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.

5 thoughts on “the mari rises: working the set

  1. “…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…”
    Ah, but that is what “elbow grease” is all about! It’s going to be far more visually interesting and dramatically intimate for Ann and Diana to appear in the box… kudos to them for having the heart to do it that way!!! xo AM

    • I’m lucky indeed to have two puppeteers who are both skilled and tolerant. The craft of puppetry and the conditions in which the puppets are seen, place performers under a lot of stress, and this production is no exception. So yes. Kudos to Ann and Diana.

    • That’s the most exciting aspect of rehearsals. The work, when it’s developing as it should, confounds the expectations we may have had at the outset. New insights emerge, and better ways of expressing the piece. Exciting.

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