It takes nerve as well as skill to make a show about death into an entertainment. But that’s just what performance artist Hugh Hughes, under the aegis of the movement-based Hoipolloi theatre company has done. There are two deaths with which we are concerned, one human and one animal. The animal one is (but only apparently) the one which takes precedence.
This is a multi-media show with props, projections and musical sound effects as well as a certain amount of (gently induced) audience participation. Two dates link the stories and the apparently random reflections which arise from them – August 1995 and April 2001.
In August 1995 the narrator was asked to look after a neighbour’s children’s pet rabbit while they are on holiday. The rabbit died, for no particular reason. Rabbits do that. In April 2001, he was woken by a telephone call from his brother. It was to tell him that their father had died suddenly, of a heart attack while winding the church clock. People do that. They have heart attacks, even fathers of families.
How one copes with the physical finality of death obviously differs from person to person. Here the coping becomes imaginatively surreal, as the hasty stowing away in a bin-liner of the dead rabbit metamorphoses itself into a formal Welsh village burial of a respected citizen. There is the inevitable guilt when mothers have to be confronted, and consoled.
Hughes has the nerve to bring an almost medieval sense of the cycle of birth, maturity and death into a show that deliberately promotes laughter as well as tears and applause. The sometimes silly props help; a cardboard model of a housing estate, an Action Man toy, a bag of sawdust, a car wheel among them.
The skill is in his command of his audience with movement as well as speech whirling us from profundities about the nature of perception and time to an almost child-like, two-dimensional engagement with people, places and things. A child’s imagination makes the complex simple. And vice versa, of course.
Aled Williams is the musical half of the show, with a medley of instruments at his command. These are in one way the background to the piece, but it is a background with emphasis. As in surrealism, nothing is quite what it seems, yet all the elements have their own uniquely individual reality.
“And death shall have no dominion”, wrote Dylan Thomas as war loomed. His compatriot has set out to prove the point for times of a different sort of turbulence. I think he has succeeded.