Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Matthew Bulgo - Last Christmas

Matthew Bulgo is preparing for Christmas. The writer, actor and director has just finished performing in a successful run of Kenny Morgan, Mike Poulton's play about Terence Rattigan seen at the Arcola Theatre in London, and is back home in Cardiff, “gearing down for Christmas,” as he puts it. The next couple of weeks will see Bulgo dragged away from his downtime and taking a train to Edinburgh to see the first night of a revival of his own play, Last Christmas, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week.

As the title suggests, Bulgo's one-man play, presented by Welsh new writing theatre company, Dirty Protest, and performed by Sion Pritchard, is set around the festive season, and follows the fortunes of one man taking stock of his life during an already emotionally charged time of year.

“It's about a man who has lost his father and become a father in the space of a year,” says Bulgo. “He's travelling home for Christmas, and he's a little angry and a little bitter about something, and he realises he's not been back home for Christmas for quite a long time. He's scared to commit and to connect with that part of his life, but he's forced to face up to his demons.”

While the play's tale of one man's redemption as he works through certain things in his life in order to find a greater meaning sounds like a typical seasonal tale, Bulgo insists that Last Christmas isn't a festive show. This is borne out by it's appearance at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it won plaudits enough to see it transfer to Soho Theatre.

“Christmas felt like the right time to set it,” Bulgo explains. “It's a time when normal life is put on hold, and it's a time when you think about the past and the future, and I felt it was the right time to put the character of Tom in the play in certain proximity to those things in a way that he has to accept the future, whatever that may be.”

The roots of Last Christmas stem from My Father's Hands, a ten minute play which Bulgo wrote as part of new writing company Paines Plough's Come to Where I'm From project, which was based around the idea of home.

“I ended up writing this piece based around my love/hate relationship with my home town, which is Swansea,” says Bulgo. “it was quite poetic in its form, and it was quite auto-biographical as well in terms of how the character in the play had to come to terms with certain times and certain people.”

Playwright and Dirty Protest collaborator Tim Price saw My Father's Hands, “and basically bullied me into writing a full length version, which became a lot less auto-biographical. I think the ten minute version lacked dramatic drive and structure, but in the full length version, I've tried to open things out so that while Tom can't see the solution to his problems, the audience very much can.”

Last Christmas saw Bulgo named Best Playwright at the 2015 Wales Theatre Awards, while the show, directed by Kate Wasserberg, was nominated for Best Production at the Theatre Critics of Wales Awards the same year.

Bulgo was last at the Traverse as an actor, when he appeared in Price's rock and roll allegory for a broken Britain, I'm With the Band. Bulgo's work with Price includes appearing in The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion, a play for children scripted by Price and inspired by Candylion, a solo album by Gruff Rhys of iconic Welsh band Super Furry Animals,. Bulgo describes the show, which was produced by the NTW for its 2015 Christmas show as “like being at a gig full of children.”

That show was directed and co-created by Wils Wilson, known to Scottish audiences for her National Theatre of Scotland collaboration with writer David Greig on The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. Wilson also directed Bulgo in another Price/Rhys/NTW collaboration, Praxis Makes Perfect, which focused on the life of Italian communist millionaire, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

“I was thinking about the play this week after Fidel Castro died,” says Bulgo, “because there's a scene in it where Feltrinelli and Castro play basketball.”

It was Price who first got Bulgo involved in Dirty Protest, and both they and the company are at the vanguard of a new wave of Welsh theatre. This can be seen too in the recent visit to the Traverse by the Cardiff-based Sherman Theatre with Gary Owen's play, Iphigenia in Splott, which was overseen by the Sherman's artistic director Rachel O'Riordan, was previously in charge of Perth Theatre. The arrival of the National Theatre of Wales in 2009 too has galvanised the country's theatre-makers in much the same way the National Theatre of Scotland did when it arrived on the scene. It was Dirty Protest, set up in 2007 by a loose-knot collective of writers, actors and directors, who arguably laid the groundwork for the current spate of activity, as Bulgo explains.

“Dirty Protest was set up to fill a gap,” he says, “because no theatre company in Wales has a dedicated literary department. The country has an extraordinary number of writers and theatre-makers, but there aren't many outlets for them. When Rachel arrived at the Sherman that was really important, because it felt like no-one had been really pushing new writing. The National Theatre of Wales was really important as well, and Dirty Protest has collaborated with both the Sherman and the NTW, and there are lots of independent theatre companies that have started up on the back of them, but as long as there is a lack of focus on new work beyond all that then we'll still pump our limbs and try to fill the gap.”

Bulgo may be taking it easy just now since he finished on Kenny Morgan, but that doesn't look set to last long. He's currently working on a new play for Theatre Clwyd, the North Wales based centre where Wasserberg is new plays director and Bulgo was writer in residence. He is also writing Yolo, a play for young people scheduled to form part of the National Theatre's annual NT Connections season in 2017. Then there is Operation Julie, an NTW seed commission which looks set to be produced in 2018, while next year will see a plethora of activity in celebration of Dirty Protest's tenth anniversary. Before all that, however, Bulgo has the season that inspired Last Christmas to think about.

“I'll be going home for Christmas,” he says. “I've spent every single Christmas in Swansea with my mum and my brother. And that will give me the chance to reflect on the year gone by and to look forward to next year, whatever it may bring.”

Last Christmas, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 13-23.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, December 13th 2016

ends

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