REVIEW by Sophie Baggott

NWR Issue r18

Two Reviews: My Body Welsh & Wear and Tear

My Body Welsh: A Myth-stery of Skeletal Proportions by Tara Robinson and Steffan Donnelly
Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life by Tracy Tynan

Cover_The Threads of My Life

True to its frank and eccentric form, My Body Welsh is only a few lines into the script before we are hit with a rather full-frontal observation:

If I were to take off all my clothes…
You would see more of my body.
But you wouldn’t know it was a Welsh body.
And yet here I am: Welsh, tall and skinny.

This nonconformist play has a habit of stripping concepts back to their simplest elements. Some of Wales’ most celebrated, centuries-old myths are simmered and summed up in a smattering of lines; modern controversies are whisked into instantly identifiable, damning one-liners. Co-playwrights Tara Robinson and Steffan Donnelly have tossed together the old with the new, creating a live wire of a play: electrifyingly unpredictable and grippingly current.

Steffan – whom we immediately, intimately get to know through his striptease-esque remark above – is the play’s single performer. He addresses the audience mostly in English, throwing in the odd Welsh-language passage, to narrate his investigations into a mysterious discovery of a skeleton from the 1830s in a local well. This momentous find is all a bit too much for the village, which cancels its eisteddfod and runs headlines speculating as to whose ancestral burial place the well might be.

Our teenage narrator is preoccupied with the idea of ownership. ‘Owning things is a big drive for people’, he repeatedly asserts. Steffan tends to support such bold claims with historical (read: mythical) precedents. The giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr, he says, was a prime example of someone who always wanted to leave his name on stuff. This particular criticism is a million miles from the conspicuous materialism of the other book reviewed here – clothing designer Tracy Tynan’s memoir, Wear and Tear, about her rocky childhood and glamorous, global lifestyle.

Where these two texts overlap is in their belief in storytelling’s ability to fills gaps – even in the most physical sense. Tynan perceives items of clothing as narratives, holding histories and stories within their folds. As a child, she lurches for a pair of shoes or a fur coat to close the gulf of her absentee parents: ‘In a world where most everything else felt out of control, having control over the clothes I wore filled a hole.’ Meanwhile, in My Body Welsh, Steffan scurries after unravelling threads to solve the mystery of the skeleton's backstory and thereby win over his crush, Gwen. He cites the story of Macsen Wledig – a legendary version of Magnus Maximus, who succeeds in finding his ideal woman by chasing a dream. (‘I’m not saying I believe all stories but, well, I have seen Gwen in my dreams’, Steffan admits.)

With a nod to the unreliable historical chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, Steffan brings up the very contemporary issue of ‘fake news’ repeatedly in My Body Welsh. The play alludes to scandals as recent as the shameless lies publicised by the Leave campaign leading up to the EU Referendum:

Because once something is written down, whether it’s in a book or a newspaper, on a webpage or on the side of a campaign bus, it really does lose its vagueness and it takes on a life of its own.
This should be stopped, this authorisation of lies.
But how?

The plot winds around the theme, weaving a similar web of untruths. We are urged not to trust institutions, and not to believe all we read. ‘Story after story. So many tales’, Steffan notes sadly, ‘Round and round.’ Careful stagecraft reinforces the messages, playing back the last line on loop at different pitches or paces. The truth becomes ‘just one’ of these stories.

The performative (that is, deceptive by nature) context of these comments doesn’t go unnoticed. At one point in the narrator’s budding attempt at romance, he ruefully says: ‘Roedd o i gyd yn berfformiad, yndo’?’ (It was all a performance, wasn’t it?) Occasionally, the play verges onto the hyper frenetic, the too excitable side of the tracks. Reams of capital letters reiterate the legend of Gelert, a heroic dog killed by error: ‘BAM / BAM / KILL THE DOG / KILL GELERT / KILL HIM DEAD’ – and it goes on, ad nauseam. Stage directions suggest Steffan wields ‘a sauce squeeze bottle’ to shoot jets of water on himself while enacting this scene. Audiences, be warned – this play is of the ‘direct engagement’ species that is becoming more and more common (though Marmiteish) in pockets of Welsh theatre.

And Welsh this play certainly is. Aside from the constant bubbling of Wales’ pool of myth, and bilingualism, we are treated to a narrator who wants to sacrifice (to the water gods) anyone whose stories can’t be trusted or who ‘don’t seem quite… Welsh… enough’. Even the title is a direct acknowledgement of the word order in the Welsh language, in which adjectives largely follow nouns. A passage condemning the Romans’ degrading yoke of slavery, which was once knotted around Wales, might in fact be intended to read as an analogy of England’s treatment of the country in millennia since.

The ending is smart, funny, and serves to circle back to the wheel of deceit that careens right through the play. Who do we trust? Who is telling the truth? Don’t expect any answers to that.

By strange coincidence both books reviewed here are split into thirty-six parts; while My Body Welsh mostly names each part after the nub of an old myth or a plot twist, in Wear and Tear, Tynan has chapter headings that denote specific pieces of clothing of personal importance. These range from The Lemon-Yellow Underpants to Sexcapades and the Plaid Pinafores. From the outset, Tynan does not shy away from the reason behind her reliance on clothing to pick herself up. Her parents’ volatile marriage instils in her anxiety and loneliness, which are eased somewhat by a fascination with tactile clothes.

Tracy Tynan’s father, Kenneth Tynan, was a famous playwright but a seemingly lousy father. Take, for example, this conversation recounted by his daughter: ‘You always have a sadness about you, Tracy… You wear your heart on your sleeve. You should cover up how you feel more.’

She then recalls a moment when he said during her teenage years: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re not beautiful.’ Coming from a public figure who was well known to surround himself with stunning-looking high-profile people, this was bound to hurt his impressionable adolescent daughter. Her sense of self-worth, already fragile, was thus further undermined. Self-esteem is a problem for both My Body Welsh fictional narrator Steffan and the autobiographical narrator Tracy Tynan. While the playwrights sculpt Steffan into an awkward teenager obsessed with his skinniness, Tynan confides throughout her memoir that she struggled with her confidence during and after her turbulent childhood.

In contrast with the fast-paced, high-voltage dynamism of My Body Welsh, Wear and Tear is a slow but engrossing read. The memoir has an energy that feels stronger, deeper, than the play – naturally so, given that Tynan’s book is a work guiding us as observers along a lifetime from pain, through stoic progress, to resolution. There are laugh-aloud passages in the latter, as well as moments that prick the tear glands. In all honestly, I hadn’t expected to become as involved in her story as I was. Fashion has certainly never been at the forefront of my consciousness, but the author in no way resembles the superficiality of the industry. Instead she delves into the psychological complexities of her family’s makeup, and how this affects her own future relationships.

The significance and omnipresence of our ancient collective stories also stands in Wear and Tear, though more subtly so than in My Body Welsh. Tracy Tynan speaks in admiration of many women in her life, particularly a colleague, Harriet, who had opted for a mastectomy as a cure for breast cancer:

Her courageous attitude reminded me of the myth of the women warriors of the Amazon who removed their breasts to make firing a bow and arrow easier.

Tynan reinvigorates the worth that clothing can hold for individuals. The fashion industry may appear somewhat stale or cutthroat to many, but the author reminds us of how clothing’s allure can work, for example when it symbolises control or power, in a purer, more innate sense. An especially moving chapter is the one in which she describes how, as a young child, she used to sleep with her mother’s fur coat tucked around her. Tynan’s mother, the author Elaine Dundy, had little time for her and often had disturbing fits of drunken rage or hysteria. On one of these nights, she was woken by screaming and ran to her parents’ room, where she saw her father threaten to hurl himself out of the window and her mother nakedly, coldly encouraging him. Tynan swiped the coat off her bed the following morning and never borrowed it again.

The appeal of clothing for Tynan lies in its capacity to ‘have a history and tell a story’, she repeats towards the end of her beautiful, candid and compelling memoir. It is perhaps unsurprising that later in life she is drawn to work as a designer on theatre sets, helping to narrate a story through what the protagonists wear. While Steffan in My Body Welsh works constantly to shed layers of deceit or ambiguity from his myth-stery of the skeleton (as de-clothed as one can get), Tynan enjoys piling on the layers and giving as much backstory as possible.

I hope that what I wear will always be a reflection of my personality and history… and I hope, as I grow older, that I shall continue to be curious and discover new stories to tell.

These texts wind their idiosyncratic way through their respectively fictional and real-life histories. And while being entirely different in content and style, they share an underlying conviction: one must find and tell stories to find meaning, by whatever means possible.

Sophie Baggot recently completed a MA in Journalism at Cardiff University in her home city.


previous review: Discovering Dylan Thomas
next review: David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet


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