ tradition, and in fact a type of puppet.) But for Morgan, childhood trauma means his fears of the beast have transformed it into something more dreadful than the lurching hobby-horse of an ale-fuelled, knockabout tradition. For him the Mari has become a shape-shifting chimera, rising like a spectre from childhood memory to hunt him down.

In the early stages of rehearsal I’d imagined the puppeteers and puppets would be at a table to one side of the stage, in full view of the audience. A camera would record the puppet performances, and the images would be streamed to a projection screen to create the apparitions of Morgan’s nightmares. But when we started exploring the possibilities of the set, it became much more interesting to incorporate the Mari puppets into the environment. The puppets are still recorded by a roving camera-operator… in this case, Harriet, who during rehearsals has been following Ann, Diana and the Mari puppets around… but the original plan of confining the puppets to a single location has long since been abandoned. In the photograph above, Morgan Seyes lies sleeping on Jane’s grave, while in the earth beneath him, something white and predatory begins to stir.

My apologies to Ann and Diana, crammed into a tight space that is incredibly uncomfortable because it is both hard on the knees, and pitched at an angle that makes them slide about. Ann and I have known each other since we were puppeteers together over forty years ago. I promised this time I’d put her sedately at a table, working puppets that wold be so simple and easy to manipulate that she could perform with them in her sleep. And here she is again, stuffed into a hole and grazing her knees and elbows as I ask her to create the stage-magic. Gracefully, she says she knew this would happen. With puppets, it always does!

The actor and his director: Eric and Clive at Theatr Brycheiniog

Below: left to right, the writer, the stage manager, the composer, the director, the actor and the dramaturge/assistant director.

the puppets of The Mare’s Tale

Back in February at the first production meeting for The Mare’s Tale, the notion of puppets was discussed as a means to visually express some of the ideas that would be explored in the libretto and the music. Work began on them while we awaited Damian Walford Davies’s text and Mark Bowden’s score.  Now, with both complete, the project is fast moving toward rehearsals, and I’m preparing the last few puppets for the production. Ann Prior and Diana Ford will be bringing them to on-stage life. At last the ideas of artist, librettist, composer and conductor/producer will be coming together to form a new narrated chamber work performed by Eric Roberts and the musicians of the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra under the baton of James Slater. This has been quite an adventure.

Above: Mari Lwyd Mk I

Below: Mari Lwyd Mk II, reconfigured after a filmed test

Above and below: portraits of the most recent puppet added to the cast.

Above and below: Mari Lwyd  maquettes that will be operated as both rod puppets and stop-motion animations.

Above: I don’t yet have a good image of the ‘transparent’ Mari Lwyd puppet, and so this snapshot taken with a lot of clutter behind it must suffice. Just visible behind the Mari is an original shadow-puppet design by the great Jan Svankmejer.

the mare’s progress V

One more day should see the new Mari Lwyd completed. Over the weekend I grasped the nettle and set about that most difficult aspect of horse anatomy needing to be reproduced if the puppet is to look plausible in motion, the legs. Thanks to the muslin shroud I’ve only had to make the front ones, but nevertheless the task produced some daunting challenges. Making things even more complicated was the small detail of the ghostly transparency I’d set my heart on with this particular version of the Mari. (See above image.) Of course there are several quite different Mari Lwyd puppets in the production, and maquettes too, operated on-stage with rods, but also appearing in stop-motion sequences.

For this latest puppet I’d acquired some translucent plastic tubing with enough rigidity to hold its shape, but building the legs out of it was something I’d put off while I explored ways to make the joints. Because from the outset I’d envisioned the puppeteers in direct contact with the Mari Lwyd rather than operating it via rods or strings, the leg joints would require flexibility but also offer some resistance under the puppeteer’s hand, or they’d just flop about like broken drinking-straws. My idea was to support the joints with wire-rigs I’d design and make to mimic the effects of the ligaments that hold together the skeleton of a living body, and after much trial and error, I came up with this.

Above: a fetlock in the extended position…

… and in compression.

Above: an extended full-length leg held by two wire ‘ligament’ rigs. The scapular at the top moves back and forth with the puppet’s gait. In the image below the leg is in compression, as it will appear when the Mari is rearing or galloping.

Please excuse the not terribly good photographs. It’s very difficult to hold the leg with one hand and handle the camera with the other. Neither could I hold the leg correctly from above by the operator’s wooden grip (behind the scapular in the image) because when I did I couldn’t extend my arm sufficiently to show the entire leg while taking the photograph. In the operating position the lead puppeteer holds the grips for the front legs and for the neck in one hand, though if that proves too complicated then I can screw the two together. Not a problem, though it might make for a more cumbersome puppet. Right now everything is feeling pleasingly lightweight, flexible and responsive, so I’ll hold off making a final decision until we’ve trialled the puppet.

The control/hand-grip is made of wood, as is the top of the leg, because both elements need be robust. The top of the leg takes a lot of rotation when the Mari walks or gallops, and the plastic tubing felt too insubstantial for the job. I shall have to ensure a carefully equipped maintenance-box travels with the puppet. There’s plenty that could go wrong with it.

Making the puppet has been a bit of a voyage of discovery for me, as I’ve been polishing skills that had become rather dusty with disuse. What started rather crudely as this…

… finally arrived at this.

On Friday I meet up with Ann the lead-puppeteer, and I shall try to take some photographs of the Mari being trialled at that session.

the mare’s progress IV

With the head complete, here is the second Mari Lwyd puppet as assembled so far. The ribcage and front legs have yet to be added. The legs will just be held in position under the shroud by the second puppeteer rather than attached to the shoulders, an arrangement that will make the manipulation more fluid. I think there will be no back legs. The photographs show the transparency to good effect. I haven’t added the ears. I felt that they cluttered the shape and made the head less skull-like. I may yet change my mind about this. Right now everything is by way of trying things out.

The puppet responds well in the hand and is a good performer. The head was more difficult to make than I’d anticipated because I wanted it to have a ‘soft’ open/close effect for the jaws, and that took lots of trial and error. I got it to work eventually by hinging the lower jaw to the neck rather than to the skull. The jaws open and close automatically when the  head is moved into the correct positions, though they can be made to work manually in any position by a second puppeteer.  The smooth motion of the jaws is only possible because of the light materials. Anything heavier would have required a different solution. Anyway, it’s turned out well. Spotting that plastic mesh in the craft store turned out to be a serendipitous moment.

Puppets are at their best when true to their nature and honest in their manufacture. Here everything is on show, from the construction of the figure to the puppeteers operating it. I think it likely this Mari will be lighting/camera friendly, which is something I’ve tried to keep to the front of my mind while making it. Above all I hope it will have the quality that I need most from it, which is the one I would need from any actor in a significant role, and that’s ‘presence’.

Above: seen in this close-up the the head is a hard-edged and unyielding construct of plastic mesh and wire, and yet at only a little distance… as shown in the photographs above it… the materials dissolve into something far more insubstantial and atmospheric.

the mare’s progress

I’m working in the dining-room. Nice big table to lay things out on, and the window seat affords plenty of light. The above photograph of the Mari was taken as I noticed its reflection in a mirror, with the light behind showing to advantage the transparency I aimed for in the puppet. The ‘shroud’ is muslin, and I plan to leave it un-dyed.

Above: I like these materials so much, I’m thinking that I may well make another version of the first Mari puppet using them.

Above: I’ve made a tail in micro-thin opaque plastic that yields a very pleasing movement when flicked.

conjuring an apparition

The Mari Lwyd puppet currently under construction is being made from materials intended  to create an effect of translucence, as though it’s more apparition than corporeal beast. I don’t want to disguise its component parts either. I’m happy for it to be seen for what it is: a construct.

Plastic mesh is malleable, taking curves and folds well. I’ve made it hold its shape by stitching it over a wire armature. Because the material takes light well, I think it will create interesting effects when viewed through the medium of the camera.  I’ve blurred the image below to make it more ghostly. The light coming from the window throws into silhouette the wire armature inside the head. Lighting from the front will make the wires vanish, but I favour a lighting state that has the puppet changing from solid to transparent as it moves.

Below: adding a neck of plastic hose, which lends a marvellously sinuous quality to the animation. I could only find dark-coloured hose, and so I’ll use car spray-paint to make it pale.

Above: this is just the upper part of the skull. The lower jaw has yet to be added.

catriona urquhart and ‘the mare’s tale’

Some anniversaries pass by un-noticed because our lives are such a hustle and bustle of  work, play, duty, deadlines and all-sorts. One passed me by yesterday, so deep into preparations was I for the forthcoming presentation of The Soldier’s Tale with Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at the Hay Festival. Odd that I missed it, because in so many ways an unease underlay the day for me, and I realise that while on the surface I may have been pushing away the recollection of a loss, at a deeper and unconscious level, something was definitely playing out.

On May Day 2005 my close friend Catriona Urquhart died, and with her went a large chunk of my heart. In 2001 The Old Stile Press had published The Mare’s Tale, a sequence of poems Catriona had written examining my father’s early experience of the Welsh Mari Lwyd mumming tradition. It was not a happy recollection for him, but all that has been examined elsewhere both by me and by several more eloquent writers, and so I won’t recap here. Suffice to say that Catriona, after his death, produced her poems from accounts my father had shared with her of growing up in rural Monmouthshire, of his terrifying childhood encounter with a Mari and how he carried the experience with him throughout a long life.

Catriona’s poems and my large Conté drawings were shown together at my 2001 Newport Museum and Art Gallery exhibition The Mare’s Tale, and though the artworks have now separated into many public and private collections, and the Old Stile Press book… which I illustrated… stands alone as Catriona’s sole published collection of poems in her lifetime, I think no-one would deny that to a significant extent the poems and drawings have become inseperable from each other.

In 2012 the artistic director of Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, James Slater brought together composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies to create a new chamber work inspired by my Mare’s Tale drawings. My only stipulation at the start of the project, had been that without Catriona present to collaborate on any examination of the themes, the libretto would have to be a new text,  based on the drawings alone with no direct reference by name to my father or his experiences. This was not in any way, as far as I was concerned, to be a biographical exploration of what underlay the Mari Lwyd drawings, but a fresh approach using them as the starting point of a narrative structure for Mark Bowden’s music.

Above: a drawing of my father made for the original Mare’s Tale series.

And that’s exactly what Damian has delivered. A new tale as dark and terrifying as the source material, though constructed  as a fiction steeped in the literary tradition of recovered memory as the catalyst of a central character’s psychological disintegration. But Damian is a great admirer of the poems, as was clear from his chapter in the 2011 Lund Humphries monograph about my work, and I can see a number of echoes from them in the libretto, layered in to enrich it.

Mari Lwyd puppet

Mari Lwyd maquette/puppet

Out of the old springs something new, and as an artist I must follow it. The drawings that were the origins of this have been set aside as I create fresh ideas tailor-made for the emerging creation. (See the two images above.)

Long ago I thought I was done with this subject, but it would seem not. The Mare’s Tale as realised in my drawings and Catriona’s poems, and The Mare’s Tale as it now evolves into a new chamber-work for ensemble, while separate, seem to me conjoined in a way that will be quite unique in terms of creativity. The same seeds grew them and the same title unites them, and yet they are separate. I find that strangely haunting and complete as an idea.

mari lwyd puppet mark II

Since the tests run with the table-top puppet ten days ago, and after consulting with the-lead puppeteer on the project, Ann Prior, I’ve extensively reworked the first Mari Lwyd. The original shroud was quite flimsy and limp and difficult to control. While struggling to use it expressively, I recalled the way in which the kimonos of Bunraku puppets are so extensively padded that when skilfully and boldly manipulated, audiences get a strong impression of dynamic movement beneath them. The sleeves particularly are most expressive, and with female Bunraku  puppets, which have no legs, a sense of motion is conjured by operating the garments to suggest the kick of walking feet against their hems. In Bunraku, the costumes act as much as the puppets!

With those ideas in mind, I started by removing the puppet’s pelvis and legs, leaving only the ribcage to centre the figure and to make a tension between it and the head when both are controlled by the puppeteer. A new shroud, much bulkier and padded, creates the height of the figure, and  a second puppeteer simply operates the lower part of it to suggest legs and feet. In this way the Mari convincingly walks, lunges, kneels and crouches with legs akimbo. An observer would never know that the effect is created by a puppeteer’s hands alone.

The Mari puppet was built with no arms because basically a Mari Lwyd is a skull on a stick carried by a man hidden by a sheet. (Not that I want to reproduce the historic appearance, but rather create a dramatic reinterpretation of it.) However on a visual level, the puppet’s lack of arms hindered what we were able to achieve with its performance, and so the shroud has been remade to suggest arms beneath it, hands folded together under the layers of obscuring gauze. The puppeteer will be able to manipulate the costume, suggesting arms, and in this way introduce more potential for expression into the performance.

With the large, heavy Bunraku puppets, one puppeteer operates the head and right hand, a second operates the left hand, and a third works the legs. (Or in the case of legless female characters, the kimono.) With our small and lightweight puppet, the lead-puppeteer operates the head with one hand, and with the remaining one grasps under the ribcage to angle the spine and create the diagonals of dynamic upper-body movement. By releasing the second hand from the ribcage and repositioning it to suggest the folded hands under the shroud, with a little juggling a single puppeteer can operate the functions of two Bunraku operators. With careful choreography the puppeteer can even use that same second hand to suggest the motion of the puppet’s non-existent feet, though we’re going to have a second puppeteer dedicated to that function.

I’ve added strands of hemp string knotted into the shroud. It has a life of its own, springing and coiling and creating a sense of the ribbon decorations of the traditional Mari, without representing them literally. They look really interesting and catch the light like a horse’s whiskers.

The following photographs were all taken this evening, by me, one-handed as I played with the puppet in the dining-room mirror. They’re all out of focus, but they’re certainly atmospheric. The camera seems to love this Mari, shambling along in its new shroud.

Like something out of an M R James ghost story.

Now we need to film a second test.

You can see an explanation of how Bunraku puppets work in THIS short film (there’s a demonstration of a puppet being operated minus the costuming) and experience a masterclass in puppetry HERE, where the portrayal of almost unhinged grief is staggering. Performance art of the highest order.

mari lwyd mark II

Currently making another version of the table-top Mari puppet. The first… shown above… was thrown together quickly to get a ‘feel’ for the character. Operating the trial puppet with Ann in front of a mirror, with contributions from James, clarified what worked and what didn’t. (A short glimpse of the session may be seen in Pete Telfer’s film, HERE.) However, some of the most effective movement sequences we achieved are not on view in the clip, and they were ones in which the motions of  torso and legs were created by manipulating the shroud.  Less was more! The absolute best was when we worked a sequence of the Mari crawling forward, a bundle of rags with the head only just visible. To this end I’ve a plan to make a more bulky shroud, to aid such moments. I’m mindful of the effectiveness of the padded kimonos in Bunruku puppetry, the garments skilfully handled to suggest the movements beneath them.

Above: artistic director of MWCO James Slater, and lead puppeteer Ann Prior, take a break from puppet duties.

Above: the pelvis and legs of the new puppet under construction, whittled from pieces of firewood salvaged from a stack in our barn! Nothing very refined here, but the joints are directional and have enough resistance to hold positions unsupported, which will help the puppeteers a lot.

My overall notion is for the puppets in the production to look and feel quite roughly made. I’ve given the wood a first coat of black emulsion, and now I’m ready to construct the spine, ribcage and head. The head is to have a moveable lower jaw, so that our Mari can gape! Like this!