Once again, I have gone to the Revels well, and been filled with light, song, myth and magic. As always, the show was pure enchantment, offering the singing and storytelling that are deep in the bedrock of Wales, this year’s honored culture.
The days are dark indeed this year, leading up to Yule and the turning of the great wheel of time. So it matters all the more to foster any little flames of personal happiness I can find. To be in a theater full of people, singing, is balm for the disarrayed soul. A simple thing, really, to just sing, and be with family and friends. And a chorus line of dragons is a supremely silly antidote to existential despair.
J. R. R. Tolkien, a writer who borrowed liberally from Welsh language and myth, wrote, “. . . the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.” Revels stirs that cauldron and offers the new bits, retelling the old stories and making them fresh. Especially compelling for me was the old tale of the bard Taliesen’s birth by the goddess/witch Cerridwen, taken from the earliest prose literature of Britain, the Mabinogion.
Cerridwen is known for her cauldron of wisdom, which she creates to help her unfortunate son. When the servant boy Gwion splashes a few drops of the magical “awen” on his skin, he suddenly knows all the wisdom of the world. Cerridwen pursues him, as they both sequentially shapeshift into animals, until finally, when the boy is hiding as a grain of wheat, Cerridwen becomes a hen and swallows him whole. Nine months later she gives birth to Taliesen, who is often thought to be Merlin the magician of Arthurian legend. The puppetry in this story was delightful, and the line of women singing a lullaby, enacting ocean waves with blue gloves, passing the baby Taliesen from one to the other, was downright magical.
The fearsome Mari Lwyd ghost horse is a strange and terrifying presence in Welsh lore. This is an old custom, the strangeness of it pointing to pre-Christian origins. The Winter Mare demands, upon knocking at a door, the recitation of poetry. Her “nightmare” visage, though frightening, brings verse and hilarity as she travels through the streets on the darkest nights of the year, reminding us that despite all the frivolity of the Yule season, it is still the dark time of ghosts and death.
For more about this uniquely Welsh practice, here is an absorbing account written by Welsh Druid Kristoffer Hughes, which includes some vintage photos and verse showing the antiquity of the tradition.
Robert Sicular channeling the Welsh bard Dylan Thomas, with lovely lines from A Child’s Christmas in Wales, gave us all a taste of the “close and holy darkness.”
The Welsh spelling bee was hilarious– Welsh is world famous for its long and perplexingly-spelled words – and with a virtuoso performance by James Galileo, whose Welsh seemed to be perfect (but how would we know?).
The song “The Weaver and the Factory Maid”, sung by the women and arranged by Shira Kammen, was accompanied by a weaving dance of the girls.
The well-known lullaby “All Through the Night”, sung by the incomparable soprano Susan Rode Morris, brought tears to more than one eye. And Margaret Davis of Broceliande played her beautiful harp.
Kevin Carr’s spellbinding storytelling was most welcome, for he is a true bard.
And other best-loved Revels touchstones were all here: the Border Morris, an especially fierce and raucous version of the dance,
and the well-loved Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, always performed in a dim light.
And of course, The Lord of the Dance, sung by Fred Goff.
There are times when the house lights come up for everyone to sing when my throat catches and my eyes fill with tears. In those moments, I bask in the sound of a thousand voice singing together, and here is the well: the feeling of community and a shared joy. These adapted lyrics by Susan Cooper to the classic Welsh hymn “Hyfrydol (Sing We Now)” – “Sing we now to greet the morning, radiant in the bright sunrise / Sing to turn the year to springtime, as the rule of winter dies / May our world so turn tomorrow, driving fear and want away / Facing t’ward the sun forever, joyful in the long, bright day.” As often happens after visiting the Revels world, this tune has been a welcome guest in my head all week.
This year there were many stories strung together like lights on a tree, with proper measures of song and dance, hilarity and solemnity. And it was all just right, the alchemy of entertainment and the intimacy of sharing a laugh and a tear with dear ones. We go our separate ways at the end of the show, but for many of us, coming together every year to celebrate is core to our feeling connected to something greater than ourselves in an increasingly turbulent and confusing world.
There are three more performanes this coming weekend, December 16-18. Visit the California Revels website for tickets. You will be glad you did!
Photos by Gabriel Hurley, Paul McMillan, and Cari Ferraro