Tales for a Winter’s Night

Company Name: Welfare State International

Tales for a Winter’s Night is a winter partner to the summer piece Island of the Lost World. Developing their line of intimate work, Welfare State have spent the winter months in residence at Wath-on-Dearne, Norwich, Basildon, and the North-West, with a new show whose title itself carries its own seasonal charge – tales touched with that ancient, half-forgotten winter magic that today has sanction to appear only from beneath the skirt of Christian and Commercial festivals like Christmas. These are stories that celebrate Winter values – warmth in the teeth of gales, shared hospitality at a time of scarcity and separation, the joyful paradox of new birth and possibilities at a barren time.

… Soon, there was a hammering all around the shed walls and a troupe of animated scarecrows burst in, full of wild and comic glee, to begin the entertainment with a traditional Mummering play. The stories and tales ranged from comic monologues (including a hilarious piece of Lancashire story-telling about an ambulance driver’s package tour to Transylvania) to a free adaptation of a piece of Ghelderode, full of grave and bitter poetry. Since many of the tales deal with the old themes of innocence born amidst dark intertime fears, it is fitting that children should be in them. They appear as emblems of hope and innocence … In one strange little story, St Nicholas appears to tell three children ‘This year there are no toys’. His Christmas gift to them is the warning that Earth is soon to end, and he gives them the plan of a craft ‘which may help you survive in the story@’ The children lay the plan in the woodchips, examine it, and then begin to fetch in the components of the craft. Logically, it has to be a spacecraft, mythically, it should be a boat or an ark. But it is Winter, so what the children build looks something like a sleigh and yet spacecraft, ark and sleigh are all contained in the one image. Solemn and alert for the journey the children climb aboard in a pool of light. Their journey through space, lit by two candles, is plagued by huge spirits who cause lighting to flash and thunder to roll. Suddenly, the candles are blown out. As the lights go up, the craft is seen to be in pieces and the children prone in the sawdust. It is a curiously ambiguous ending. As the spirits sand a dour song, the children crawled off perhaps having landed on a new earth, or having met disintegration and death in space.

The dove-tailing of unsentimental, even bleak, incident with a lightness of narrative style is a quality of many folk art forms and Welfare State have made it their forte. It is ‘mock-primitive’ because it is put together with obvious care and a relaxing sense of calculation. The result is not twee or self-conscious because every element in the presentation is thought out from first principles and made with a Craftman’s care. This applies to music and language as much as to props and costumes, and the show’s last ‘turn’ provides clear proof of the claim. Adapted from a Sunday Express story, no less, it tells of two families who have been feuding for hundreds  of years about a disputed tree. Finally, a young man from one side gets it together with a young lady from the other and the parents reluctantly allow the wedding to take place. On the wedding night, the honeymoon cottage in the forest catches fire and the lovers burn to death. From this horrible little story is woven a theatre piece that affirms life and joy, despite the suffering humans, like the lovers, are prone to. The coup here is to cast two children as the lovers. Their respective families are represented by two adults in grotesque bird costumes, who cluck and claw at each other for possession of the fruit tree that divides them (ably personated by a chap in a tree costume clutching two pineapple ice-buckets), gradually escalating their absurd quarrel through rotund insults – ‘You are the rind of a dead dog’s eye!’ … ‘You are the scum of giblet pie’ – into mutual and fatal strangulation. All the while, Tree watches impotently. ‘As a tree I have seen them come and go/Families of men have trod on my rots/And shaken my fruit to the groupd’. At the point of apparent resignation, he clutches at hope. ‘Fate plays tricks that we cannot fathom … ‘Their seed has gone astray/ Whilst the seed of another in a stable, in a desert/Bore the fruit that exists today.’ Then the two child-lovers solemnly re-enter, still in their wedding clothes but with faces covered by skull masks, and they dance. The story and the show conclude with a majestic setting by Mike Westbrook of Blake, ‘I see thy form, O lovely mild Jerusalem.’ It is a celebration of Utopia and Universal Love, but released from any taint of pretension or overstatement by the rough-textured story-telling which it concludes, and by the quirky orchestration – reedy saxophones and a guitar, played by the whole cast.

The work of Welfare State is not without lapses. Occasionally sheer energy outstrips  and smothers the material. This happened at moments in the Mumming Play at the opening. However, what Welfare State give to their audiences is something playful and strange, rich and humane, and that is a mixture of qualities that is offered nowhere else in today’s theatre. Alternative or otherwise.’

Tony Coult  Tales for a Winter’s Night Review

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