Grief is almost always complex in our culture. The English language doesn’t have the words we need to express how painful loss is, how much we feel for the family members left behind or what it’s like to have love to give to someone who isn’t there to receive it. Taking you through the traditions of a Butetown funeral, National Theatre Wales’ latest production Circle Of Fifths explores art’s role in making up for this lack in our language. It is a celebration of the healing power of music, storytelling, and community.
Once you arrive at the Wales Millennium Centre, you are immediately dropped into a wake’s strange and familiar world. People chatting or standing around awkwardly, unsure where to put themselves; music playing; friends hugging that haven’t seen each other for years. You’re told that this is how all funerals in Butetown start: gathering outside the home of the deceased and catching up with loved ones you haven’t seen in a lifetime.
Once you follow the coffin into Dance House itself, you’re hit with the uncomfortable smell of decay coming from the grass covering the floor of the studio. As you all gather, and you listen to joyous songs intertwined with tragic stories of grief and loss, you’re compelled to consider the bittersweet strangeness of our funeral practices. The celebration of life coupled with the despair of death.
One of the key challenges when creating immersive theatre is allowing the audience into the experiences of the cast – to put them in a place where they are not just seeing but feeling. Gavin Porter’s remarkable piece is not only successful but exemplary in this pursuit. The way you are led, and the space you’re encouraged to take up, not only allows you to feel involved but to feel comfortable laughing with the performers – and to feel safe to cry with them.
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The ensemble has no small part to play in this incredible experience. A collective of actors, musicians, and artists, many of whom work outside of theatre, their rawness and honesty keep the audience feeling engaged, safe, and held throughout. Their stories and performances invite you to sit with your own experiences of loss and create a space for catharsis unlike any I have ever seen in a theatre before.
Wella and Drumtan are forces of nature, whose humour and passion pump the heartbeat of the piece. Kiddus and Bianca Ali’s powerful and evocative lyrics and poetry beautifully express the immensity of loss, and their performances are enthralling. The musical offerings of Rose Beecraft and Francesca Dimech are in equal parts joyous and heartbreaking, demonstrating the powerful role music has in allowing us to express and explore our own hurt. Maureen Blades’ stoic guidance holds the piece together, and her vulnerability is a beautiful and generous experience.
The performances are alive and in the moment, with the cast frequently surprising each other and making each other laugh. This only adds to the sense of shared experience and communal healing that comes from attending Circle Of Fifths – you feel you are part of something real and stark and spiritual.
A testament to the power and talent of working-class artists and the ability of theatre to open pathways to healing, Circle Of Fifths is one of the best works to come from National Theatre Wales in recent years. It proves that inviting non-traditional theatre performers to share in the experience of making theatre is not only valuable to the Welsh arts scene, but it is also essential. No amount of description from me will express the experience of seeing this show. I urge you to see it if you can.
Dance House, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Wed 22 June
On until Sun 26 June. Tickets: £8-£16. Info: here
words HARI BERROW
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