Dramatic interludes

6th February 1998 at 00:00
The Museum of Welsh Life is all set to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Valerie Hall visits its 100-acre site

Come on Ginger Head!", "Get him Gaudy Brown", yell the supporters of two cockerels fighting to the death in the circular arena of the 17th-century Cockpit Theatre. Eventually, poor Gaudy Brown pecks the dust, but, being a puppet, revives to fight another day.

The audience of seven to nine-year-olds from Ysgol Pum Hoel, Llanelli, has been "flown" back to 1680 by puppeteer Wing Commander Captain Fitzbarnard (aka Matthew Davies). Explaining that cockfighting venues were popular political and social gathering places, he picks Robert and Joey as "setters" to hold the birds and gauge whether they are similar in weight. Despite an obvious discrepancy, the boys, tipped the wink, agree they are.

The performance is being staged at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, Cardiff, by its theatre-in- education company, whose official launch will kick off a year of special events to mark the museum's 50th birthday.

Since 1948, the museum has re-erected within its 100 picturesque acres about 40 buildings from all over Wales dating from 1500. Filled with original furniture and objects donated by the people of Wales, they are a testament to how Welsh people worked, rested and played. There are also reconstructions of a Woodhenge and a Celtic village.

Visitors wander at will, struck by how real it all seems. Some areas even appear weathered and scruffy and if you open, say, a kitchen drawer, you find it crammed with authentic utensils. It is an environment where everything from the predominating language to the Black Welsh cows and mountain sheep is Welsh.

In the yard of the 1890s Maestir school, the erstwhile cockfighting spectators, now dressed in smocks and caps, are being drilled by a stern, tailcoated schoolmaster (Matthew Davies, education officer, although normally accom-panying teachers will have received a day's training in the role). "That was shambolic," he shouts when pupils fail to raise and lower their arms in unison.

Following a hand inspection at the door, they enter the one-room school (for ages five to 14) to receive a lesson in the 3Rs. A cane is hooked over the blackboard ready for use on pupils caught speaking Welsh. Offenders are forced to wear a Welsh knot (a piece of wood on a string) round their necks, which they can only get rid of by snitching on someone else. When the day ends, whoever is wearing it will be caned. The master also intimidates his pupils by pointing at them with a wooden clicking device - two clicks mean they have made a mistake and must start again.

Within landscaped gardens is the largest building, St Fagans Castle, a mansion built here in 1580 on the site of a Norman castle. Kennixton Farm House, painted red to ward off evil spirits, was built in Gower in 1610 and added to subsequently. Furnished 1790s style, it shows how a wealthy family would have lived. Other structures include a circular pig sty; water driven corn mill; a post office from 1936, the smallest ever built in Wales; an oak bark tannery; and the "Harrods of Wales", the Gwalia Stores built in 1880. Several buildings house working craftsmen such as the saddler, smith, woodturner, cooper, weaver and potter (children can throw their own pots for 50p). Victorian washing days are conducted in an outhouse for key stage 1 children.

Particularly intriguing is a terrace of iron-workers' houses displayed as they would have looked in 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955 and 1985. Even the facades, gables, roof tiles, gardens, livestock and poultry change accordingly. Features include the 1955 house's living shed in the garden built so the house parlour could be kept for "best". Pigeons are bred in one of the gardens, which the museum races.

In the Celtic village, children can have a go at using a drop spindle, grinding corn on saddle and Roman rotary querns and making a wattle and daub fence. Among the objects inside the houses are weaving looms, fire-dogs, shields and ovens.

The theatre company's launch performance, under its new name of Anterliwt (interlude), is next Thursday.

According to company manager, Jo Price, "16th-century interludes were satirical, humorous performances done from the back of a cart by strolling players - we are carrying on that tradition".

They have enhanced the education programme for some time with interpretations of characters in cottages, the eccentric Dr William Price (pioneer of cremation), a 1940s evacuee in the post office, a 1920s sales assistant in the Gwalia Stores, Woodhenge in 2000 BC, and the Rebecca Riots of the late 1830s, when women with blackened faces smashed tollgates which levied a tax on lime. They also, in the guise of Roundheads and Cavaliers, run a secondary workshop in which they attempt to recruit soldiers for the Battle of St Fagans. Afterwards students give their reasons for supporting one side or the other.

Other events in the Museumof Welsh Life's anniversaryyear include: The Battle of St Fagans (a Sealed Knot re-enactment)and a May Fair, May 2-4; Midsummer Fair with international and Welsh folk dancing festivals, June 20-21; reopening of St Fagans Castle after refurbishment with free entry and an evening of fireworks and music, July 4; Everyman Theatre Festival (Merchant of Venice, and Rumpelstiltskin), July 22-August 1; and Calan Galaf, a Hallowe'en celebration featuring torch-lit ghost tours, October 31 u The Museum of Welsh Life, tel: 01222 573418573424. Admission free to local schools; others Pounds 1.75 per student (peak season), Pounds 1.40 (winter) u To help schools make themost of visits, teachers' courses costing Pounds 15-Pounds 25 are held on the earliest peoples; Celts, Tudors and Stewarts; school role-play session; artefact handling and storytelling.

Free preview visits and worksheets are available

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