Last year, Company of Sirens and Sight Life Wales collaborated on an innovative installation piece called ‘With Eyes Closed’, in which people with sight loss shared stories from their lives. The theatrical space was transformed into a beach, and the performers would unearth a memento from the sand and from their past. Their second collaboration, ‘How My Light is Spent’, was postponed in August due to covid, and finally premiered this week with two highly in-demand performances at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. It takes inspiration from the sonnet of the same name by John Milton (author of ‘Paradise Lost’) who lost his own sight around the time of its publication.
The company’s phenomenal debut caught me completely off guard, and it meant that I walked into the ‘sequel’ with high expectations – and it exceeded every one. What the creative team has achieved here is nothing short of profound: a level of emotional authenticity and community that sets a new standard for what theatre can achieve.
Many of the performers from ‘With Eyes Closed’ return here, and it is a joy to see them grow to new heights both as individual storytellers and as a group – so, first and foremost, kudos to Roz Grimble, Sharon Hale, Emma Juliet Lawton, John Sanders, Lou Lockwood, and Jane McCann. Their reflections here centre on their experiences in lockdown, and of their relationship with their senses and with nature.
Each performer brings their own distinct light, letting their unique personalities and voices shine (they also do this literally: when each takes centre stage, they are illuminated by a different colour, having worked with lighting designer Dan Young to convey the unique shade of their story). Alastair Sill provides characterful audio description and acts as both guide and emcee, leading them to the stage and lending an attentive ear to their stories. In the forest setting, his performance takes on an otherworldly quality: a sweeter, gentler Puck watching the dreamers’ visions unfold.
The set, designed by Edwina Williams-Jones, is strewn with autumnal leaves and twigs that crackle underfoot, creating a tactile image of a forest out of time. Sion Berry’s multimedia films, Chris Durnall’s direction and Stacey Blythe’s music are, themselves, sources of light: they guide, encourage and illuminate the performers without turning the attention on themselves. The piece is cleverly bookended by Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ and Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ which resonate with the themes of the piece, and Blythe’s use of both accordion and harp interweave the merry with the melancholic (and there really aren’t enough accordion dance breaks in modern theatre!)
The piece is a rich, engrossing experience: stories of happiness and hardship alike are told with compassion and without compromise, and always with a light touch and a sense of humour. What the cast does here transcends ‘acting’: this is soul-deep communication, a placing of story in the palm of your hand. The sense of community, too, is moving. You see, the forest can liberate but it can also entrap: only by telling our story, and guiding each other through the darkness, can we be truly free.
The first play was themed around water – this one, earth. Perhaps in their third collaboration, Company of Sirens and Sight Life will take to the skies. In many ways, they already have.
‘How My Light is Spent’ performed at Chapter Arts Centre on 18 and 19 November 2022. Company of Sirens will restage ‘Stone the Crows’ in February 2023 (you can check out Get the Chance’s five-star review here) before premiering ‘Rhapsody’, a new play about pioneering Welsh writer Dorothy Edwards, at Chapter in May.