Review: Mags is a melting pot of theatricality

Anna ap Robert in Mags

Emily Garside

Mags is part of a growing – and welcome – trend among bilingual performance pieces where languages mix seamlessly, making the work accessible to all, no matter what their linguistic skills may be.

There are sure to be purists who rail against this trend, but frankly it would be their loss. As Mags demonstrates, working in multiple languages (a sprinkling of Italian also sits alongside Welsh and English) is not just an act of inclusion, but also of creativity.

Mags is about a woman’s search for home. Her tale, crafted by Elgan Rhys, is woven around others’ journeys in life – to find home or something else – and what they encounter on the way. These are told through Mags herself, and delivered via a fusion of theatrical storytelling.

The idea of where home is, the idea of being welcomed seems a fraught one for many of us at the moment, and while Mags looks back across one woman’s life, that question of belonging seems a pertinent and moving one for us all. There’s a clever moment in the show where the narrative is flipped back onto the audience, a pause for reflection that pulls the stories presented into sharper focus.

However, the nature of this storytelling is such that some moments lose a little clarity, especially early on. A few parts of narrative and emotional importance seem to be skimmed over or swallowed up before they’ve truly registered.

It’s a minor point and perhaps one that will naturally be resolved as the piece continues to evolve. There is after all a sense in this ensemble work that it’s more of a living thing than most theatre. A few moments of narrative ‘breath catching’ earlier in the packed hour would perhaps help the audience, and clarify Mags and her story.

Fused spine

While Rhys has crafted an emotionally driven narrative spine, director Gethin Evans has aptly pulled it apart, played with and put it back together to make Mags into a melting pot of theatricality as much as of stories. The language of performance sits alongside spoken words. It is abstract, fusing monologue, fragmented text, dance, movement, direct address and live music.

The close collaboration between writer, director and performers is clear throughout the play. It’s a tightly woven and performed 60-minute piece, that takes on much bigger themes and stories than it can resolve – but this seems to be partially the point. Snapshots and elements of different stories are played out for the audience to consider later, delivered in a theatrically innovative manner.

The design by Cadi Lane, supported by Ceri James on lighting, creates an atmospheric world out of relatively little. Embracing the abstractions of the piece, a single chair, hanging basket and welcome mat create Mags’s home.

When she’s away from home, the physical elements around Mags are fewer and fewer. A plastic sheet creates both a place and a mood. Simple costume props create a person. A phone helps reference the past. A confetti cannon and the right lighting becomes one of the most beautiful stage pictures imaginable. Complimenting the set, costumes of black and white give the company an ‘all and one’ look, while still giving each an element of individuality.  All simple but effective touches.

There’s no denying the power of the story and its telling, particularly as the performance reaches its climax with an emotional punch. Even for audience members unfamiliar or struggling with the approach, it would be near impossible not to be moved by the end.

Much of this is down to the committed performances of the cast. Though it seems disingenuous to pull out individuals from an ensemble, it cannot be denied that Seren Vickers stands out, particularly in the last 15 minutes. Her acting is compelling to watch, and responsible for much of the final emotional resonance.

Mags can be challenging, especially for audiences unused to such approaches. It’s rewarding, but ultimately a piece that never quite settles on a style, and that will frustrate some – but it does serve the narrative. Just as it serves theatre in Wales and beyond to experiment with form in ways that companies are often seemingly afraid to do.

Mags is presented by Cwmni Pleun Company, who are company in residence at Sherman Theatre. It was performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff between November 12-15 2019, 7.30pm before moving to the Cockpit, London and on to Galeri Caernarfon. 

The next performance of Mags will be at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on November 28, 2019.

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Richard Huw Morgan

For a review of what you describe as an ensemble work, it is rather strange that you don’t mention all the cast members. Also, bilingual performance in Wales is nothing new. In the 1980’s and ’90’s Brith Gof’s performances used both languages alongside each other as elements in the creation of their work. It’s a shame the performance history of Wales is poorly documented.