Tag Archives: The Mabinogion

Adaptations, reinventions, and renewals at The Hours Bookshop, Brecon Feb 26 2015

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Kaite O’Reilly: A Talk on adaptations, reinventions, renewals…

I will be giving a talk at the splendid The Hours Bookshop and Cafe, 15, Ship Street, Brecon, on Feb 26 at 4.30pm.

This free talk on adaptations, reinventions and renewals is in association with the performance of my production Playing The Maids at Theatr Brycheiniog, Canal Wharf, Brecon, that evening, 26th February at 8pm.

Over my career, I have reinvented many received stories. This informal talk will include how I approached Aeschylus’s ‘Persians’ for National Theatre Wales in 2010, for which I received the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry, to’Woman of Flowers’, my gritty retelling of the myth of Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogian,  to ‘Playing The Maids’, an international collaboration of new performance work in the age of austerity inspired by Genet’s play of class power dynamics…

Where to begin? What are the pitfalls? Is a story ever truly ours, or just passed down to the next generation?

The work inspired by Genet’s ‘The Maids’ is an international intercultural collaboration between The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash (Ireland) and Theatre P’Yut (Korea), touring Wales 19th Feb – 6 March 2015.

‘…total imaginative engagement… a frontier of experimental work..’ (Echo on preview of ‘Playing The Maids’ at Cork Midsummer Festival 2014)

‘..a complex, multi-layered work… richly gorgeous stuff…’   (Jon Gower on ‘Playing the Maids’ preview)

My talk at 4.30pm at The Hours Bookshop and Cafe coincides with the extension of an exhibition there. Leigh and Nicky of The Hours wrote:

‘Blodeuwedd’ is Artist Toose Morton’s response to the tale we gave her from ‘The Mabinogion’ with which to conjure an exhibition of new work. And that she has. A wonderful fusion of Life Drawing, Painting and Sculpture the exhibition can be seen (and indeed works purchased) in our little upstairs gallery until February end. You can read more about Toose and her work here: https://www.facebook.com/Toosemortonart

http://the-hours.co.uk/

 

Reinventing old stories, making the ancient contemporary

Sophie Stone in 'Woman of Flowers' by Kaite O'Reilly

Sophie Stone in ‘Woman of Flowers’ by Kaite O’Reilly

How do we take old stories and make them new, and relevant to our time?

We know (or we should know) there is no such thing as ‘original’ – the same plots have been going around for millennia (there’s only seven plots, apparently). I’m pretty sure the average soap opera concerns the same things ancient Greeks sat down to watch thousands of years ago – and I would like to include Chinese historical soaps in this, for they also cover warring dynasties and great battles.

Human beings are endlessly fascinated with other human beings. We gain great pleasure from watching ordinary people deal with extraordinary situations and grow, change, learn new skills, succeed, fail… We root for the underdog, we fair-minded gentle folk secretly love the dastardly ‘baddie’ – we project ourselves onto the protagonist, identifying with her, breathing with her. We have such an appetite for narrative it is extraordinary we never use all the possibilities up… Which brings me to reinvention, and finding perspectives pertinent for our times.

We know that Shakespeare used many received stories, and that the ancient Greek playwrights consistently revisited the same store of deities, symbolic figures, and conflicts. Today, adaptations of existing work are immensely popular. A glance at the mainstream London theatre scene for this week alone throws up reinventions of The 39 StepsThe Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare in Love and Ostermier’s participatory An Enemy of the People. I saw this update of Ibsen at the Schaubühne in Berlin two years ago, filled with cover versions of Bowie’s ‘Ch-ch-ch-changes’ done with acoustic guitar, live on stage. I don’t feel Ostermier succeeded fully in making the piece contemporary, but it was a bold move, and one that’s proved popular.

So how do we make the old new, with resonance for the times we inhabit? I ask this question often in my work. Over the past few years I’ve been involved in exactly this – reinventing existing texts and stories. My version of Aeschylus’s Persians for Mike Pearson’s 2010 site-specific production on MOD land for National Theatre Wales won the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry, and my latest play, currently touring, is a reworking of the the myth of Blodeuwedd from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion.

For me, the first stage is obsession. It’s all very well deciding to update an existing work, but if something about that story doesn’t grab you by the ears and pull you face-first into the narrative, don’t even consider starting.

I’ve been obsessed with Blodeuwedd for years, ever since I first moved to Wales and discovered the ancient text. It is fascinating and compelling: the woman of flowers made to be wife to a man cursed by his mother; the woman made to serve, who discovers desire and plots to have her way; the unnatural creature reared in nature red in tooth and claw, transformed into an owl as punishment for her transgressions… I could write many other versions of the story from different perspectives, which is what makes ancient texts so rewarding to work with. In my reworking of this myth in a commission from Kirstie Davis from Forest Forge, I had to settle on one approach, and one which I felt would have resonance to the times we inhabit.

The second stage is to find the angle that reverberates with current events. Without giving the game away too much, for me approaching Woman of Flowers, this involves the rise of all kinds of fundamentalism, and the corresponding belief systems, creation stories and values made through rhetoric and words. In the original, Blodeuwedd is made by Gwydion, the greatest living storyteller, from the flowers of the forest. I wanted to explore the power of language in this retelling, especially as we use visual language (theatricalised sign) as well and spoken and captioned English in the production.

I have also been very concerned with the rise of modern slavery – disturbing stories in the media of intolerable working conditions (the recent SOS written on clothes labels for Primark), and people kept against their will and treated as slave labour (a case most recently on a farm in Wales).

A further stage when remaking is to respect the original, but not to be strait-jacketed by it. As writers, we need to be free to work with the material as we see fit, but not to be directed into a dead-end by details, nor be imaginatively contained. I’ve had to shake off many ‘I really should…’ compulsions, ‘but the original…’ doubts. The aim is to have integrity in the handling of the material and its original elements, and to respect it, but not be dominated by it. We sometimes have to work against the authority of the text in order to find new ways of saying old things.

woman_of_flowers-96x148-1The text Woman of Flowers has been published by Aurora Metro and available at performances as well as here

The Forest Forge Theatre Company production opened in September and continues to tour nationally until November 1st 2014. Full tour details with links here and below.

Woman of Flowers tour

October 2014

Tue 14 19.30 Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, PO30 5BW 01983 822490

Wed 15 20.00 Brixham Theatre, Devon, TQ5 8TA 01803 882717

Sat 18 19.30 West Stafford Village Hall, Dorset, DT2 8AG 01305 261984

Tue 21 19.30 Ibsley Village Hall, Hampshire, BH24 3NL 01425 473065

Thu 23 20:00 Lighthouse Poole’s Centre for the Arts, Poole, BH15 1UG             O844 406 8666 BSL interpreted show

Fri 24 19:30 Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset, DT6 3NR 01308 424204

Sat 25 20:00 Dorchester Arts Centre,Dorset, DT1 1XR 01305 266926

Tue 28 19:30 Mere Lecture Hall,Wiltshire, BA12 6HA O1747 860163

Wed 29 19:30 Aberystwyth Arts Centre,Wales, SY23 3DE 01970 62 32 32

Thu 30 19:30 The Spring, Havant, PO9 1BS 023 9247 2700

November 2014

Sat 1 November 19.30 Greyfriars Community Centre, Ringwood, BH24 1DW 01425 472613

 

The spaces in between words… ‘Woman of Flowers’ published and reviewed

‘I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’      Thornton Wilder

Sophie Stone in Forest Forge's 'Woman of Flowers' by Kaite O'Reilly. Photo copyright Lucy Sewill.

Sophie Stone in Forest Forge’s ‘Woman of Flowers’ by Kaite O’Reilly. Photo copyright Lucy Sewill.

I’m grateful that the difficult story I was trying to tell in my latest play, ‘Woman of Flowers’ seems to be communicating, and getting great responses. A reinvention of the myth of Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogion, it asks questions about our origins, and our duties, and how to deal with issues of autonomy and desire.

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Blodeuwedd for more years than I care to count. It can be endlessly reinvented, and interpreted through so many different prisms: The ‘perfect’ woman, made from flowers of the forest to be wife to a man cursed by his own mother… The ancient fear of awakened female sexuality and appetite… The amorality of one reared in nature, red in tooth and claw… The politics and rhetoric of belief systems, of honour revenge, of punishment…

I sought to explore this universe created solely by words in visual language, working with Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone in theatricalised sign as well as spoken and projected language. This collaboration between Deaf and hearing cultures has been warmly received by both signing and non-signing audiences, a rare occurrence, and one I feel particularly proud of, and grateful to Jean and Sophie for their willingness to experiment with me.

I was really touched by the thoughtfulness of this recent review:

THE spaces in between the words we say and our thoughts are explored with poetic beauty in Woman Of Flowers, a powerful contemporary reworking of one of the ancient Celtic myths contained in the Welsh treasury known as The Mabinogion

Written by Kaite O’Reilly for the supremely versatile deaf actress Sophie Stone, Woman Of Flowers is at one level a story of duty, desire and revenge, but it operates at many different levels – who are we and where do we come from, how do we reconcile the apparent facts of our life with what we don’t know, what is a woman, what is love, what happens when you want a different life from the one chosen for you?

Rose cannot remember what came before the house at the edge of the isolated forest. Farmer Gwynne says he magicked her out of the flowers, and he doesn’t want her to know anything about the world outside. He has chosen her for his nephew Lewis, but Lewis is ignorant, little better than an animal himself. He has no imagination and he cares nothing of the world beyond the forest.

Rose plays her part, whatever Lewis wants, whatever Gwynne wants, she gathers the eggs and kills the chickens, she cooks, she scrubs their backs, she obeys Lewis’s demands, she takes off their dirty farm boots and cleans them.

She is a little more than a servant and she seems to accept her existence – but inside her head she asks questions, she sees things, she imagines another life, she questions who she is.

Using what is described as “theatricalised sign language” Sophie Stone communicates powerfully with the audience – she is by turns a bird, a flower, a beautiful woman, a witch …

Then a stranger comes to the forest. He shows Rose the birds and the trees, he tells her about the owls, he tells her the story of Athene Noctua, the little owl.

The production, directed by Kirstie Davis, Forest Forge’s artistic director, uses live music, dance and surtitles (for both the spoken and the signed dialogue and Rose’s thoughts).

The action revolves, indeed it dances, around Sophie Stone who is on stage for virtually the whole performance. She is a compelling performer and her choreographed movement takes us into her consciousness, into the heart of darkness of the forest and above the trees to the mysterious world of the owls.

Lewis is played by Tom Brownlee. Pete Ashmore is the violinist and plays Graham, the scientist who comes into the forest. Forest Forge regular Andrew Wheaton plays Gwynne, a man who hovers on a strange border between brutal and kind – what does he know about Rose’s background, is he protecting her or did he kidnap her as a child to be their slave?

As you leave the theatre or village hall, the poetic words and the beautiful images of Woman Of Flowers will stay with you.

The production is on tour throughout October, including dates at the Victoria Rooms, Fordingbridge (Saturday 11th October), West Stafford village hall (18th), Ibsley village hall (21st), Poole Lighthouse (23rd), Bridport Arts Centre (24th), Dorchester Arts Centre (25th), Mere Lecture Hall (28th) and finally at Greyfriars Community Centre, Ringwood, on 1st November.

FC http://www.theftr.co.uk/woman-of-flowers-forest-forge-salisbury-arts-centre-and-on-tour/

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The script is published as a programme with full play text by Aurora Metro, available at performances during the national tour and also here 

 

Woman of Flowers – from seed to bloom

Woman of Flowers

Woman of Flowers

In 2012, when director Kirstie Davis came to see my cultural Olympiad project with National Theatre Wales, ‘In Water I’m Weightless’, we sat and plotted in the  bar afterwards. Kirstie had directed my play ‘peeling’ for Forest Forge theatre company the year before, and we were keen to work together again. Asking me what ideas I had to make a new work if she was to commission me, I waxed on about an ancient story which had fascinated me for years – the story of Blodeuwedd, Woman of Flowers, from the fourth branch of the ancient Welsh treasure The Mabinogion.

Playwrights reworking old stories is not new. Many of Shakespeare’s plots came from received stories, and adaptations and reinventions of existing works is still very popular. One of the things that attracted me to Blodeuwedd was the capacity for the themes in the original to be reinterpreted with resonance for our times.

So in 2012 in the bar of the Wales Millennium Centre, I talked of a tale of duty and desire, of the power of words to create belief systems, and what happens if someone challenges the life already chosen for them – and the reinvention began to emerge. Kirstie and I already had an idea of who should play this transformative woman of flowers – Sophie Stone, one of the cast of ‘In Water…’, who had mesmerised us both with her charismatic performance.

And here we are in 2014, about to open at the Pleasance theatre in London on Monday, and embark on a national tour… Sophie is indeed in the piece, and as gripping in performance as Kirstie and I had hoped – and it’s not just us thinking that; the twitter response to our previews last week have been outstanding and encouraging for the wider reception of the production.

I’m giving a talk at Exeter University on 1st October when the production is at The Bike Shed Theatre (details here ) and this story will be one I will tell about how theatre happens. It is about building relationships with allies and dreaming ideal productions and cast, then plotting and scheming and working immensely hard to make it a reality…

We all know about the negative impact funding cuts are having on the arts; it always seems a small miracle to me that despite the odds people still insist on being creative, and inviting others to sample, to dream, think and enjoy… We need the arts, and we need strong audiences. Whether it’s Woman of Flowers, or an exhibition at your local art gallery, or any live music, poetry, spoken word event or theatre performance occurring in your vicinity – like the Fun Palaces weekend 4th-5th October – do your best to support them. Keep the work alive.

 

 

Making language visual

Turning written text into visual, physical language – transforming words on the page into signs and gestures that take flight….  I love working with Jean St Clair. In her London apartment this week, I worked with her and Sophie Stone, transforming written text from my new play Woman of Flowers into flowing, beautiful visual language.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback

Although I’ve been working with Jean now for a dozen years on translation and recreating English text into theatricalised sign, I always feel very privileged to be part of the process. We last worked together on Forest Forge’s production of my play peeling, also directed by Kirstie Davis. It’s wonderful to have Jean as our creative sign director.

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I send her the speeches from my play which we want physicalised in advance and then Jean asks me questions about my meaning, intention, and preferred aesthetic via email or text. When we gather, she will have already explored possibilities, but will always be led by the performer – in this case Sophie Stone, who will be performing the part in the Forest Forge production when Woman of Flowers tours the UK in the Autumn.

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Woman of Flowers is a new play, inspired by elements of the ancient Welsh treasure, The Mabinogion. I’ve been obsessed by the story of Bloudewydd for many years, since I moved to Wales to live.

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The story tells of a female ostensibly made from the flowers of the oak and trees in the forest to be companion to a young man cursed by his mother never to have ‘a woman of our race.’ Quite what this ‘ideal’ woman might be has enthralled and perplexed me for years. I explored the notion of  computer generated avatars in Perfect, a piece I made with John McGrath and Paul Clay ten years ago at Contact Theatre, and which won the Manchester Evening News best play of 2004.

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on 'Woman of Flowers'

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on ‘Woman of Flowers’

Woman of Flowers, commissioned by Forest Forge and directed by Kirstie Davis, will be very different. A mixture of prosaic everyday dialogue in spoken English, and the poetic inner thoughts of Rose (played by Sophie) using theatricalised sign, will hopefully be visually stunning and emotionally effecting.

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Our rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse earlier in the month left some of the invited audience in tears. Many spoke afterwards of the lyrical nature of Sophie’s spoken and signed language, mentored and polished by Jean’s experienced eye.

I have asked Jean and Sophie if they will guest blog about their process, working between spoken and signed language, between Deaf and hearing cultures. They have agreed, and I can’t wait to share more of this part of the creative process, which is often invisible, hidden from view.

Tour details: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers 

New beginnings and first drafts…. and in praise of rural touring…

Woman of Flowers. Kaite O'Reilly for Forest Forge Theatre Company

Woman of Flowers. Kaite O’Reilly for Forest Forge Theatre Company

As the new year approaches, I have a new project: a commission from Forest Forge to write a play for their 2014 national tour.

I first worked with Forest Forge theatre company in 2011, when the artistic director, Kirstie Davies, had the inspired idea of producing my play ‘peeling’ and then touring it to village halls in rural areas. ‘peeling’ is a metatheatrical exploration of acting, eugenics, soup recipes, disability and Deaf politics and ‘The Trojen Women’, performed by one Deaf and two disabled performers across a variety of theatre languages… It’s a set text at various universities in Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the world for its radical politics and experimental form.

What I love about Forest Forge and Kirstie’s vision is alongside their national touring, they bring plays into the heart of a rural community – places often overlooked for cultural provision, many miles from building-based theatres and arts centres. What I particularly love is Kirstie’s decision to bring what might be perceived as ‘difficult’, or challenging plays. She doesn’t patronise her audience and well understands how people living outside cities have as broad a taste as those living within, and have just as strong a desire to see ‘edgy’ work. I’m always frustrated by the capital’s assumption that the ‘important’ work happens in the city, when with companies like Knee High, and the National Theatres of Wales and Scotland, some of the most innovative and risk-taking work has been taking place for years very far from the metropolis.

There is also an assumption I’ve come across in city-based theatre circles that rural audiences are somehow less adventurous or ‘able’ for work that pushes the boundaries. As a theatre maker, and someone who lives rurally, I couldn’t disagree more. Back in 2011, when I visited the production when it was touring, performers Ali Briggs, Kiruna Stamell and Nickie Miles-Wildin all spoke of the astonishing response to the work from the audience.  Roger Finn, an audience member wrote on the Forest Forge website: This is what I want from theatre – to be taken into new territories; to experience deep, human contact; to have my brain tickled and to discover new places in my heart. A true joy to go on this bold adventure. http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/peeling

As a playwright, and as someone who lives an hour’s drive from the nearest ‘cultural centre’, it feels a real privilege for my work to be brought to the audience in their communities – but we really need to challenge the assumption the edgy or important work happens only in cities.

And so to my burgeoning new play, set far from a city, on the edge of a forest… Woman of Flowers is inspired by the story of Blodeuwedd, from the ancient Welsh treasure The Mabinogion – a story I have known for decades, since before moving to live in Wales, and one which has captured my imagination.

I’m only starting out on this process, but the script won’t be an adaptation of this great classic, I’ll simply be taking themes and ideas from the original and try to give it a contemporary twist. So far my Woman of Flowers is a stylised telling of desire, duty, adultery, murder and revenge set in an isolated, rural household on the edge of a forest. The production will be presented in spoken and projected English with theatricalised British Sign Language. I will write about the process when the work is sturdy enough to bring into the public gaze, so until then… Good luck with all your writing and creativity….