National Theatre Wales present a new musical inspired by cremation pioneer Dr William Price, a radical figure who walked on the wild side of Welshness. Writer Jon Tregenna tells us more.
The subject of a new musical called Hail Cremation!, which premieres this month at Newbridge Memo, has remained a largely neglected figure in Welsh history until now, though he does have a statue in Llantrisant where he lived from 1866 up to his death. Dr William Price (1800-1893) is otherwise known as ‘the father of modern cremation’, but was equally famous in his day for his eccentricities: an outlandish dress sense, militant vegetarianism, his relationship with a woman over 60 years younger than him and employing a cart pulled by goats as his mode of everyday transport.
Perhaps the most famous incident in his life came when his five-month old son died of natural causes, and Price burnt the baby’s body on a hill as nearby chapels emptied one Sunday morning. After being arrested and put on trial, Price successfully argued his case against the prohibition of burning corpses, paving the way for the 1902 Cremation Act. Recently, Robert Downey Jr. revealed that Price – whom he described as a “nutty, neuroid doctor from the 19th century” – was the inspiration behind his (appalling) attempt at a Welsh accent in new film Dolittle. But how did the musical’s writer-composer Jon Tregenna discover this strange and passionate Welshman?
“When I was a kid my parents had a Poems & Pints album which had a song with the chorus ‘I don’t give a bugger what anybody thinks of me,’” says Jon. “The song was written by Meic Stevens and was about Price. In 2014, a mate at Swansea Museum brought some Price artefacts to the Laugharne Weekend. It was then that I saw the ‘green onesie’ picture and needed to know more. I read Dean Powell’s majestic biography on Price, went on a tour of Price’s haunts, and decided that this dazzling yet largely forgotten figure had to be brought back to life.”
Directed by Adele Thomas, Hail Cremation! also features a superb, all-Welsh cast including Matthew Bulgo, Gruffudd Glyn, Lee Mengo and Seren Vickers, as well as dancers Iestyn Arwel, Ella Biddlecombe, Elan Elidyr and Kyle Flaherty. Stephen Black (better known as Welsh indie-folk stylist Sweet Baboo) features in the band performing Tregenna’s music, alongside Tom Cottle, Aidan Thorne and Paul Jones – all of whom will be dressed as goats. But why was psychedelic musical theatre chosen as the best vehicle for Price’s story?
“If Price was alive today, he’d attend Green Man and Glastonbury, and so a rock gig also came [to mind],” he says. “We want to capture his restless, curious spirit through a mix of video art, fabulous costuming and dance: part-carnival, part-concert and part-catwalk show.” With music inspired by The Fall, The Streets and The B-52’s, the resulting production promises to be as strange and feral as the man himself.
There are plenty of reasons why Price’s story is an important one for modern Wales to hear. “Wales is a tad lost,” says Tregenna. “We’ve always been tribal, but recently, the Brexit and Welsh independence debates have really polarised people. So, who are we? What do we want?” Tregenna is reminded of that Welsh word ‘hiraeth’, translating literally as ‘homesickness’ or, as Emyr Humphreys wrote, “a sense of loss for an ancient land.”
“We’re the secret Celtic nation but tend not to make a song and dance about anything, unless we win rugby matches.” As far as Tregenna is concerned, Dr. Price is someone who deserves to have a song and dance made about him – a relic of “a magical, wild, supernatural, trippy Wales that dates from the Mabinogion.” Price, who today would be all over the media as well as the fashion magazines, represents the “charismatic leader” that Wales needs “not just to thrive, but to be glorious.” SAM PRYCE
This production has now been cancelled until further notice. For more info, click here.