It’s a bright but cold Saturday evening, the first weekend in May. We pass the crowds of testosterone-filled, shirt-bursting men, the groups of hens, high-heeled, perma-tanned, their sense of volume control lost in the day’s drinking. We make our way beyond St. Mary’s Street and Mill Lane, beyond the train station and beyond those soulless office buildings that connect the city and Cardiff Bay. And we find ourselves at a warehouse, tucked away in a cul-de-sac. Here is the spiked metal fence, the open gate, the corrugated iron, and here is the bar, the bookshop, the rusting VW van emblazoned with ‘National Theatre of Wales in neon lights. Around us, an air of expectation as we gather to see NTW’s latest production, ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’.
Typically of NTW, this is no normal theatrical experience. We have been told to wear red and to bring a book. The bar is called ‘The Champagne Socialist’. If you want beer you have to drink Red Stripe. The bookshop is full of books about Communism and is well-stocked with copies of Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’. That’s because the production is a collaboration between NTW and Gruff Rhys’ side project (with Boom Bip), Neon Neon, about the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher and left-wing political activist who seem to have been involved in many of the key events of the latter-part of the twentieth century. And everything we see reflects some part of this remarkable man’s life. Soon, someone stands on the van’s roof and like an old political rally calls on us through a megaphone to vote against the Italian royal family and for the people; the doors open and we enter the warehouse.
Inside, we are met with news clips of Feltrinelli’s untimely death and the electronic sounds which open Rhys and Boom Bip’s concept album. Once we’re led into the main space itself there they are, at its centre, bashing on typewriters as we gather around them. Characters appear from a giant filing cabinet, the band move to the giant shelves which doubles as their stage. The action takes place on stages which are wheeled out into the audience so that wherever you are, you become part of the action. A giant desk lamp is used to reflect the CIA’s questioning of Feltrinelli in Bolivia, the Secret Police weave menacingly through the crowd, looking for the manuscript of Pasternak’s novel, smuggled out of Soviet Russia by the protagonist. Warhol’s studio is reincarnated with a naked woman and heart-shaped balloons which float around the audience, Neon Neon dollar bills are thrown, leopard masks are worn, photographs and words projected on to the huge doors fill in the gaps in the story, there’s a basketball game with a competitive Fidel Castro, Che Guevara makes an appearance and there’s plenty of politics and playfulness. And behind it all, is Neon Neon’s wonderful music. More than a soundtrack, it is the story itself.
By the time Gruff Rhys exhorts us to hold our left fist in the air as Feltrinelli’s body is carried out we are entranced by the whole experience. Neon Neon burst into some songs from their first album, ‘Stainless Style’, the party ensues, placards are held and books are swapped. This really is a remarkable piece of theatre. As a teacher, it’s fairly difficult to get pupils to see that going to The Globe might have been a rebellious act in Shakespeare’s day, that drama has always been a subversive medium. It’s even harder to convince them when I take them to see performances that are filled with people like me: privileged, middle-class, white. I wish I’d brought them tonight. This is what the theatre is about: interactive, challenging ideas, getting you to think politically. And always entertaining. Tim Price from NTW who wrote the script,and the cast, should be praised while Gruff Rhys is a creative genius. Wales is lucky to have him.
Finally, we drifted off home past the goose-pimpled girls in their mini-skirts and the men in their short-sleeved shirts, past those still playing the game on Mill Lane. And we were filled with the thrill of being alive.