A Life in Theatre & Television Design
Where possible I have given photo credits. For those I have over looked I hope I have not given offence. Most of the rehearsal photos are my own taken with a simple point and shoot camera.
Web site created by Martin Morley using Serif WebPlus X8 Updated: September 2018
In the two previous ‘Musings’ I have dealt with the early part of my career, while I worked in regular building based repertory theatres. This was the conventional route for most graduating from a theatre design course in the 1969s-
During the summer of 1972, while I was still Head of Design at the Liverpool Playhouse, the theatre received a phone call from Cwmni Theatr Cymru (Welsh Language Theatre Company) enquiring whether a designer was available to design ‘Pethe Brau’ (The Glass Menagerie’) for the National Eisteddfod being held at Haverfordwest. As it coincided with my summer break I said yes. It seemed like a good idea and a chance to make new contacts and as ‘Pethe Brau’ could be read in English I saw no problem, and as a play it was a joy to design. I had no idea it would change my life.
I was unaware of the company except for the fact that on a Monday they had toured to the Liverpool Playhouse and performed a Welsh translation of Moliere’s ‘La Malade Imaginaire’ to a packed house.. In spite of Liverpool being close to the Welsh border I had only a scant knowledge of Welsh culture.
At the time it was the only fully professional Welsh Language Theatre company and its brief was to tour plays from a very broad repertoire to all areas of Wales where the Welsh language flourished. There was no long tradition of professional theatre in Wales and it has been a rocky road developing one. The scene has changed out of all recognition between the 1970s and now but what has not changed is, as centres of the Welsh Language are scattered and often in rural areas, touring is the only option for any company working in the language and this of course has a huge impact on how shows are staged.
Theatr Cymru started life as an arm of the Cardiff based English language Welsh Theatre Company and shared workshops and technical facilities with them. This was to change in 1973 when it acquired a disused chapel in Bangor to use as its own technical base and it became fully independent. As there were no purpose built theatres then in centres of Welsh speaking communities all designs had to be accommodated in various school and village halls.
The venue for ‘Pethe Brau’ was the Haverfordwest comprehensive school:-
With the design approved and the drawings done I went to meet the cast and stage management and set the project in motion. I returned to Liverpool and left them to it for a couple of weeks. When I returned the set was beautifully built and set up and just waiting for me to render it.
The small scale meant that it could easily relate to the cast without the massive distortions of scale that can easily occur on a main stage. The technical weekend was good and the performances excellent and I went away feeling that I had done good work with good people in surroundings where people take holidays. I thought no more about it and went back to three weekly rep, which I enjoyed when it worked but could find very draining when it didn’t. The model of ‘Pethe Brau’ still exists and even after more than 30 years I do not feel ashamed of it. I can’t always say that.
This brief encounter was followed in the Spring with another offer to design for them: this time a Welsh language play with no English translation: John Gwilym Jones’ play ‘Y Tad a’r Mab’ (The Father and Mother). Now this was a different challenge – to design a play in a language I could not understand. I was probably given an English synopsis, but mainly I relied on talking to the director: Nesta Harris. This of course involved a great amount of trust but I do not remember that being difficult to establish and it is something I came to rely on a great deal when I went full-
There was sufficient space within the Tabernacle to build, paint and pre-
In 1974 Theatr Gwynedd opened, the first of the chain of medium sized theatres built in Wales. It was quickly followed by Theatr Clwyd in Mold, Theatr y Werin in Aberystwyth, Theatr Sherman in Cardiff and Theatr Ardudwy in Harlech. They went some way to bringing theatre provision in Wales into the 20th century, but as there were still strong Welsh speaking areas outside their catchment, it was still necessary to include some of the smaller venues in the tours, and this of course had a profound effect on the way that productions could utilise the new buildings. The acting space could be enlarged but the most obvious technical feature, the fly tower had to be more or less ignored, which was frustrating. The most common design solution I adopted was the ‘island’ set. This would fit in all locations without major modification, and scene changes relied on internal structures within the design. The differing scales of the locations meant the way the set was perceived could vary enormously between the smaller stages where it might dominate to the larger ones where it would recede.
About 9 productions were mounted each year, and there were a number that really stood out, and during the seventies there was real energy in the company. Every year there was Welsh pantomime, which although following many traditions took their starting point from Welsh mythology rather than the Brothers Grimm, and also there was strong strand of young people’s theatre – Theatr Plant.
The problem of a broad repertoire, which is common to all theatres that follow such a policy, is that inevitably some work is given more emphasis and enthusiasm than another. It must also be born in mind that the company had no long tradition of professional theatre to draw on. Most of the previously written plays in the Welsh language had emerged from a strong amateur movement or from broadcast medium; consequently there was a feeling of being in the shadow of England. There was much discussion and not a little internal dissent about what direction the company should take and to satisfy the demands for a more progressive policy, Theatr Antur (literally Adventure Theatre) was established as a separate entity within the company to produce productions of a more experimental nature that were at the same time closer to the grassroots. Eventually this broke away to form Theatr Bara Caws which is still flourishing to-
David Lyn did three notable productions in the mainstream apart from ‘Pethe Brau’: ‘Y Twr’ (The Tower) by Gwenlyn Parry, ‘Esther’ by Saunders Lewis, and Bernard Evans ‘Syrcas’ (Circus) To each he brought a fresh and theatrical vision. Working on ‘Esther’ is one of the enduring highlights of my career. I had started designing the play in traditional fashion. It is a Biblical story and a literal reading of the stage directions would result in a sub Cecil B de Mille style production, which in our hearts neither of us wanted. I had sent David some drawings in this manner which he used as note-
Working on these productions with regular casts and very talented technical crew built a genuine company spirit which lasted over a considerable length of time, but inevitably in the end cracks appeared and a certain lethargy set in which led to a quick decline. The birth of S4C, (the Welsh 4th Channel) also had a profound effect as now there was an abundance of well paid work that theatre companies found it very hard to match. For the last two years of the company’s existence, 1982–83, Theatr Cymru was led by Emily Davies, assisted by Ceri Sherlock. Ceri Sherlock’s re-
|Pre college years|
|Wimbledon School of Art & Richard Negri|
|Musing of a Jobbing Designer|
|Musing of a Jobbing designer 2|
|Musing of a Jobbing Designer 3|
|Musings of a Jobbing Designer 4|
|Where I am now|
|Hwyl a Fflag and after|
|Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru|
|Daughter in Law review|
|Theatr Cymru playlist|
|Theatr Gwynedd playlist|
|Theatr Gwynedd reviews|
|Theatr Genedlaethol reviews|
|Jeus Sans Frontiers|