Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Soul Exchange

The Soul Exchange
Venue: WMC and The Coal Exchange, Cardiff
Directed by: Kully Thiarai
Dates: 27th-28th Jan 2011
Reviewed by Chelsey Gillard

For their first production of 2011 NTW have created a thought provoking experience that forces you to question the past actions of a community and perhaps even your own heritage.

As you enter the Millennium centre you are herded to a ‘ticket master’ who gives out boarding passes and informs you what time your taxi will be leaving the venue, “listen for your time and number, DO NOT MISS IT”. In the next holding area characters from the community try to sell their wares, invite you back for a cup of tea or ask about your journey; you have been transported to Old Tiger Bay docks, waiting for a ship to leave or perhaps arrive with long missed relatives. The concentration of these actors was superb, they took all audience reactions in their stride; my personal favourite was the strict photographer who instructed you not to smile. Of course human nature is to do exactly what you are told not to do, I just couldn’t keep the smirk off my face even when he started shouting at me, calling me a “joker” and a “time waster” whilst apologising to my fellow ‘travellers’ for the delay.

When your number is called you leave the WMC and board a taxi, but are forced to split from your group so for the most part your fellow travellers are strangers. Whilst being driven around Butetown a soundtrack plays. It seems another unseen passenger has boarded the taxi, he is a young man trying to find an address that no one recognises. By means of a thorough investigation through the community centre, church and blocks of flats he finally finds what he is looking for; the truth about his past.

With help from locals such as the eldery Vera, we discover a world of racism and deception. During Tiger Bay’s hayday of coal mining and transport many cultures and races mixed. Inevitably mixed race couples came together and had children. When the fathers’ of these children were at sea or away from the family the white grandmothers would sometimes take the child and have them christened changing their Muslim names to typically Welsh ones. It turns out that the man we have been following was one such baby and so indeed was his father, Abdi Mahmood who is now known as Peter Watkins or Tiger.     

Eventually we arrive at Tiger’s wake at the Coal Exchange. By some weird twist of fate this young man who knew neither his mother nor his father, will get to know his father through what the community thought of him. As Tiger’s other children describe his money making schemes and community spirit it becomes clear that Tiger is not just a man he is a metaphor for a community that has no real identity, no past but yet everyone is generous, they don’t have much but what they do have they are more than willing to share.

It becomes clear that everyone is welcome here, as you rejoin those from your original party it creates a genuine atmosphere of old friends coming together to celebrate. The characters from earlier are there talking to you about Tiger, making you feel as though you too knew him and what he believed in. The final part of the night was a group dance that was Tiger’s favourite, a simple variation on The Electric Slide that soon had everyone laughing and joking.

The scale of this production was enormous, the timings were perfect; no part felt too long and it never seemed as if you were waiting for something to happen. During the taxi ride you saw parts of Butetown that even locals probably never visited, and were taken through all the ages of the area seeing everyone from Victorian fruit sellers to modern ‘Gangstas’ pumping music from their cars. I do appreciate that Butetown is a small area but we travelled the same route about three times which became boring, this may have been to show how the investigation was going round in circles and coming to dead ends but I would have appreciated a bit more variation.

Fantastic music really added to the performance, from the choir led by musical director Keith Murrell, to the specially commissioned track by local musician Wibidi everything demonstrated the mix of cultures, with reggae beats meeting modern bass. The use of live performance, vocal recordings and a short montage style video hit all the senses forcing you to become part of the performance, part of the community not just a watcher. Attention to detail was astounding, especially the re-creation of the photo shown in The Coal Exchange of thousands of coal traders in the hall, but this time it was the people of the community coming together to celebrate a life, of a single person and a population.  

I think if you did not know the area at all you may have struggled with the context a little, but the main messages were universal; family, friends and a supportive community are the keystone to a successful society. Even though the different cultures had their differences everyone pulled together in times of need and this is certainly something we could learn from in modern times of the so called “Broken Britain”.