Review: Fy Ynys Las is an engaging and deeply personal mix of biography and cartography
If there was going to be anyone who could find a way of creating a piece of site-specific theatre during lockdown or ‘y clo mawr’ it was Eddie Ladd. This extraordinary performer has long married energetic, curiosity-charged physical dance with technology and ‘Fy Ynys Las’, my green island, was no exception. A mapping exercise of the family farm, Maesglas on the rim of the west Wales coast, it was a mash-up of all manner of source material, from images of the venerable beech tree which fell down on the chicken coop during Storm Callum in 2018 through family snaps to very telling drone footage locating the former dairy farm relative to one of its sinister neighbours.
The material for the hour-long piece was marshalled and melded as a live event, with Ladd at the helm of the computer, feeding in a soundtrack by the German hard trance producer Martin Schmidt. At one juncture she allowed the audience members to choose their own tracks from a menu that inlcuded anything from Donna Summer to a song from ‘Frozen.’ She took us backstage at the farm, as it were. We saw her fitness regimes, including following Frank Medrano’s ‘Superhuman Origins’ callisthenics regime in the milking parlour, using buckets full of soil in lieu of dumbells and doing the sort of pressups that only members of the marine corps usually enjoy. This provided the sort of intimate, sensory detail you simply don’t get on maps. Ladd explained that sometimes she might pause during the exercises to look up and note the two cup-shaped nests of swallows on the rafters. Or, pressing her nose to the ground, she could smell the sharp tang of ammonia, not just from decades of dairy cattle but also from people going there to pee when the bathroom in the house was occupied.
The map of Maesglas turned out to be many-layered, with palimpsests of the past laid on top of one another, as we were taken through a small back catalogue of shows that had been rehearsed or indeed performed there, such as ‘Scarface’ which aped Al Pacino’s performance as the crazy coked-up gangster in the movie or ‘Ras Goffa Bobby Sands’ (the Bobby Sands memorial race) staged on a large scale running machine, or saw video clips from the days when Ladd presented an alternative music show called ‘Fideo Naw’ on S4C.
‘Fy Ynys Las’ also provided a brief but poignant history of the farm, peeling back the layers of recent time. We saw the farmyard’s surfaces change from being impacted stone and earth to fresh tarmac and cement before fracturing through until it finally had to be resurfaced to cope with the milk tankers that replaced the collection of churns. We saw the old kitchen and the new one after the central heating was installed. And most tenderly we saw the daughter and mother repairing the clothesline, the 83-year-old mother turning cameraman to record the process, providing a nervous commentary even as she watched her daughter climb up to hook one end into place.
They don’t maintain a dairy herd at Maesglas anymore – farming simply doesn’t play – and their land is used by their neighbour Phil, Rhosygadair Fowr, who explained succinctly to camera the rigours of farming. He’s been getting up at half past three in the morning these past years to milk his herd of 350 cows: nowadays he had to do all this and deal with the savage irony of a pint of beer costing five pounds when he gets a mere 15 pence for his milk.
These serious matters were leavened with judicious use of humour, not least the self-deprecating use of the word ‘hambone’ to describe herself, a term used to describe a rustic type in west Wales.
There were also big questions in play as Ladd worried about what would happen to her if she got Covid 19, especially as she had a weak chest. But also she asked what the future holds for performers like her? Part of the answer was inherent in the show itself, as it was made possible by a scheme organised by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, National Theatre Wales and BBC Arts to support artists during the crisis. But that is still only a stop-gap measure and the question remains.
It was intriguing to try to anticipate how this tour of a farm five miles outside the town of Cardigan could edge towards anything like a climax but the final section was a telling splicing together of two local features – Blaenannerch chapel which witnessed an epiphanic visit by the firebrand preacher Evan Roberts during the 1904 religious revival and the West Wales Airport, from which Watchkeeper WK 450 drones fly off to survey places as far afield as Palestine and sometimes observed by visitors from Israel.
The interplay between the peace-endorsing Christian evangelist and the war-enabling drones was further encouraged by replaying footage of a performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ in a chapel in 2016. In an event orchestrated by Ladd as part of the National Eisteddfod’s visit to the town, the choir sang on even as a noisy radio-controlled drone horneted down from the chapel ceiling.
The final shot of ‘Fy Ynys Las,’ continued the theme, appropriately enough, with a drone shot of Eddie Ladd walking away along the farm’s yard, diminishing in size but most certainly undiminished in her artistry, as this engaging and deeply personal mix of biography and cartography amply proved.