Seiriol Davies: ‘Musical theatre can sneak things into people’s heads’
After storming Edinburgh with his musical about a disgraced cross-dressing aristocrat, Seiriol Davies’ latest show is a cabaret of songs banned by the Nazis. He tells Natasha Tripney how music goes straight to the heart
In 1938, the Nazis held an exhibition that was intended to showcase everything they felt went against their musical culture. The work on display was described as “an effigy of wickedness”. In 1930s Germany, music was seen as something to fear and therefore something that needed to be controlled. This idea, coupled with the subversive underground nature of the Weimar cabaret scene, provides the inspiration for the Gate Theatre’s new co-production with English National Opera, which takes its title from that description.
Based on an original idea by baritone Peter Brathwaite, the show is directed by the Gate Theatre’s Ellen McDougall and features Brathwaite and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray along with cabaret artists La Gateau Chocolat and Lucy McCormick. Reworked versions of songs by artists including Brecht and Weill will have lyrics by composer and theatremaker Seiriol Davies.
“Sometimes the reaction of people in power to music is what gives it its power,” Davies says, as he describes the counter-intuitive way that people were invited to view the art the Nazis proposed to ban. “There was big curly writing on the wall in German, going: ‘Isn’t this stupid! Look at all this crap! Do not look at this art!’ ”
The show’s structure, he explains, will emulate the exhibition to an extent. “While there’s an anthropological and historical side to it, you can’t get away from the fact that these songs were created as entertainment. You don’t want to go too far into relic territory.”
“I don’t speak German,” he continues. “So I worked from detailed literal translations with annotations such as ‘this is a rude pun’ or ‘this had a particular meaning at the time’. We’re not slavishly recreating them. We’re trying to see what I can bring out of the text that is of that time but also of this time.”
“There’s one line that’s so heartbreaking,” he says by way of example. “It goes: ‘Europe is finished! Europe is finished!’ ”
“I didn’t need to change that one,” he adds drily.
Creating the show has been a collaborative process and the songs are being approached in different musical styles: “Some of them are full arias, some are more vaudeville and others are quite poppy.”
Davies describes feeling an affinity for the material, particularly the “deliberately overwrought puns”. In this examination and celebration of difference through song, there’s a thematic overlap with his 2016 show, How to Win Against History, an exuberant – and pun-filled – biographical musical about the life of Henry Cyril Paget, fifth Marquis of Anglesey, a man with a fondness for cross-dressing and performance who was systematically erased from his family narrative.
After a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for which he won The Stage Edinburgh Award, How to Win was picked up by the Young Vic, where it was staged in December.
These themes continue in the show he is currently rehearsing, when not working on Effigies of Wickedness. He describes that show, Milky Peaks, as “Under Milk Wood meets Twin Peaks meets South Park”.
“It’s a small-town story, a community story but it’s also about all sorts of communities.” Davies explains that the show is about queerness, nationalism, victim culture and “the borders we build around ourselves and how we police those borders to exclude other people in order to define ourselves – but with songs and sparkle”.
Born in north Wales, Davies grew up in a musical family – his father is a composer – and as a child was often on stage. “I grew up in the heartland of Welsh-language Wales,” he explains, adding that he participated in eisteddfods. “You could spend a Saturday every summer on stage, tap-dancing and singing.”
He studied art at university but found it unsatisfying and soon switched to performance art. He began making experimental theatre and “did plays that were so experimental that we bankrupted the university’s theatre society”.
Q&A: Seiriol Davies
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a casual waiter at Tre-Ysgawen Hall, a country house hotel on Anglesey, when I was a teenager. A few guests thought I was the sommelier, as I swooped around like I owned the place and poured wine the way I’d seen people do it in films.
What was your first theatrical job?
A carnivalesque production of Lulu with Rififi Theatre Company at Theatre503.
What is your next job?
Milky Peaks, a draggy small-town murder mystery drawing on influences from Twin Peaks to Under Milk Wood to South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut to Peter Grimes.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Write something you want to watch, not what you think people want you to write. It’s a trap I fall into regularly.
Who is your biggest influence?
It changes from day to day. Any list is going to make me sound like a knob, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Kander and Ebb, Joss Whedon, Dolly Parton and Pobol y Chyff, a Welsh sketch show featuring the Two Franks, by Rhys Ifans and Meirion Davies.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I count magpies and salute them. But that’s not theatrical, that’s just constant, ingrained madness that my boyfriend is trying to train me out of by holding my arms down whenever a magpie flies past. Before I go on stage, I recite R Williams Parry’s poem Y Llwynog very fast, going from the bottom of my range to the top. It’s about a pretty fox, but being in the Welsh form cynghanedd, it’s the mother of all tongue-twisters, so it gets my mouth ready for more or less anything.
Davies went on to train at the London International School of Performing Arts in actor-created and devised theatre, improv clowning and bouffon. “That training imbues in you the sense that all theatre is rhythm,” he says.
He honed his abilities performing cabaret in Underbling and Vow, a punk, time-travelling, music-hall, singalong variety act – “in front of a festival crowd one night and some quiet OAPs the next”. He co-created Mess, a musical comedy about anorexia with Caroline Horton and Co in 2012 (winning his first The Stage Edinburgh Award in the process). This all served to inform his own work when he came to make it.
“There’s an inherent musicality to all theatre,” he says, before explaining why he finds musical theatre particularly exciting. “You can paint with really bright colours but it can also resonate on a personal level. Music can short-circuit the thinky part of the brain and mainline to the emotional part of it. You can sneak things into people’s heads. Everything always feels like the lead-in to a song for me.”
The seeds for How to Win were sown two decades ago when Davies visited Plas Newydd, the family home of the show’s protagonist Henry Cyril Paget, now a National Trust property. There was a lot of information on the rest of the family and “just a little laminated sheet saying he was a great embarrassment and everything of his was burnt and that was it”.
Now that has changed. “There’s a whole room dedicated to him and a replica of one of his costumes.” There’s also an extract playing from How to Win, which was filmed by the V&A, he says with evident pleasure.
Davies reveals that there may also be a screen adaptation, before adding that he’s discussing the possibility of performing the show in the Paget house. “That’ll be really nice. It’ll be like closing the circle.”
CV: Seiriol Davies
Born: 1982, Bangor
Training: London International School of Performing Arts
• Mess, Caroline Horton and Co (2012)
• Islands, Caroline Horton and Co (2015)
• How to Win Against History (2016)
Awards: The Stage Edinburgh Award for How to Win Against History (2016)
Agent: Lily Williams at Curtis Brown
Effigies of Wickedness is at the Gate Theatre, London from May 3 to June 9