Life is miserable. That certainly seems to have been the case in Wales circa 1915, when the writer Caradoc Evans published fifteen short stories under the title My People. I’ve not read any of them, and thus can’t judge how faithful the dancer and choreographer Gwyn Emberton is to his source material in this dance production named after the book. What I do know is that historically Evans was vilified for his hugely unflattering portrayal of his own people. I also know what my reaction was to Emberton’s work, shown on the Fringe under the auspices of Coreo Cymru and Chapter’s Welsh dance strand: misery, and then anger. I could hardly wait for this technically superbly danced but unilluminating hour of unrelieved misery to be over.
Have I used the word ‘misery’ enough yet? Maybe not. Honestly, this performance was the gloomiest by far of any of the 99 I’ve seen to date at Fringe 2015. Literally gloomy, too, given the dark lighting design. In all fairness the piece’s predominant tone was doubtless due to a subject matter which, based upon my reading of the string of kinetic scenarios that Emberton puts onstage, could be summed up as unhappy, brooding men oppressing or using or abusing women, e.g. a woman kept on a leash to the point of madness, or another bullied by one male and tempted by a second who seems to be in complicity with his rival – rendering her doubly oppressed! Not that the men get off scot-free. Indeed, one is hung upside down as if he’s about be gutted but is, instead, ‘only’ placed in a straitjacket-style in a shirt. The score, for the record, that’s jointly credited to Benjamin Talbott and Tic Ashfield has some range. It’s folky, beaty film score stuff featuring some haunted-sounding vocals and snappy electronic layering and, as such, served the show well even if it wasn’t particularly to my taste.
I don’t at all object to theatrical depictions of lives harshly lived, and certainly ‘My People’ indicates that these dire doings are perpetrated and perpetuated by a community. What got up my nose was the feeling of wallowing in – yes, that word again – misery. I don’t care if this is the truth of Evans’ fiction, any more than I ultimately cared that the six dancers – including Emberton – were extremely articulate movers (although here, too, the limitations of the choreography were evident via much swirling and swooping alongside the grovelling and writhing demanded by the dance’s dramatic content; consistent or, less forgivingly, samey). What’s missing from My People is any shading or a more rounded breadth of feeling, or enough sense of detailed characterisation, even if only sketched-in, that might’ve helped me on some level identify with the people onstage. They’re not my people. I couldn’t help thinking of all the training that these fine dancers have undergone to be functioning at this level, and this reductive joylessness is their reward. More selfishly, I was also depressingly aware of the time I’d invested in coming to see a show that unfortunately told me nothing new about being alive.