‘Christmas Revels’ finally makes it to Wales
ROGER IDE: The Red Dragon (representing Wales) chases the White Dragon (England) in “The Christmas Revels” at Sanders Theatre.
By Jeffrey Gantz Globe Correspondent December 15, 2015
CAMBRIDGE — Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is such an iconic evocation of the holidays, it’s a wonder that, in Revels’ 45-year history, there hasn’t been a Welsh “Christmas Revels” till now. All the more so since Wales has a rich mythology and singing tradition, and since both Revels music director George Emlen and Susan Cooper, author of “The Shortest Day” and many other Revels lyrics, have Welsh roots. No matter: “A Welsh Celebration of the Winter Solstice” makes up for lost time.
Jeremy Barnett’s set, as usual in Revels productions, does a lot with a little. There’s a small brick house with a shingled roof and a turret, a pair of wooden benches, a couple of rock outcroppings, and a huge bank of scudding, tilted clouds that seem especially Thomas-esque. The house opens to reveal a hearth, a breakfront with many shelves of crockery, and whatnots with photographs. Heidi A. Hermiller’s working-class costumes give the performers a kind of weathered humility.
The conceit of this Welsh “Revels” is that it’s taking place in a village not so different from the one Thomas describes, and from time to time interlocutor Billy Meleady recites from Thomas’s story and the Revels players act it out. There’s also a nod to Welsh mythology in the story of birth of the legendary bard Taliesin.
Revels puts its special stamp on this material from the outset. The village men enter, in darkness, down the Sanders Theatre aisles, wearing miner’s helmets and headlamps, to be greeted by their women and children on stage. Meleady, explaining the difference between north and south Wales, points out slyly that in the north, “they all speak Welsh — especially if you don’t.” And the familiar “Men of Harlech” has hilarious new lyrics written by Cooper. The various traditional lyrics describe the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle in the 1460s; this new version, sung by men wearing red-and-white-striped mufflers, starts, “Men of Harlech, homeward riding, we sure gave that team a hiding,” a teasing reference to Wales’s 28-25 victory over England in this summer’s Rugby World Cup.
The usual “Christmas Revels” staples are in place: “The Lord of the Dance” closing out the first half of the program; the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance”; the audience singalong of “Dona Nobis Pacem”; the reading of “The Shortest Day”; and the concluding “Sussex Mummers’ Carol.” The Welsh numbers include “Ar Hyd y Nos” (“All Through the Night”) and “Llwyn Onn” (“The Ash Grove”). The Pinewoods Morris Men, in black and cornstalk yellow, contribute a rowdy “Border Morris Dance.” The Caerphilly Children reenact, in “Dryw Bach” (“Little Wren”), the ritual procession of the wren on St. Stephen’s Day and offer a Welsh version of “Frog Went A-Courting.” In the “Mari Lwyd” (“Gray Mare”) segment, wassailers have to rhyme for their supper.
The highlight of every “Christmas Revels” is invariably the mummers’ play, and this year is no exception. The traditional English mummers’ play pits St. George against the Dragon. In this Welsh version, it’s Meleady’s Irish Knight who comes out spoiling for a fight, but his wooden sword is no match for the bluster, or the swagger stick, of Steve Vaughan’s helmeted English White Dragon, who sports a handlebar mustache on his stiff upper lip and a Union Jack at the end of his tail. When David (Daniel Sheldon), the patron saint of Wales, has no better luck, the Red Dragon of Wales (Alexander Hall) comes to the rescue. The plot of a mummers’ play calls for the hero — here St. David — to die and be reborn. Usually the players ask is there a doctor in the house; in this production, however, the Fool Minister (Joshua Mackay Smith) simply places a leek — another symbol of Wales — on David’s breast and he comes back to life.
The storytellers — Meleady joined by Noni Lewis and Emma Crane Jaster — are animated; it’s a delight to see Lewis, as the enchantress Ceridwen, hopping after Jaster’s Gwion Bach, who will be swallowed and reborn as Taliesin. There’s fine solo singing, in Welsh and English, from David Coffin and Cristi Catt, and a kinetic clogging sequence from the Cardigan Chorus Dancers. “One Christmas was so much like another” is how Thomas starts his story, but every “Christmas Revels” is refreshingly different.