Resurrecting Trevor

Biography chapter_0004.jpg

First there was my father, Trevor. In 1999 I was at his bedside as he died. I had to lean in and watch closely, to be sure of the moment. When it came it was as intangible as the faintest wisp of smoke, half-seen out of the corner of my eye. I looked so hard I almost stopped breathing, and then he was gone, his cool, unmoving hand a deadweight in mine.

From 2000 onwards I drew him into my grief, while my friend and his, Catriona Urquhart, watched and wrote what would become the text for my 2001 exhibition and an edition of poems published by The Old Stile Press, under the collective title of The Mare’s Tale.

I made many images. First the studies, wrenched out of sadness, and thereafter the giant drawings made on the floor of our dining-room in Plasturton Avenue. I begrimed myself with black Conté pencil that stained the cracks in my fingers and transferred in smears as I wiped my sweaty face. I must have looked like a madman, crawling over the images, buffing their surfaces to a slatey sheen with knees getting stiffer by the month. When finally I came to his likeness, I wept incessantly. It was too painful to make. I’d left it as an absence in the black surface, but with the drawing completed save for his face, the task couldn’t be put off any longer. I repeatedly had to dry the paper out, and so I know there’s hidden salt in the fibre of it. Sometimes I wonder whether one day it’ll emerge, like crusted sadness on the surface, the way salts emerge out of old bricks, and stonework. That would be an interesting one for the paper-conservators, charged with erasing grief from an artwork.

Above: Tend

A decade after I’d completed The Mare’s Tale, I was persuaded to give permission for a ‘performance work’ to be created for a chamber orchestra, inspired by the drawings and what lay behind them. This would require a collaboration with the composer Mark Bowden. I agreed, and elected Damian Walford Davies to be the librettist, because we’d worked together before. He knew my story intimately, and through me my father’s story. He also knew and had written about Catriona’s poems. (She’d died too young in 2005, The Mare’s Tale the only volume of poetry published in her lifetime.) Damian’s narrative was a fiction, a psychological ghost story, though conjured from some of the biographical facts of my father’s life. The title was borrowed from the original series of drawings, as were the ‘secrets’ buried in Trevor’s childhood memories. Two key scenes were lifted directly from my accounts of what had happened to him. Though this was hard-to-negotiate and dark terrain, I felt safe in Damian’s hands, and in Mark’s. Trevor became Morgan, in the new story, and he would be played by the singer Eric Roberts.


In 2013, a single, fully-staged  performance of the fledgling work was given at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. I designed and directed it. Morgan’s nightmares… my father’s nightmares… were given form though the medium of puppetry and animation. The drama was played out on a set I created to reflect the bleached sepulchres of  the original Mare’s Tale drawings.

From drawing (above) to set (below).

Puppeteers Anne Morris and Diana Ford gave sinister life to the various apparitions, and scale was added by an on-stage video crew filming the effects and streaming them to a screen suspended above the action.

Topographical models were filmed and projected onto the screen, to compass Morgan’s cramped world.

From concept drawing…

… to rehearsal.



I ruthlessly pared back the turbulence of my drawings from the stage imagery. I wanted the production to be visually stark, to give space to the music and text. Mark and Damian built from their own materials what I had once made out of densely-worked Conté pencil.

Eric Roberts was astounding as Morgan Seyes. In the scene where the character, fevered and enveloped in tangled bedsheets, believed that the Mari Lwyd had returned to claim him, the lines between performance and reality blurred, and Eric/Morgan became Trevor.

I didn’t set out to resurrect my father when I began work on the stage presentation of The Mare’s Tale. In rehearsals, as I began to understand where the last scene was going, it came as a shock. The visceral power of Eric’s performance shook everyone present. Our perceptive dramaturge, Helen Cooper, stepped quietly forward to continue helping, while I retreated to the back of theatre to let her, the music, the text, the lighting and the actor do their work.


Chronology of The Mare’s Tale, 2001 – 2015

2001: The Mare’s Tale opens at Newport Museum and Art Gallery. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition


The Old Stile Press publish The Mare’s Tale, their edition of Catriona Urquhart’s poems accompanied by Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ illustrations


The Contemporary Art Society for Wales purchases Stumbles and Cannot Rise (below) from The Mare’s Tale, and the drawing subsequently enters the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

hicks-jenkins 017_2_2.jpg

Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery purchase The Mari Lwyd Approaches (below) from The Mare’s Tale 

Mari Lwyd Approaches 2001 (1).jpg

2002: new works in the Mare’s Tale series form an expanded exhibition at Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery under the title The Tower on the Hill

Selected drawings from The Mare’s Tale appear in Dreaming Awake at the Terezín Memorial Gallery, and subsequently tour to four venues in the Czech Republic

2005: Catriona Urquhart dies. Her poetic text for The Mare’s Tale includes Pegasus, in which she reflects on Trevor’s last months and his death. However so apposite is the poem to her own failing health and intimations of mortality, that Clive Hicks-Jenkins reads it at her funeral.

2011: the artist’s sixtieth birthday is celebrated with a major retrospective in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Many of The Mare’s Tale drawings are gathered for the occasion from private collections and institutions


Lund Humphries publish Clive Hicks-Jenkins, a monograph. Montserrat Prat contributes an essay titled Metamorphosis of a Folk Tradition, in which she explores the drawings of The Mare’s Tale

2012: The Mare’s Tale, a work for chamber-orchestra and actor, is commissioned by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra from composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies. The piece takes its inspiration and its title from the 2001 series of Mari Lwyd drawings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

2013: a fully staged performance of the chamber-work The Mare’s Tale, is given by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. It is designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Helen Cooper is the Dramaturge. The role of Morgan Seyes is played by Eric Roberts


2015: Eric Roberts and Damian Walford Davies read extracts from the libretto of The Mare’s Tale at a special event held during Clive Hicks-Jenkins most recent explorations of the Mari Lwyd theme in Dark Movements at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. At the event Mary-Ann Constantine reads from Catriona Urquhart’s collection of Mare’s Tale poems.

Below: Eric Roberts reads at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre


Jane’s Dream, a film by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Pete Telfer based loosely on Damian Walford Davies’ libretto for The Mare’s Tale, is screened in the gallery throughout the Dark Movements exhibition. Original music for Jane’s Dream is by composer Peter Byrom Smith



‘The Soldier’s Tale’ goes walkabout

Over the past few years, images I’ve made based on Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale/L’histoire du soldat, have been requested by ensembles and orchestras around the world for the purposes of advertising their performances on posters and in programmes. For the most part I give the necessary permissions. While I designed the imagery for the Hay Festival performance that I directed, I haven’t chosen to maintain control over the ways other users have presented my images, though most of them have politely submitted layouts for my comments. (I try not to get too involved, as I don’t have the time to make layouts for organisations.)

Here are some of the orchestras and ensembles that have used my images, together with a few of the results.

2012. David Montgomery conducts the Prince William Symphony Orchestra in L’histoire du Soldat in Washington DC.

2012. Andres Jaime conducts the Frost Chamber Orchestra in The Soldier’s Tale at the Gusman Concert Hall, University of Miami.


2012. Avner Dorman conducts the Sunderman Conservatory of Music in L’histoire du soldat at Gettysburg College.

2013. Clive Hicks-Jenkins directs Lisa Dwan with Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra in The Soldier’s Tale at the Hay Festival. Conductor, James Slater.

2013. Ben Crick conducts the Skipton Camerata in The Soldier’s Tale at Grimsby Minster


2014. David Schweitzer directs Long Beach Opera in a double-bill of An American Soldier’s Tale (music by Stravinsky and text by Kurt Vonnegut) and A Fiddler’s Tale (music by Wynton Marsalis).


2014. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra perform L’histoire du soldat in Amsterdam.

2014. Bach Aria Soloists and NewEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble perform L’histoire du soldat in Kansas City.

2014/15. The Hawaii Symphony Orchestra perform L’histoire du Soldat.

the stand-in

The lighting-design for The Mare’s Tale was done in nighttime sessions, after rehearsals were over and the cast had been sent home. At one, puppeteer Diana Ford kindly stayed late to hold the puppets in their playing areas so that we could light them, but between scenes she took these striking photographs of Peter, who had volunteered to be lighting stand-in for Eric Roberts.

Jane Seyes

Above: Jane Seyes on-screen during rehearsals. The puppet and puppeteers were onstage and clearly visible to the audience, but the video streaming brought her into luminous close-up.

When I first read the libretto for The Mare’s Tale, I was concerned that Jane Seyes appears so briefly in the drama. She has just two scenes, though both brim with information that help us understand her character and plight. In the early stages of rehearsal the creative team noted again and again that while her on-stage appearances were relatively brief, her presence suffused the entire work, putting her at the heart of it.

People have been kind enough to say that it was a brave act, having her represented onstage and onscreen by a puppet. In fact it was nothing of the sort. There is only one actor in The Mare’s Tale, and in our case that was Eric. He conjured Jane through the sensitivity of his reading of her, and the puppet was originally a notion I had to conjure another person on stage to help the audience leave the physical Eric behind. But puppetry is a magic art, and between them, Eric, Ann and Diana produced a completely plausible presence. Three into one brought Jane compellingly to life, and aided and abetted by Harriet Wallis’ sensitive camera-work, she tore people’s hearts out.

‘For me, almost the most moving part was early on, and the first appearance of the puppet/wife: the puppet was quite exceptionally beautiful and expressive, and the sense of her positive identity and individual existence, ignored and misunderstood by her husband, and her complex awareness of this, was both powerful and subtle. Here everything worked together brilliantly.  I found what it did do, though (the feminist in me perhaps?), was break much of my sympathy for the husband, making him appear more selfish and unthinking than was perhaps intended. So his own disintegration was less emotionally engaging.’
Frances Mannsaker

Jane Seyes puppet, backstage…

… on her death bed…

 … and in the form of an apparition.

coming down from the mountain

Post-production blues have me in their grip, and I feel hung-over (even though there’s been no alcohol involved), wasted, wiped out, simultaneously over-wrought and anaesthetised to a state of dullness. All the tensions of the past weeks make my stomach churn like a washing-machine on full load. Ho hum.

I need deep, uninterrupted sleep, but my brain won’t quit. Back home at Ty Isaf I wander about like a lost soul, arranging and re-arranging the puppets of The Mare’s Tale in a glass-fronted apothecary cabinet, where they look so forlorn after their adventures at the theatre with the puppeteers who brought them to extraordinary, tender, sinister life. One day they will hopefully play their roles again, but until then they’re safe behind glazed doors, reminders of this wonderful, if exhausting adventure.


the puppeteers and puppets of The Mare’s Tale

Above: photograph of the transparent Mari Lwyd puppet courtesy of Diana Ford.

From the outset I had my heart set on Ann Prior for this project. She and I had worked together as puppeteers in the 1970s at the Caricature Theatre. We have a professional shorthand born of long familiarity as colleagues and friends. She agreed to join the team, and with her on board I knew the puppet performance element of The Mare’s Tale was in safe hands. Later we brought in Diana Ford, alumni of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where she had studied theatre design. Diana too is a puppeteer of great delicacy and focus.

Photograph courtesy of Anita Mills.

Between them, these two wrought heartrending tenderness from the puppet of Jane Seyes. Many people have told me that the sequence of her death in the performance made them cry. To the Mari Lwyd scenes they brought a sinister elegance and threat. As puppeteers, they are chameleons, mercurial in their abilities to change characters. Both are elegant on stage, moving quietly, swiftly and with great poise.

Above and below: photographs of Jane puppet courtesy of Diana Ford.

I loved the effects Ann and Diana produced when the Mari Lwyd writhed and billowed in the ground beneath Morgan Seyes as he lay sleeping on his wife’s grave.

Above: the Mari rises beneath Jane Seye’s grave.

Below: the puppet in close-up on the projection screen.

I’ve had e-mail after e-mail praising Ann and Diana’s artistry in the production. They greatly contributed to the tone of the piece, and were a vital part of the team.

What has been said.

From my friend William Gibbs:

‘Congratulations on a tremendous production. It was great to be there at the culmination of such a creative collaboration.

I thought the puppets were marvellous. The death of the wife was deeply moving. How is it that the movement of a piece of wood and cloth can be so evocative and reach us in a way that human actors cannot? The transformation of horse’s skull into her ghostly face, another great moment.

If there is any opportunity, more puppets please.’

From Lucienne Evans at the Artshop Gallery in Abergavenny:

‘I have never seen so many diverse mediums so successfully married (Mari-ed… sorry) together – a true collaboration. The eye was drawn from the exquisite shadowy images on screen to the musicians, to the puppets, to the dynamic Eric in a wonderfully rich visual and audio feast. Magical. Such skill to manage this subtle balance.’

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.


In the darkened theatre, a pool of soft light illuminates the moment when Diana and Ann bring the puppet of Jane Seyes to tender, fragile life, cocooned in her bed-sheets as she moves toward her end. Harriet and her camera catch the scene and relay it to John the vision-mixer, who transfers it to the screen. Magic! Eric, who plays all the roles in The Mare’s Tale, speaks for the puppet.

The ‘technical rehearsals’, in which all the aspects of production get stitched together, over-ran earlier this week. We’d set aside a day, but in fact needed nearly two, and we’re still not quite done. This often happens. I’ve rarely been at a tech that doesn’t take longer than was set aside for it. The technical elements for The Mare’s Tale are all visual, as the sound balance between actor and ensemble must be done without amplification. The lighting, accomplished last week by our designer Geraint, must be balanced against projected imagery which includes pre-filmed and live-streamed sequences. Moving cameras and their cables must be linked to the desk where Jon, our vision-mixer, conjures his magic. To me, the point from which he operates looks like the flight-deck of the Starship Enterprise reinvented for a steam-punk universe. Electrical cables snake out from this eyrie in a gallery to the right of the stage, umbilicals linking cameras and projectors back to his bank of monitors and laptops. I can’t begin to understand it, but miraculously, it works.

Vision-mixing control desk

From a temporary desk in the auditorium, Gareth is making ‘the book’, the bible into which are plotted all the visual cues for the The Mare’s Tale. It’s Gareth who will be responsible for ‘calling’ the show, which he does through the headsets linking him to lighting, vision-mixing and camera operators.

Left to right: composer, director, dramaturge and stage manager.

Puppeteers Ann and Diana watch Eric on-stage as they await their cues.

Eric on his ‘Expressionist’ tower.

Tomorrow I shall post images of the first orchestra call.

in rehearsals today

Above: Eric plays the scene where two ladies of the village gossip. He is really quite scarily good at this.

Below: The Mari begins to stir under Jane Seyes’ grave. This is just in a working light. The final lighting state will plunge the operators into shadow.

My star puppeteers, Ann (right) and Diana (left), endlessly creative and good humoured.

Below: Hall of Mirrors. Eric on stage and on screen.

third day of rehearsals on The Mare’s Tale…

… and Eric Roberts is off the book and working that set like a mountaineer.

Eric’s wing-men. From left to right: the stage manager, the rehearsal pianist, the director, the dramaturge, the composer and the conductor.