Sunday, October 30, 2005

Halloween: The First Night

Last night was the first of the 'Halloween evenings' at Tredegar House. I have reprised my role as Dr Jekyll. This means that I am one of the more respectably dressed characters that visitors to the House will encounter (and, believe me, they encounter some terrifying figures!). Dressed in my black cut-away coat I am sure I look the very model of Victorian elegance, as I welcome people into the Dining Room, which has been converted for the occasion into Dr Jekyll's study. By the end of the evening, however, after over three hours of doing the same thing over and over, I begin to look a bit bedraggled, the healthy shine gone from my cheeks, and my throat aching from all that coughing, spluttering and choking from drinking the 'potion'. Such is life. Mr Hyde, in his grotesque rubber mask, gets it much tougher. My job is a relatively easy one this year. I set the scene, Hyde makes 'em scream.

After re-reading 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' I have come to the surprising conclusion that I would probably be better suited to playing Hyde. My diminutive height and slight frame are much more in keeping with Stevenson's original description of the evil Hyde than that of the 'good' doctor. But since Halloween at Tredegar is basically about scaring people witless (and we certainly did that last night!), it is far better for Hyde to be more physically imposing and menacing than I could muster. Listen no more to my slightly jealous outpourings, it is just that I have come to the conclusion that at Tredegar House, at Halloween at least, bad guys DO get all the fun!

I think last night went quite well. Most people turn up to enjoy themselves; they laugh easily, scream easily, and generally do all the things you hope they will do, and a good time is had by all. Then there are those who see walking through the House as a challenge, almost an affront to their pride, they claim to have nerves of steel. These people are often teenagers, they stand surly with crossed arms, determined that nothing will make them smile, and nothing will make them scream. It is hard to make such people smile, but the satisfaction of making them jump is immense!

Dr Jekyll will be experimenting again tonight and tomorrow. I am sure the crowds will get livelier the closer we get to the night of Halloween itself.

Oh, and on a far brighter note, I hear that the Edney Gates gilding process is expected to be completed by March.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Ifor ap Llewelyn: 'Ifor Hael' (3)

"It is here that nobility resides, where there is feasting and where comforts are nurtured: a fair lordship and dukedom has been established near Basaleg." So wrote Dafydd ap Gwilym, of Ifor Hael's Llys (or 'court') at Gwern y Cleppa in the 14th century.

Ifor ap Llewelyn, second son of Llewelyn ap Ifor and Angharad of Tredegar, was assured by his bard that "As long as the Welsh language continues your praise will be sung." As the Eistedfodd returned to the grounds of Tredegar House last year, it was readily apparent that Dafydd was as good as his word. The name of Ifor Hael (Ifor the Generous, as Dafydd termed him) has indeed lived on.

Dafydd ap Gwilym, like Ifor, had roots in Dyfed. There has been speculation that political problems involving his family forced the bard to move to Gwent. Some have called Dafydd the greatest of all Welsh poets, and certainly the most renowned bard of medieval Wales. It was at Gwern y Cleppa, at the court of Ifor Hael, that he enjoyed the munificent hospitality that inspired some of his greatest work. It was to prove an excellent partnership. Ifor could not have wished for a better man to sing his praises, and ultimately, to immortalise him.

The atmosphere at Gwern y Cleppa in those days can be imagined. It was described as a centre of civilised living, as being the very symbol of gentility, grace and luxury, where the spirit of chivalry mixed with the old Welsh traditions. As head of the Llys, Ifor Hael, Dafydd tells us, was the embodiment of courage, wisdom, generosity and justice. He was compared to Rhydderch Hael, one of the three generous men of the Isle of Britain. The bard certainly enjoyed his stays:

"drinking with Ifor, and shooting straight-running great stags. And casting hawks to the sky and wind, and beautiful verses, and solace in Bassaleg."

Sadly for our so far idyllic story, it was not just the free-flowing drink with Ifor, and the great stags near Gwern y Cleppa, that appealed to Dafydd; he was appointed to act as tutor to Ifor's daughter and, rather inconveniently, fell in love with her. It can be imagined how the music and gaiety suddenly stopped at Llys Ifor Hael when the great man discovered this. Greatly disapproving of such a match, Ifor sent his daughter to Anglesey, away from the romantic attentions of the silken tongued bard. Dafydd promptly followed to Angelsey, but was ultimately frustrated, not least by the fact that Ifor's daughter took the veil and became a nun. The breach with his patron was not critical however, and Dafydd returned to Gwent, and continued showering praise on Ifor. ( In later years Dafydd again fell in love controversially, and Ifor welcomed the couple to Gwern y Cleppa)

The Morgans of Tredegar were well aware of the importance of their illustrious forbear, and for many years, an avenue of trees led from Tredegar House to the old Llys at Gwern y Cleppa, which became, not so much a physical court, but more a spiritual one for the Morgans. Ifor Hael became not just a man, but an ideal to aspire to. His name was evoked many times in the history of the Morgans: Sir John ap Morgan made the halls of Tredegar ring with song with his employment of Welsh bards, as did the Elizabethan adventurer Miles Morgan; we can see strains of Ifor's princely hospitality in the socialising of Sir William Morgan in the early 18th century, and the lavish praise Ifor received found a mirror in the praise poured on Sir Charles Morgan in the 19th century ("One of the Kings of south Wales"). Ifor's name was frequently used by the Morgans in political campaigns. Who would dare to oppose a descendant of Ifor Hael in south Wales? Had the electors not read their Dafydd ap Gwilym?

Perhaps the closest the Morgans ever reached to the heady adulation and reputation enjoyed by Ifor came in the late Victorian era, when the war hero and generous public benefactor Godfrey Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar, was acclaimed in the area as, what else?, 'Ifor Hael the Second'.

Although Ifor's reputation remained untarnished, the old court of Gwern y Cleppa did not. The 18th century bard Evan Evans (1731-1788) who went by the name Ieuan Brydydd Hir visited it, and wrote:

"Ifor Hael's court, wretched sight, lies destroyed
Just heaps of stones in the trees
Where the thorns and brambles grow
In the place where majesty flourished"

There is very little to see now at Gwern y Cleppa, the site itself has not been built on, but, in the words of Ieuan: "The ancient paths where there was once song are now the haunts of owls."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Another Season Ends

The House is now closed for public tours and thoughts turn to the end of October. Fake cobwebs will soon be put up; real cobwebs will be left up, and preparations are underway for Halloween. What ghoulish suprises will await visitors to Tredegar this year? More to the point what situations will the staff find themselves in? My roles in the past have included Dr Jekyll, a vicar at a vampire wedding, Professor Van Helsing (complete with 'interesting' Dutch accent), Dennis Samosa (a dodgy medium, complete with rather erratic scouse accent) and the Witchfinder General (my accent for this was perfect, but nobody has been able to ascertain exactly what accent it was supposed to be. I like to leave a certain mystery about my performances, it covers up for a spectacular lack of acting talent).

In other news:

The Edney Gates gilding process continues. The gates are currently covered with blue tarpaulin to protect the work from the elements.

A 17th century themed wedding took place at Tredegar House on Saturday afternoon. Practically every guest was attired in costume from the civil war period. Most were cavaliers, but, as I was told by one man brandishing a particularly sharp looking sword and a suspicious countenance, a few parliamentarians had sneaked in, too. The bride and groom were given a guard of honour of raised swords as they left the House.

The 'History of the Morgans' series will continue tomorrow, with the third instalment: Ifor Hael.