Preview: Gaudete

A French theatre company is bringing its latest production to the north after realising the setting was integral to its adaptation of Ted Hughes’s Gaudete

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It’s not one of his better-known works but Yorkshire-born poet Ted Hughes worked for 10 years in the sixties and seventies on a prose poem called Gaudete. Finally published with a prologue and epilogue in 1977, a few years before Hughes became Poet Laureate, it tells the story of the vicar of an English village who is carried off by elemental spirits and replaced by his double. This changeling is a force of nature who organises the village’s Women’s Institute into a “love coven” so that he can father a new messiah. But when the male members of the community discover what is going on, they murder him.

That may well sound a bit like a lurid Hammer film plot, and Hughes actually had originally conceived Gaudete as a film script. But a stage version of the poem from OBRA Theatre, touring the north this month with an eight-piece international cast and live junkyard percussion, was directly inspired by the poem’s actual words, says British-born director Kate Hannah Papi.

With Italian-born Oliviero Papi, she’s one of two core members of a unique ensemble, based in the Au Brana Centre in southern France, a 300 year-old barn they’ve converted themselves into a rehearsal and residential space.

“When our company makes performances for the stage we always work from texts that weren’t originally imagined for the stage,” she says. “I actually knew very little about Ted Hughes himself and we certainly didn’t know anything about the text when we first read it. Oli found a copy of Gaudete in a second-hand bookshop in London’s Portobello Road Market, then got on the Circle Line and had to sit on the train until he’d finished it. I had a similar experience when I was completely gripped for several hours in a café in Rome.

“We’re interested in that very private relationship that the reader develops with an author’s poems or novels. So the way that we work is very much about the relationship that a performer can develop with the language, expressed through movement.”

When they first started making the show in 2009, Papi says: “We just had a desire to explore it physically, to taste the words.”

They hope their production will have the same effect on audiences.

“What you really hope when you approach any piece of art is that it will take you on a journey to surprise and unsettle you, to open up the world to you in a new way.”

It was also very important to start the tour in the north, Papi feels.

“We had only ever experienced the landscape through Hughes’s words. Once we came to the area, it felt really familiar and we realised how integral it was to the story.”

Their stage version is based on the first two parts of Hughes’s poem, but they will be integrating the epilogue soon.

“Quite simply, no other text has touched me like this,” she says. “It is complex, beautiful and shows us the terrifying cruelty that man is capable of, yet offers us a form of redemption through a recognition of nature’s place in our world, and an acceptance of life in all its complexity.”

Gaudete is at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (14-15 March); Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, Liverpool (17-18 March); the Lowry, Salford (20-21 March); and the Civic, Barnsley (24 March)

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