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Gododdin: Video

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Gododdin: the past in the present

It begins with a fragment of poetry.

Gwyr a aeth Gatraeth gan wawr ...
Men went to Catraeth with the dawn,

Their fears disturbed their peace,
A hundred thousand fought three hundred
Bloodily they stained spears,
His was the bravest station in battle,
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mzvynfawr.

(From Y Gododdin, Jarman 1988)

Y Gododdin is one of the earliest surviving examples of Welsh poetry, transcribed in the twelfth century but commemorating an event in the sixth: an elegy for slain heroes and a eulogy of their excellence and bravery as fighting men.

The land of the Gododdin (the Votadini of the Romans) lay around, and to the south of, Edinburgh in Scotland. Sometime towards the end of the sixth-century AD, a small warrior-band mounted one last, suicidal attack from that region against the Anglo-Saxons who were already consolidating their occupation of much of present-day England, in the period of upheaval, contest and reorientation that followed the collapse of the Roman world. Fuelled by heavy drinking, three hundred met one hundred thousand in battle near Catterick in North Yorkshire. Inevitably they were slaughtered almost to a man. One of the few survivors was the poet Aneirin himself. His hundred stanzas celebrate the heroic disaster: the Gododdin and their exploits are remembered in this one epic.

Y Gododdin wears the aspect of a genuine relic of a long forgotten strife, a massive boulder left high on its rocky perch by an icy stream which has long since melted away.

(Brith Gof: Gododdin programme notes)

The language of the court of the Gododdin chieftain Mynyddog Mwynfawr was a form of proto-Welsh known as Brythonic spoken at that time down the western seaboard of Britain: a shared ancestry meant that the Gododdin could call upon brethren from Wales to join their cause. Y Gododdin records the assembly of warriors, a year of riotous preparation and training and the final, fateful conflict. But there is no linear narrative here. Instead the sequence of events is revealed in a fragmentary manner, as the exploits of individual heroes and groups of fighters are lauded and extolled. Whilst tonally familiar, much of this remains elusive and obscure to the modern Welsh ear.

Performance as political theatre

The decision to make a performance based on Y Gododdin came at the conclusion of a long series of productions, collaborations and training schemes organised by Brith Gof and based upon the theatrical animation of Francisco Goya's eighty etchings The Disasters of War and their captions (see Goya 1967). Thirteen major pieces of work, staged from Norway to Hong Kong, were inspired by the same graphic source. Gododdin was to be the penultimate manifestation. But the impetus to create the performance came with the darkest days of'Thatcherism', a time when Margaret Thatcher herself proclaimed society dead. We had long harboured a desire to work with Test Dept, a group of industrial percussionists - 'a skinhead gamelan' - with several Scots members, whose own spectacular performances and collaborations - with such unlikely partners as the South Wales Miners Choir - had marked them as amongst the few authentic voices of artistic dissent and opposition. But together we resisted the temptation to create a didactic and hectoring piece of agit-prop theatre. Neither did we want to make some 'period' dramatisation of Y Gododdin with the music as a kind of congruent backing for the events of the epic. Of course, the metaphorical implications of the poem were self-evident. But in deciding to create a large-scale work, at the limits of our ability to achieve it both technically and physically, we aimed to echo the folly of the Gododdin, the small struggling with the impossibly greater. We wanted to constitute political theatre as sophistication and complexity, elaborating dramatic material and detail in all available media simultaneously, to work with the friction between the sensibilities and procedures of theatre and rock music and with anachronism.

Defeat is never to be cherished, but the glorious rendering of their account against
an infinitely stronger enemy lessens the smugness of victory and lends dignity to
the vanquished. Culture then and now becomes a tool for survival. History brought
alive through the power of a performance, no matter how times have
changed. Today the wealthy invade for personal and political gain. Yet after thirteen
hundred years there is nothing marginal about the issues at stake. The right to self
determination, the growth and celebration of native language, looking back further
than thirty years of 'pop culture', making huge visions concrete and breathing life
back into characters who, like so many, were destroyed when a race first began to
flex their colonial muscles.

(Brith Gof: Gododdin, Test Dept in programme notes)

Gododdin was conceived, constructed and initially presented - for three nights late in December 1998 - in the engine-shop of the enormous, disused Rover car factory in Cardiff, itself a potent symbol of economic decline and industrial decay. The production included fragments of the poem sung and spoken in Brythonic and English within the musical spectrum; a highly amplified instrumental soundtrack played live and on tape; dynamic physical action which made no attempt to tell the story of what is, after all, an elegy and a scenography which 'brought the outside inside', an arrangement of hundreds of tons of sand, dozens of trees and wrecked cars, and thousands of gallons of water, the latter of which gradually flooded the performing area during the performance. Dramatic material was generated and manipulated in each of the constituent media, as libretto, as musical composition, as choreography, as architecture.

The dramatic elements were written, composed and developed in relative isolation in order to reach their fullest, unmediated potential and only then combined at a date late in the rehearsal process. To function successfully this required two working principles: the establishment of an agreed dramatic structure, in the case of Gododdin a sequence of named, thematic sections - with consensual agreement about the nature, purpose and emotional tenor of each - and the institution of a time-base with fixed durations for each section. The schematic sequence included entry, prologue, heroics, berserking, arming, journey, battle, lament, epilogue.

Clifford McLucas's scenography resisted all temptation to provide an anecdotal or naturalistic setting for the literal exposition of the text. Instead his rigorously formal arrangement of scenic elements - trees, cars, sand - distributed on the architectural principles of line and circle throughout the hundred metres by forty metres space engaged the entire room (McLucas and Pearson 1996: 211-34). The design centred upon the old factory clock suspended somewhat off-centre towards the middle. Immediately below this a mountain of sand-covered oil-drums was constructed. Around the mountain a circle of sand thirty metres in diameter and three inches deep was laid out, kerbed with concrete...

Review of Gododdin, from The Independent

The tale is simple enough. Around 600 AD, a band of 300 Celtic warriors, their spirits inflamed by drink, hurled themselves upon a hundred thousand of the invading Anglo Saxons. The inevitable ensued: one of the few surviros, Aneirin, wrote an epic poem to commemorate the action. This is the text that has been dramatized by the alliance of Test Department and and the Welsh-language theatre group, Brith Gof.

A libretto need hardly be of Byzantine complexity, but the starkness of the scenario poses fundamental problems. For Test Department, it could easily turn into a figurative night to the hills - after the more recent defeat for the forces around whom their original identity was forged. Their fascination with scrap metal and the imagery of industrialism was suited to an inner-urban squatter environment, art-college fashions of the mid-Eighties, and the cause of the miners.

The group responded to the pathological condition of the political culture from which it grew by finding new affinities with the Celtic regions of the country. The Gododdin were a people who lived to the south of Edingurgh. Their old Welsh language, Brythonic, was spoken in Scotland, Wales, and north-west England - regions partly contiguous with those in which Test Department found a language of solidarity five years ago.

Originally staged in an abandoned Rover car factory in Cardiff, the production has since toured Europe; constructing a differently-shaped epic at each site. In Glasgow, the Tramway theatre is the venue, inside which a rectangular performance area has been constructed from breeze blocks, and filled with sand. It is framed by the shed's own pillars, augmented by 30 young pine trees. The headlamps of half a dozen junk-yard cars, whitewashed, adds to the illumination.

The performance begins almost imperceptibly, as Lis Hughes Jones recites from a central position on the balcony. Then, to guttural blasts from the taped soundtrack, the doors open. As the traffic speeds by in the street outside, Test Department enters on a fantastical cart made of wood and scrap metal, torchlit. In the male players' costumes of maroon kilts, black cloaks, and Dr. Martens, they circle the hall and climb to the percussion instruments wailing on the gantry.

Then come the players; four men and two women. After ritual grooming and heroic postures, their haughty demeanour turns to aggressive sham. Oil drums collide in mid air and the audience realises that quick reflexes are needed to avoid the tyres whirled on ropes. The cars take a fearful beating.

This is only the 'berserking'; the preparatory ritual. As the battle draws near, the nature of the enemy becomes apparent. The warriors are completely surrounded by dark figures behind the trees; us. Meanwhile, the sandpit is slowly flooding. The warriors sally forth. In their rage, they swing the (free-hanging) trees and push the spectators out of the way for their manoeuvres. Test Department roll crane-like carts along the old tramlines, beat gongs, and drag balls on pulleys into scrap metal sound boxes. For the final assault, the warriors vanish and regroup, entering line abreast behind shields made of car bonnets and boot lids.

Defeat is signified by vain attempts at climbing: a rope net and a corrugated steel shutter (over which water plays) are lowered. Finally, Test Department gather to tend the fallen in the watery arena, as Lis Hughes Jones sings a lament.

This is a spectacle of freedom; free, in particular, from pseudo-sophistication, self-conscious theory, and preciousness. Elemental, wild and exhilarating, it is what it is claimed to be: a celebration not of defeat but of "the energy, optimism and dynamism of the last great flowering of Celtic society".

The fundamental question remains, though. The physical commitment, muscular and material, is rewarded: the energy and dynamism are electrifying. But in the end, this is the story of a band of warriors who chose drunken fury over discipline and tactical skill. Once that fury has been acted out, little is left. For this reason, perhaps, the coda was less moving than it should have been. It did not weave bonds with the present.

Nevertheless, Gododdin is an exceptional achievement. For Test Department, it marks their transition from youthful essays into maturity. They now face the challenge of extending their sonic range beyond the bagpipes and precussion that are entirely apt for this production.

These are probably the final days of Gododdin. For obvious reasons, it will not be performed in England, although the battle is believed to have been fought at Catterick. That is the loss of the English, but then there's always the Charge of the Light Brigade...

A story ...

I first met him at a talk he was giving at Stanford. He was, as Michael often says, quite a presence. Aura, definitely. He didn't actually speak about Brith Gof and Gododdin this time (it was about representations of the past in Polar expeditions), and for me, sometime later, the juxtaposition of the tall gentle man in black and the clashing Dionysiac performance of Gododdin was certainly a jarring one.

I'm not quite sure what I wanted to know when I first wrote to him. At one point I think I might have been trying to be overly clever by following a thread (the number 300) in Greek monuments (Thermopylae and Chaeronea) and in the battle of Gododdin. This of course was a rather ridiculous conceit.

Now that I think about it, it was, instead (at least today), an attempt to come to grips with two things:

  1. The notions of courage, battle, liminality, the performance of courage within this experiential hodgepodge, and its crystallization in time -- its traces. But also the rather Homeric tension between the event and/in time. Its disappearance. And re-presentation.
  2. His own performance of such an event, his recreation representation, and his own dialogue with temporality and the event.

Such things can often be distilled into totemic entities, as Michael was telling me last week. A sound, an image, these can contain all the incredible complexities of experience (an Experience?), all deeply embedded in one aleph-like symbol.

This is why I alighted upon battle monuments. These (often simplistic) material symbols are incredibly effective in evoking an experience, both in the first person -- this is what battle was like for me -- and in the third person. Not only the experience of battle, but a whole series of notions: courage, death, patriotism, love, sacrifice, hardship, terror, fear, etc.

Battle monuments also provide, both as material objects and as symbols, a grand overarching narrative through which the experience of battle can be justified. Suffering is thus worth it, because it was in the service of (insert abstract entity here). I realize I might come across a bit glib here, and you would be right in chastising me for it. It takes personal belief in these abstract entities to justify suffering through them.

Aneirin's elegiac poem might just be one such symbol.

Review of Gododdin, from The Scotsman

It may appear perverse to suggest that a production which is a joint venture between a theatre company, Brith Gof, and a musical group, Test Dept, and one which goes out of its way to reproduce, through a series of drones, wails, skirls, and clashing metallic objects, all the din and clamour of battle is somehow reminiscent of silent cinema, yet Gododdin playing at the Tramway in Glasgow, brought to mind images from the work of cinema pioneers like D. W. Griffith.

The performers strive in silence, while the words, in a mixture of Welsh and English, are spoken, or more precisely declaimed, by an actress perched on an eyrie far above the surge of events.

The text is taken from an ancient Welsh bardic piece, commemorating the despairing prowess of a band of Celtic warriors in a site near Edinburgh, where they hurled themselves against a superior Saxon army. Predictably, they were wiped out, but Celtic legend is made of such gestures.

No gestures are grander than those of the performers. The environment of what must be the most flexible theatre in Britain is transformed with a long central sandpit accommodating three scaffolding towers which provide the playing area. While painted cars with headlights blaring and a forest of hanging trees surround this space, and here the spectators stand, crouch and - very frequently - flee for their lives.

Promenade Theatre is too wan a description for this spectacle, since the audience is dragged willy-nilly into the action, and will have to keep attentive to avoid the performers, who leap in their midst, swing massive rubber tyres in their direction or hurl steel barrels either into pools of water or at the pillars behind which the prescient spectator will cower.

For a brief period at the beginning, the performers enjoy the luxury of marching or strutting on fresh sand, but decidedly chilly water cascades down two of the towers flooding the performing area and transforming it into swamp land.

Here the rival champions meet and here, in the rising water, they lie when they are struck down.

The design recreates to perfection a land of mythic twilight and the choreography is sustained in its imaginativeness. Together they produce the illusion of the revived world of legendary heroes.

The actors march in disciplined formation, they form pyramid structures, they hurtle into each other and attempt to scramble up walls at times of siege. The materials come from various ages, but the impression given is compact and coherent...

The production draws the admiration which must go to any project ambitious in aim and original in execution. There is nothing humdrum about it, the commitment of the actors is absolute, and the work provides images for the eye and spectacle for the imagination.

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