I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a most wonderful weekend. A lovely weekend. A Laugharne Weekend, and many laughs were to be had at Laugharne. Yet the fun began early, as my weekends frequently seem to these days, kicking off with the press night for Shelf Life at The Old Library in Swansea on Thursday, the second of twelve new productions being put on across Wales this year by the so-far-so-damn-good National Theatre of Wales. They continue to set the standard high.
After nibbles and natters upstairs in the Old Police Station where an exhibition of wire works by Swansea artist Debbie Evans Quek graced the walls, we were ushered down to the sunny courtyard for the start of the evening’s innovative often-improvised acts. The site-specific promenade performance screams Volcano Theatre, who here combine their groundbreaking talents with the Welsh National Opera (WNO). This time their chosen stages were within the oh-so-familiar-to-me grand space of the Victorian library, a favourite hangout for over a decade, and a former star of the shadowy 2008 Doctor Who episode ‘Silence in the Library’.
[Full cast: Nigel Barrett, Gerard Bell, Lindsey Butcher, Theo Clinkard, Jane Guernier and Anna Bjerre Larsen]
In the evening sun a middle-aged librarian rants eccentrically while washing book pages and quoting Dylan Thomas. Large piles of books are artfully scattered about us. A harnessed acrobatic artist dances across the external walls of the building. A community choir of interestingly-attired masked bookworms sing their hearts out under the careful conducting of the WNO. A young couple race through the space, fighting. The audience are picked off by actors. I joined the first group to be taken through the building, coerced into ‘The Stacks,’ a dusty cellar space below the Reading Room where nothing was quite what it seemed. You could smell the history down there – the library opened in 1887 and closed with little uproar in 2007, moving to the more modern concrete building of County Hall. It has housed over a century’s worth of books and knowledge, as well as the bodies of those who died during the Blitz. As I wandered amongst the dark walkways, sandwiched between empty floor-to-ceiling shelving a voice sang out from the corner nearest me, I was suddenly alone and beckoned to a siren holding a flower, peering coquettishly at me from a hole in the wall beyond the shelves. Anna, one half of the earlier arguing couple, converses with me for a while, about words and emotions. She takes my palm and reads it, traces ‘the book line’ with a finger – ‘You like to read, don’t you?’ Yes, yes I do.
The experience is fragmentary, no one person taking the same journey through the work. Upstairs Anna reappears, skipping with a rope at the top of the stairs, she hands us library cards and tells us to seek out the corresponding book inside. Up on the balcony, beneath the ornate glass dome roof, I find my book – The Karma Sutra, as translated by the famous explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton. I’m not sure what else it was the actress read on my palm earlier, but I feel amused nonetheless. The main thrust of the show begins; an improvised chatter between librarians on the eve of the library’s closure. They eat a feast of grapes, cheese and wine, pontificating. They dance. Some appear a little tipsy, others get naked, a nod to the thrills of really ‘getting under the covers’ and getting away with it in the whispering places, ducking out of sight of those disapproving looks, the audible tut-tuts. They throw paper planes made from the pages of books. They slow down, nostalgic for the written word in physical form, and in the era of digitalisation it seems all the more resonant. Much as I adore the new Central Swansea Library with its sea views, beach proximity and window seats, it doesn’t give me the goose pimples of the dark round old Reading Room with its dark wood and mustiness… it is like comparing an aircon-breezy Border’s against the best second hand bookstores, where whole days disappear through a lack of natural light and old leather spines promising intrigue, interest, and delight and often delivering.
Book lovers will love Shelf Life all the more for the setting and subject matter – indeed a range of welsh creative men including Owen Sheers, Matthew David Scott, Michael Sheen, Nigel Jenkins and Marc Rees were all spotted there on the night I attended, lucky me. This charming if slightly scatty show runs until 25 April; do go and see it, but remember to “Please. Be. Quiet!”