DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Gaudete – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Writer: Ted Hughes

Dramaturgy: Kate Papi, Oliviero Papi

Director: Kate Papi

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Gaudete is one of the more controversial of Ted Hughes’ writings. Variously described as a prose poem or a poetic novel, it takes as its bizarre subject the abduction of the Rev. Nicholas Lumb from his West Riding village by elemental spirits and his replacement by an identical spirit figure, leading to a chain of events involving devil worship, the creation of a new Messiah, multiple pregnancies and rather a lot of unpleasantness on all fronts.

It was apparently intended as a film script which makes many elements of OBRA’s production entirely appropriate. In particular, the production style depends to a great extent on cross-cutting aided by Yves Marie Corfa’s imaginative and precise lighting plot and much of the atmosphere derives from Eilon Morris’ music, especially the range of percussion in Act One. 

However, OBRA’s production is rather lop-sided. OBRA is an international theatre company based in the South of France which explores the relationship between language and the physical life of the performer and Gaudete has been a long-term project with them, ever since Kate and Oliviero Papi read the poem/novel 10 years ago. It is debatable how far the two parts, conceived at different times, fit together.

Act One, running a tidy 45 minutes, deals with the abduction and replacement of Lumb, with lines from the original passed around among the ensemble who are all, except the vicar, clad in the same drab uniform – prisoners, soldiers or followers of Mao? The on-stage percussion is the nearest thing to a set and the ensemble acts as a unit, with precise and sometimes poetic movement dramatising events, most successfully the scene where the spirit of Nicholas Lumb passes into an oak which becomes “Nicholas Lumb”.

This was performed with great success some five years ago, but now Act 2 has been added which is more dramatically involving, but also more unwieldy. It’s one thing to present a piece of nearly two hours with no interval – possibly the future for Gaudete Act Two – but something else to stage it as the second half of an evening’s theatre.

Act Two tells of the last day of the substitute Nicholas Lumb and, as such, unlike Act One, involves the stories of the villagers, mostly women infatuated by “Nicholas” and men seeking his destruction. The style of the description of villagers about their typical activities immediately recalls Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood – this offers a more gruesome take on village life. The character narration is expertly handled by pre-recorded Yorkshire actors Neil Hurst and Kate Hampson, and “Nicholas Lumb” (presumably Oliviero Papi) brings intensity and passion to his sections of the story.

The eight-strong ensemble doesn’t so much act out the actions described in the narrative as convey physically the emotional state of the characters. The group movement is always impressive, but at its audience-communicative best in the emergence of the “creature” from the muddy crater – beautifully done, striking up through a mass of bodies.

Touring Regionally | Image: Isabelle Souriment

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