‘Dark Movements’

Moving toward Dark Movements


In 2002, when I completed the drawing On the Mountain in the series The Mare’s Tale, I believed it marked the end of my work on the theme of the Mari Lwyd. The series had absorbed me for two years. There had been, in short order, two big exhibitions of the work in Wales, and some of the drawings had thereafter travelled with a mixed exhibition, titled Dreaming Awake, to the Terezín Memorial Gallery in the Czech Republic. The poet Catriona Urquhart and I had collaborated throughout the process of making the drawings, and she wrote a series of poems about my father that became the text of The Mare’s Tale at Newport Museum & Art Gallery in 2001 and an edition for The Old Stile Press which I illustrated.

On the Mountain, 2002

On the Mountain, 2002

While The Mare’s Tale was an exploration I needed to undertake, its underlying themes were based on distressing events. A point of emotional weariness came at which I realized it was time to bring the series to an end. Catriona Urquhart’s early death in 2005 seemed to me to draw a line under it.

In 2013, the composer Mark Bowden and poet Damian Walford Davies brought new insights to the subject with a chamber-work for ensemble and performer that was inspired by my drawings and by the poems and biographical events. The libretto was conjured as a new fiction to make a dark and glittering psychological ghost story. I designed and directed the production, also titled The Mare’s Tale. It was extraordinary to watch what had started with my drawings, evolve into a performance for an orchestra and a singer/actor. Eric Roberts played the role of Morgan Seyes, drenched in my late father’s terror of the Mari Lwyd.

That same year a plan evolved for an exhibition of my Mari Lwyd work at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, borrowing from public and private collections and adding the stage-designs, puppets and maquettes I’d made for the performance. I had no plans at that time to make new artworks. The exhibition would be a retrospective.

I’d been drawing an American dancer, Jordan Morley, intending a small series of paintings of him for a group ‘portrait’ exhibition I’d been asked to participate in at a gallery in Barcelona. Jordan and I were evolving processes of working together – in New York he acted out scenarios I suggested to him in e-mails from Wales, capturing them in series of photographs that he downloaded and sent to me. At some point we talked about the forthcoming Arts Centre Mari Lwyd exhibition and he began to steep himself in all the work that had gone before. Unexpectedly he produced a set of photographs of himself playing on the shapes and forms of the drawings I’d made fifteen years ago. Using those I built maquettes of him and arranged them into compositions. Ideas stirred. A title evolved, Dark Movements. For me, once there is a title, the art follows.

From North Carolina the poet Jeffery Beam watched what was developing. We were already working together on another project, but something in Dark Movements spoke to him, and new poems came as a result of what he saw emerging from my studio. Those poems inspired further paintings from me. Collaborations, when they work well, fly back and forth between the participants with increasing energy.

Interested parties watched and contributed to the process through social media. Maria Maestre in Spain left illuminating comments at my blog that carried painter and poet in some unexpected directions. Composer Peter Byrom-Smith in Yorkshire prepared his score for Jane’s Dream – a ‘visual poem’ edited by Pete Telfer and me from footage of puppets we’d filmed in 2013 – by watching animated segments posted at Facebook. (Jane’s Dream is being screened in the gallery throughout Dark Movements.) Sarah Parvin (aka ‘The Curious One’) curated a Dark Movements board at Pinterest, that presents her own take on how the project has drawn together many threads from my past themes.

In 2000, my collaboration with Catriona Urquhart took place around kitchen tables, on long walks in the countryside, and occasionally in phone calls when she would read drafts to me. Today the collaborations of Dark Movements have been conducted with social media, e-mails and selfies. I’d set out with no goal other than to visit the grave where I’d left the Mari in that last drawing fifteen years ago, but the habits of ‘making’ can’t be stilled. New collaborations emerge. New words, fresh paints, dancers, puppets and toy theatres kindle a phoenix-flame under the bones, and suddenly the old girl is up and off again, and at a fair old lick. It seems you can’t keep a good horse down, not even after it’s been buried.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

May 2015

letter from James Joseph

Dear Clive
It was a privilege to be at Saturday’s performance, a full & excited house with an unspoken awareness that threads of friendship & collaboration linked most of the hundreds present. The Mare’s Tale has its own manifold futures ahead of it, but what we witnessed on Saturday was in fact already a remarkably polished presentation of rich and haunting work, a deeply touching hour of music theatre. It’s hard to imagine what this extraordinary journey has demanded of you, but Morgan Seyes now lives within us all. As an only recently formed chamber orchestra, the commissioning by MWCO of The Mare’s Tale as a work of music theatre was a brave, imaginative step, a stimulating response to thrilling performances in 2012 and 2013 of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The swiftness of its development to staged work has been remarkable, as has been the generosity of collaboration.
The ancestry of The Mare’s Tale is surely steeped in personal experience: actual love, actual trauma; real life, real death.  Many threads interlace the remarkable body of work that already exists on its dateline, but Damian Walford Davies’ magnificent libretto has managed to achieve both autonomy and enormous resonance. His words are powerful and vibrant, his narrative honed & spare.  “Sharp and soft as anything” – Philippa Robbins’ beautiful description, not mine.  An uncommonly generous piece of work, a gift to composer & designer.
You and others have written eloquently of the depth of dedication & sheer quality that all your team have brought to this project. But what many of us may have carried away from the evening is the selflessness of each contribution. Conductor and musicians became almost invisible – it was Mark Bowden’s glorious music that soared. The life they brought to your extraordinary puppets may have broken our hearts, but puppeteers & vision team remained demure. The dreamlike filmwork & images were offered only modestly to the screen, and then only to counterpoint the inner narrative.
But as has been written, one man carried the show on the night: Eric Roberts was magnificent, wholly convincing & deeply moving, bringing a lifetime of operatic skills to the demands of a spoken narrative. Many will have carried away with them the image of Eric finally perched high, precariously, on that skewed chair at the peak of that skewed tower. I will cherish the hushed parlando quality that he brought to the final Mari Lwyd song, that lovely baritone voice reined back to stay in character. One last moment of generosity.

Eric the Great

James Slater, Eric Roberts and Mark Bowden during rehearsals for The Mare’s Tale. Photograph courtesy of Diana Ford.

I have so much to share here, both in images and thoughts, that it’s going to take quite a while to effectively convey everything buzzing through my head. So expect the post-show news to come in small bites over a couple of weeks.

Above: Eric scaling the expressionist tower in rehearsals. Photograph courtesy of Diana Ford.

Above and below: close-up on ‘Morgan Seyes’. Photographs by Peter Wakelin.

Above: rehearsal photograph courtesy of Peter Wakelin.

Below: one of Peter’s photographs that illustrate so well the layout of set, screen and orchestra.

On Saturday the house for the preview of The Mare’s Tale was full. Eric Roberts, James Slater, the musicians, the puppeteers and technicians gave of themselves magnificently. The performance shimmered with atmosphere. The music was sublime, artfully carrying the narrative on waves of emotional richness. There can be no honours due to any one person on a project that has been such a collaborative endeavour. Nevertheless, the gold medal for courage goes to Eric, who scaled a mountain a lesser man would have balked at. He was wonderful, and the audience told him so in a quite magnificent ovation. In The Mare;s Tale there was nowhere for him to hide. He was onstage for a blistering hour, and he delivered the goods with a generosity of spirit that would break your heart. It certainly broke mine.

Bravo Eric.  You’re our hero! I cannot wait to get working on this again, when together we’ll explore even further the marvellous soundscape conjured by Mark and Damian. We have a while before we can set off on the next stage of the adventure, bringing all we’ve learned from this ‘in-progress’ performance to bear on what I know will be a role which you have made absolutely your own. For me, you are Morgan.

Old pals. Eric’s dog Moli once had a planned litter of pups with Jack, and so and he and Eric have long been friends. Photograph courtesy of Diana Ford.

Eric in the post-show question and answer. Photograph by Sally Wakelin.

the unsafe environment

Tomorrow James Slater and I travel to Bristol to deliver the model of the set for The Mare’s Tale to Neil Tilley at Stage Electrics, who will be supervising the building of the full-size version. This photograph is just a snapshot showing the model in a straight forward manner, but I know that when we get the set onto the stage, there will be a lot of potential for creating atmospheric lighting effects on it. The model has been painted a simple grey so that the structure is clear, but once the set has been installed at Theatr Brycheiniog, I’ll think further about the paint finish.

The stage set needs to be expressive of many ideas. Set during the World War II bombing of London that architect Morgan Seyes and his wife Jane are fleeing, the broken flights of steps twisting on themselves, the crooked bannisters and the perilously balanced chair, mirror Morgan’s descriptions of buildings eviscerated by the blasts. When the narrative moves to Wales, the same set must convey Morgan’s inner anguish and the need to escape the un-named fears that beset him. He retreats from the community, isolating himself in the process. (Have you ever noticed how in films, whenever a character makes a headlong dash from pursuit, the route seems always to lead upwards?)

Narrator Eric Roberts will need to be completely at ease on this awkward structure, and so we’ve arranged that he’ll be working on it from the start of rehearsals on August 26th, in order to familiarise himself with its eccentricities. These are not steps to be climbed with ease, but rather scrambled up, like a cliff-face.

From the days when I was a teenager scouring the art-house cinemas of London for early films, my passion was for the German Expressionists, who had an absolute obsession with stairs and stairwells.

Pandora’s Box (1929)

The Golem (1920)

Hintertreppe (1921)

Those physically, mentally and even morally deranged cinematic worlds, had the greatest impact on me when I was finding my creative way in the theatre. In 1986 when an opportunity at long last came my way, I re-imagined German Expressionism through the lens of American Film Noir in a production of Little Shop of Horrors that I directed and designed at Theatr Clwyd.

The set (see the model above) was all crazed angles, un-level floors and multiple stairways at too-steep angles. Even the black and white floor-tiles were on the move, sucked to the cellar/vortex at front centre stage, where the carnivore plant was secretly nurtured by harried florist’s assistant, Seymour Krelborn. The cast clung to rails and walls for dear life as they tottered down the many stairs and negotiated the ground level that I’d raised to a rake so steep that it was possible for anyone standing still to start sliding down it.  As a consequence the performances felt steeped in neurosis and the sense of imminent disaster.  I never better enjoyed directing a production than this one. The cast were outstanding. Indeed, the whole production team were.

Above: drawings exploring lighting effects on the set.

Below: a detail of the finished Little Shop set, illustrating the artistry of the Theatre Clwyd scenic department.

More on German Expressionism in my next post.