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Martin Morley

A Life in Theatre & Television Design

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Where possible I have given photo credits. For those I have over looked I hope I have not given offence. Most of the rehearsal photos are my own taken with a simple point and shoot camera.

Musings of a Jobbing Designer

Theatr Cymru 1972 – 1984



In the two previous ‘Musings’ I have dealt with the early part of my career, while I worked in regular building based repertory theatres. This was the conventional route for most graduating from a theatre design course in the 1969s-70s. This changed when I went to design for Theatr Cymru.


During the summer of 1972, while I was still Head of Design at the Liverpool Playhouse, the theatre received a phone call from Cwmni Theatr Cymru (Welsh Language Theatre Company) enquiring whether a designer was available to design ‘Pethe Brau’ (The Glass Menagerie’) for the National Eisteddfod being held at Haverfordwest. As it coincided with my summer break I said yes. It seemed like a good idea and a chance to make new contacts and as ‘Pethe Brau’ could be read in English I saw no problem, and as a play it was a joy to design. I had no idea it would change my life.

I was unaware of the company except for the fact that on a Monday they had toured to the Liverpool Playhouse and performed a Welsh translation of Moliere’s ‘La Malade Imaginaire’ to a packed house.. In spite of Liverpool being close to the Welsh border I had only a scant knowledge of Welsh culture.

At the time it was the only fully professional Welsh Language Theatre company and its brief was to tour plays from a very broad repertoire to all areas of Wales where the Welsh language flourished. There was no long tradition of professional theatre in Wales and it has been a rocky road developing one. The scene has changed out of all recognition between the 1970s and now but what has not changed is, as centres of the Welsh Language are scattered and often in rural areas, touring is the only option for any company working in the language and this of course has a huge impact on how shows are staged.

Theatr Cymru started life as an arm of the Cardiff based English language Welsh Theatre Company and shared workshops and technical facilities with them. This was to change in 1973 when it acquired a disused chapel in Bangor to use as its own technical base and it became fully independent. As there were no purpose built theatres then in centres of Welsh speaking communities all designs had to be accommodated in various school and village halls.

The venue for ‘Pethe Brau’ was the Haverfordwest comprehensive school:- stage size 24’ w x 16’ d x 12’h.: The Liverpool Playhouse it was not! The play was to be directed by David Lyn and the set built in Cardiff. With this in mind I contacted David Lyn, and after a very productive first meeting in Liverpool I designed the play and made the model. It was a brand new experience and the intimate scale was not all inappropriate to the play. David Lyn was full of ideas and we settled on a fragmented, organically shaped, dreamlike rendition of the apartment room. I quickly realised that many of the principles of design I had learnt and used when working in fixed spaces had to be jettisoned when designing for touring. By that I mean ideas of a set having a specific relationship to the host space have to be re-considered, not that one’s approach to the text is anyway compromised.

With the design approved and the drawings done I went to meet the cast and stage management and set the project in motion. I returned to Liverpool and left them to it for a couple of weeks. When I returned the set was beautifully built and set up and just waiting for me to render it.

The small scale meant that it could easily relate to the cast without the massive distortions of scale that can easily occur on a main stage. The technical weekend was good and the performances excellent and I went away feeling that I had done good work with good people in surroundings where people take holidays. I thought no more about it and went back to three weekly rep, which I enjoyed when it worked but could find very draining when it didn’t. The model of ‘Pethe Brau’ still exists and even after more than 30 years I do not feel ashamed of it. I can’t always say that.

This brief encounter was followed in the Spring with another offer to design for them: this time a Welsh language play with no English translation: John Gwilym Jones’ play ‘Y Tad a’r Mab’ (The Father and Mother). Now this was a different challenge – to design a play in a language I could not understand. I was probably given an English synopsis, but mainly I relied on talking to the director: Nesta Harris. This of course involved a great amount of trust but I do not remember that being difficult to establish and it is something I came to rely on a great deal when I went full-time with Cwmni Theatr Cymru later in the year. In many ways it can be liberating, particularly regarding stage directions. One concentrates more on the ‘world’ of the play and less on the ‘number of doors’. Again it was a tour of school and village halls but this time with two locations: a domestic interior and a municipal park. I had to find a way to combine these on the stage without them seeming either crowded or out of scale. In fact they merged with much overlapping of colour and texture. These first two designs were used standard theatrical materials of the time: timber and canvas flats, and standard visual vocabulary. For my third production, and my first as resident designer I conceived a more symbolic design: a skeletal rendering of a shepherd’s mountain cottage for Gwenlyn Parry’s ‘Y Ffin’ (The Boundary), which allowed the cast to manipulate the scene change as part of the action. As a drama it was more akin to Beckett than Osborne. I was able to take advantage of the skills of a local blacksmith to produce a delicate but robust frame work in 1’’x 1’’ steel. At the time, for me, it was a new departure, today steel is as much a-stock-in-trade as 3’’x1’’ timber.

There was sufficient space within the Tabernacle to build, paint and pre-rig and light the show before taking it on tour. Crucially from my point of view there was a truly excellent carpenter. For a designer the relationship with the workshop is crucial,- they can make or break a design, and it is much more rewarding to design for the strengths and skills of one’s colleagues than to simply present some working drawings and walk away. The relationship is not unlike that between the director and the cast, but it is often overlooked. It is a creative partnership which can give real added value to the design: a really good carpenter, like a really good painter takes the design that bit further than mere re-production.

In 1974 Theatr Gwynedd opened, the first of the chain of medium sized theatres built in Wales. It was quickly followed by Theatr Clwyd in Mold, Theatr y Werin in Aberystwyth, Theatr Sherman in Cardiff and Theatr Ardudwy in Harlech. They went some way to bringing theatre provision in Wales into the 20th century, but as there were still strong Welsh speaking areas outside their catchment, it was still necessary to include some of the smaller venues in the tours, and this of course had a profound effect on the way that productions could utilise the new buildings. The acting space could be enlarged but the most obvious technical feature, the fly tower had to be more or less ignored, which was frustrating. The most common design solution I adopted was the ‘island’ set. This would fit in all locations without major modification, and scene changes relied on internal structures within the design. The differing scales of the locations meant the way the set was perceived could vary enormously between the smaller stages where it might dominate to the larger ones where it would recede.

About 9 productions were mounted each year, and there were a number that really stood out, and during the seventies there was real energy in the company. Every year there was Welsh pantomime, which although following many traditions took their starting point from Welsh mythology rather than the Brothers Grimm, and also there was strong strand of young people’s theatre – Theatr Plant.

The problem of a broad repertoire, which is common to all theatres that follow such a policy, is that inevitably some work is given more emphasis and enthusiasm than another. It must also be born in mind that the company had no long tradition of professional theatre to draw on. Most of the previously written plays in the Welsh language had emerged from a strong amateur movement or from broadcast medium; consequently there was a feeling of being in the shadow of England. There was much discussion and not a little internal dissent about what direction the company should take and to satisfy the demands for a more progressive policy, Theatr Antur (literally Adventure Theatre) was established as a separate entity within the company to produce productions of a more experimental nature that were at the same time closer to the grassroots. Eventually this broke away to form Theatr Bara Caws which is still flourishing to-day.

David Lyn did three notable productions in the mainstream apart from ‘Pethe Brau’: ‘Y Twr’ (The Tower) by Gwenlyn Parry, ‘Esther’ by Saunders Lewis, and Bernard Evans ‘Syrcas’ (Circus) To each he brought a fresh and theatrical vision. Working on ‘Esther’ is one of the enduring highlights of my career. I had started designing the play in traditional fashion. It is a Biblical story and a literal reading of the stage directions would result in a sub Cecil B de Mille style production, which in our hearts neither of us wanted. I had sent David some drawings in this manner which he used as note-paper to set out his concept of the production as a play within a play set in a Nazi prison camp. The way he set out his radical vision, which at first I felt was just a gimmick, will always live with me as real example of a director’s vision shedding light on a text. It took me out of my comfort zone. Another key collaborator was Gareth Jones, the company’s quite extraordinary lighting designer. Over a number of shows he developed beautiful and subtle ways of lighting touring theatre, usually involving exposed lighting rigs and a large number of small open white lanterns, and ‘Esther’ was the culmination of his style. Lighting is an absolutely key design element but it is the factor that is most vulnerable in a touring situation. The differing architecture and available lighting positions of the theatres and halls, not to mention the time constraints make it very difficult to reproduce the original plot: the tendency is for it to become more generalised and lose focus.

Working on these productions with regular casts and very talented technical crew built a genuine company spirit which lasted over a considerable length of time, but inevitably in the end cracks appeared and a certain lethargy set in which led to a quick decline. The birth of S4C, (the Welsh 4th Channel) also had a profound effect as now there was an abundance of well paid work that theatre companies found it very hard to match. For the last two years of the company’s existence, 1982–83, Theatr Cymru was led by Emily Davies, assisted by Ceri Sherlock. Ceri Sherlock’s re-thinking of Gwenlyn Parry’s ‘Ty ar y Tywod (‘House on the Sand’)and his ravishing production of Chekov’s ‘Tair Chwaer’ ( ‘Three Sisters’), designed by Chris Green were two of the finest productions the company produced, but the attempt to try and model the company on ensemble lines was dogged by controversy of the worst sort and for someone working on the inside at the time it felt like being under siege by the press. One day in early January 1984, the Art’s Council pulled the plug and the ship sank.