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Shelf Life

National Theatre Wales/Volcano Theatre Company/Welsh National Opera in partnership with the Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea Metropolitan University and Grwp Gwalia Cyf
The Old Library, Swansea
(2010)

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National Theatre Wales' mission is to take theatre out of a formal environment and into the wider world where those who might not otherwise encounter live performance can perhaps be persuaded to attend events that they would normally never see.

While I have never found this a particularly persuasive method of attracting newcomers to the world of live theatre - largely because, for me, a visit to a formal performance venue is part and parcel of the whole experience - I confess that this adventurous production is one of the finest pieces of its kind I have ever had the good fortune to attend: not only is it ideally suited to the site in which it is performed but the concept behind the work's creation is also appropriate to the site.

The Old Library, situated in an area of Swansea once touted as the city's cultural quarter, has been acquired by Swansea Metropolitan University - the city's new Central Library has been relocated to the Civic Centre on Swansea seafront and is as clinical, functional and streamlined as its new position implies; and it is exactly this gulf between the old library ethos and the brave new world of digitalisation that lies at the heart of this immensely thought-provoking and resonant work.

We begin what is generally described as a "promenade performance" in the courtyard at the back of the library which once served the old police station. A community choir makes its way along the yard, resplendent in masquerade costumes and clutching colourful umbrellas in a scenario that could easily have come out of an episode of the cult TV series The Prisoner. Individual players line the route and give us a foretaste of the inspired lunacy that is to come, reading extracts from long-cherished volumes that are destined to be plunged into bowls of water and ripped up and thrown to the ground.

Above all this, an aerial artist twirls and twists high above the ground as we are guided down a perilously steep flight of steps into what used to serve as the "stacks" - the old storage section in the basement of the library - where we encounter a variety of weird custodians who regale us with their memories and experiences.

It becomes evident that these are the librarians - the custodians of ancient knowledge whose role is being eroded by the new media and the increasing reliance on technology that threatens to do away with books forever.

The theme develops still further as we are led up into the grandeur of the old Reference Library Reading room - an architectural gem which is no longer accessible to the general public, but in which I spent many a happy hour researching in the days before the old library closed its doors for the last time. The room - topped by a beautiful glass dome which was featured prominently in location filming for the Doctor Who two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead - is sadly empy now and serves as a fitting setting for what turns out to be a farewell get-together for the librarians, whose lives and relationships are laid bare during what turns out to be the final sequence of this breathtakingly effective production.

The confrontational atmosphere of this last meeting, over a table groaning with food and drink, degenerates into the kind of manic madness that those who have seen previous Volcano productions will know very well. It does not take long for nudity to come into the equation, much as I expected it would, though in fairness it is played very much for laughs. Having said that, it still comes across as an afterthought and the production would benefit from its absence.

This is a very special piece of work which is attracting huge interest across the city and beyond, and rightly so: its power and intelligence will appeal to anyone with a love of words and a passion for words, as well as a healthy respect for their cultural heritage. Not to be missed.

"Shelf Life" runs until 25th April.

Reviewer: Graham Williams