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A Witness at the Dawn of Faith

I’d like to pause my diatribe of liquid shit for a moment to pour instead unstinting praise over two dear, mad-genius friends. Yesterday I drove to Cardigan again to honour – there is no better word – the fifth annual manifestation of Holy Hiatus.

This cleansing ritual takes place in the wondrous timbered atrium of the Small World Centre, which started life as a venue for puppetry (if you’ve ever experienced a forty-foot-high character from the Mabinogion, the headless King Bran, you’ll know why the space is the shape it is, a soaring wigwam supported on huge ships’ masts) but which plays host to all sorts of artistic ‘interventions’, a genuine community facility for children of all ages. Unlike its voracious commercial neighbour, Theatr Mwldan, SWC is an architectural masterpiece in sustainable materials and a must-visit if you are ever in Cardigan, which you should sometimes be. You don’t have to live there.

A barefoot dancer performs a series of precise, sacerdotal gestures while rotating slowly around the marble floor of the conical space. In the centre is a table set obscurely with a bowl of water and a wilting pot plant on a lace doily; a tiny glass bell is rung at significant intervals by an acolyte who doubles as the tea lady. The audience – six at a time can be let in, but are ‘not to sit on the chair with the cushion’ – are each given a pebble for a ticket; high up in the Gods an unseen soprano accompanied by a drone from a harmonium sings, with only brief silences between repetitions, and with strange noises-off, a haunting 13th-century ballad, ‘Worldes Blysse ne Laste’ (The Happiness of the World Endureth Not).

The performance is sustained over six hours, with one fifteen-minute interval, but you are not expected to stay that long. Most people are emotionally overwhelmed after twenty minutes and either go for a chatty cup of tea and then plunge back in again for a second tearful immersion, or remember another appointment.

Overlaid recordings from previous years create impressionistic layers of ritual gestures and atmospheric sounds that take in all the respectful creaks and coughs of audiences, long-departed; the filtered birdsong from overwintered trees outside, the long-ago banging of doors and the distant hum and hoot of long-passed-by traffic in the high street. After five years, the original sounds and images have begun to fragment, blend and decay, but new ones are being added, creating a choral impasto that is haunting and timeless. The singer works this tapestry of sound, weaving ethereal new instrumental effects into each new cycle of the song, which she will repeat around ninety times in the course of the performance. It is the same, yet never the same song.

Thus, one imagines, is the ‘sacredness’ of all the sacred spaces of the world created, through the endless repetition down the generations of significant sounds and gestures that long ago lost their meaning, yet through the mere observance gained a continuance beyond themselves. Resonance is at the heart of all religions. Grasp that, and I can only commend Holy Hiatus to you as the most extraordinarily moving and powerful theatrical experience, pulling you back in time to bear witness at the dawn of faith. The singer is Lou Laurens, the dancer Maura Hazelden, the recordist is the film-maker Jacob Whittaker. CDs available.

Maura also captures strangely beautiful images of liminal things, those tiny rents in the fabric of the universe that you only notice out of the corner of your eye; and writes funny and enigmatic poetry. Her 16-page novella, “‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen”, is a witty and surreal deconstruction in which she cuts and pastes Austen’s own words and phrases to tell a story in which absolutely nothing happens. Familiar characters flicker in and out at random, insubstantial as ghosts, never completing their tasks or their setpiece speeches; in which sense it seems to re-embody the obsessive tedium of Austen itself.

There is something about the light in West Wales that suggests you are entering a more interesting dimension.

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