Over the weekend was staged an utterly compelling performance of ‘Hunting the Giants Daughter’. This was an interpretation of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, of Mabinogi fame, a marvellous story of heroism, boar hunting and, what I maintain is utterly unnecessary but repeated decapitations of giants – as stories go, this one has never been lacking in a sense of the fantastic. In many respects however, the actual story was somewhat peripheral to the sense of occasion, as performance group Adverse Camber delivered such an engaging evening, that they really could have been talking about anything, such was the power of their delivery.
Adverse Camber specialise in the delivery of new approaches to storytelling, yet their approach is one which taps into the essence of a historical form of delivery, which echoes how we might imagine such tales to have been delivered before their committal to vellum. Combining animated oral delivery, song and musical instruments, Adverse Camber deliver an interpretation which is ultimately far more complex than appearances suggest. Michael Harvey’s oratory skills and memory capacity are repeatedly tested, as the lists which dominate much of the story were delivered in intricate detail and unwavering energy. Coupled with Lynne Denman and Stacey Blythe, Culhwch and Olwen was brought to life in a way in which I have not before had the pleasure to enjoy.
From a personal perspective, to see Welsh intangible cultural heritage performed to an engaged audience, especially one so far toward the eastern boundary of Wales, is truly inspiring. The tales of the Mabinogi are not known as well as they should be. Lecturing this year to undergraduate History students, I was dismayed to find that nearly none in the class had any familiarity with these stories – and quickly set about writing a new class specifically to introduce this material. At the same time, to see an individual captivate a crowd with a story, is something that is very rare indeed, yet in Welsh tradition, such a delivery would have once been common place. All sorts of intangible traditions have been lost in Wales, but this art of storytelling is slowly been brought back to contemporary audiences by the impressive efforts of Adverse Camber.
An important component in the evening’s entertainment though, was the organisational role played by the Arts Council for Wales, through their Night Out scheme. The programme looks to support rural communities in the hosting of professional performances, the likes of which would usually prove prohibitively expensive to pursue. Night Out supports communities by covering the majority of the costs of the performers, leaving communities to focus on a minimum numbers of ticket sales to cover the comparatively manageable overheads for an event. Without Night Out, Llanishen in Monmouthshire would never have been able to afford the talents provided by Adverse Camber. The importance therefore, of such organisations in making it plausible for communities to host such occasions, is arguably as important as the events themselves.
Certainly, Adverse Camber are worth the cost, with or without assistance, and if you have the opportunity to catch their unique, but historically familiar approach to storytelling, I would thoroughly recommend it. Sadly fewer and fewer people in Wales have any knowledge of the stories of the Mabinogi. One viewing of Adverse Camber will leave a lasting memory, which will go some way to ensuring the long term viability of these tales in a contemporary Welsh context.