“For every man who goes to war, he sets in motion a sequence of far-reaching traumas – the people he leaves behind, the people he fights with and against, the land with its flora and fauna, and probably most of all himself. These traumas are multi-generational and one of the biggest realms of blindness and denial in our society… And I believe artists can do a magnificent job to hold a mirror up to this. Perhaps that’s what the Brangwyn panels are – this is what a “healed” world looks like’.
Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network and relative of Frank Brangwyn.
In 1926, Anglo-Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn was commissioned by the House of Lords to paint a large pair of canvases, in order to commemorate those peers and their family members who had been killed in the First World War. Rejected by Parliament on account of their being considered too grim and disturbing, Brangwyn changed tact completely, and instead chose to create a ‘decorative painting representing various Dominions and parts of the British Empire’.
Brangwyn said of his work, ‘(Those) whom the panels would commemorate had died to save Britain and the Empire, and so it seems natural to portray the people, the flowers, the fruits and the fauna of the far-flung territories of British dominion’. However, the paintings were once again rejected by the Lords, this time for being “too colourful and lively”. In 1934, The Swansea Council purchased these British Empire Panels, all 16 canvases, and to this day, they line the walls of an assembly hall in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall, a concert venue named after the artist.
It is these extraordinary paintings that provide a vivid backdrop to Marc Rees bold new production, Now The Hero/Nawr Yr Arwr. An immersive promenade production, Now The Hero was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War Centenary, concerned with the commissioning of “extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War”, seeking to promote the transformative power of art.
Now the Hero examines three intertwining narratives of war, told from the perspectives of a Celtic warrior, and World War One private, and a contemporary soldier, counterpointing tales of great tragedy with the promise of hope.
The idyllic, almost fantastical landscapes created by Brangwyn conceal a hidden tragedy, and therefore, considered by Rees to be ‘a World War One memorial of great significance’, he was thus inspired to create this multifaceted, immersive spectacle, that draws on the similarities between past, present, and future conflict, whilst searching for elusive notions of peace.
In addition to Brangwyn’s paintings, the production also takes as its stimuli epic Welsh poem The Gododdin/Y Gododdin, and the intimate portrait of a serving Swansea soldier.
‘A powerful memorial of conflict, protest, prose and performance’, this immersive, multi-sensory theatrical experience takes its audiences on an unforgettable journey, lasting two and a half hours, from the expansive beauty of Swansea beach, to the artistic treasures of the city’s iconic Brangwyn Hall. Guided by the show’s main protagonist, the Peace Protester, the audience are provided with a crucial counter-narrative to the soldiers’ tales of war, as they are led through scenes reflecting on both war and peace, through a wedding party, a protest dance, and a wake.
The experience is to culminate with an immersive dining experience, taking the form of a Harvest Gathering, where visitors have the chance to enjoy a soup made from ingredients inspired by those present in Brangwyn’s paintings. The ingredients are grown through GRAFT, a community garden and workshop space working with schools and adult learners, that has been commissioned by the Now The Hero initiative and curated by Owen Griffiths, purposed to bring together two cultures – the institutional and the organic. Intended as a means of teaching people new and valuable skills, encouraging them to work together to grow food and to cook, GRAFT does, on a deeper scale, make people aware of the wellbeing of future generations, with the initiative itself hailed as an exciting new, socially engaged artwork, focusing on art as a tool, a means of sustainability. In partaking of this soup, those audience members will be made to feel as though they are ingesting a piece of Brangwyn’s art, and in so doing, they might reflect on the thoughts, on the feelings, that this work evokes, whilst reflecting on its message, and meditating on its loss.
At the core of the production is an immersive requiem, with a libretto by BAFTA-winning writer Owen Sheers, which is to be sung by Stephen Layton‘s twice-Grammy nominated choir Polyphony. The music is composed by Owen Morgan Roberts, based on an original collaboration between himself and the late, twice Oscar-nominated composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, winner of a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for film The Theory of Everything.
The experience is produced by Taliesin Arts Centre and Swansea University, in partnership with Swansea Council and Swansea International Festival, with support from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Marc Rees, an interdisciplinary artist, was described in Exeunt Magazine in 2014 as “one of the most compellingly original and beautifully strange artists currently working in the UK”. Regarding the production, he states, “Over the past number of years, I’ve discovered time and again that works of culture and creativity can open up, not just buildings that have been closed for years, but also communities. Now the Hero/Nawr Yr Arwr reflects Swansea’s rich history and sheds light on a somewhat neglected series of paintings with a tragic message in what promises to be a truly unique immersive experience. I can think of no better way to mark the final year of 14-18 NOW than to create a defining Welsh production, in poignant commemoration.”
Lord Elis-Thomas, Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, says of the production, “I’m delighted that the Welsh Government has been able to support Nawr Yr Arwr/ Now the Hero – which will bring together periods of our history against this splendid backdrop. I’m sure we’ll see a thought provoking production which will generate strong emotions and be a fitting tribute to those Welsh people whose sacrifice is justly remembered by us all”.
Now The Hero will form a major part of the final 14-18 NOW season, running from Tuesday 25 – Saturday 29th September, and is also the headline piece for 2018’s Swansea International Festival, which will be celebrating its 70th year.
‘Drawing upon an epic poem, some rejected paintings and an intimate portrait of a serving Swansea soldier, Marc Rees’ bold production brings the stories of war to life with a counterpoint of peace and hope. Using the city as its backdrop, prepare to experience some of the most breathtaking theatre Swansea has ever seen’.