1987/8 AnRoth/The Wheel

From the late 1980s onwards the horse-drawn tours settled into a seasonal cycle, with a new production from late June or July until September. Sometimes we set out from our base, which since 1985 had moved from Irwell Vale to Rawtenstall. But more often than not we packed up horses, wagons and the show into a big horsebox and trailer, and drove to wherever the tour was starting. We also took our van, which carried the technical equipment, the tents and other personal belongings. Once the horse-drawn tour had finished, there would be a short break before we started on a winter programme.

The Wheel, or An Roth

In 1987 we had been asked by Údarás, the Gaelic agency for the Gaeltacht, to devise a tour for the West of Ireland. Údarás had heard about our tour of the Outer Islands of Scotland, and suggested something similar. The resulting show was An Roth, or The Wheel. It was based on a radio-play I had stumbled across years’ before, missing the beginning. It was a dark story involving two men who meet a stranger. He promises a handsome reward if they deliver a wheel to another village. They start off, pushing the wheel by hand and thinking it’s going to be easy money. They have various encounters on the way. Its only when they’re getting close to their destination, after increasingly strange confrontations, that the truth dawns on them – that the wheel is going to be used to break the body of a prisoner. It reminded me of the wheels on skeletal poles in the background of Brueghel’s painting ‘The Triumph of Death’.

We still have the tour diary for 1987 – it’s a reminder of how complicated touring abroad was in pre-EU days. It involved carnets, with an attached list of 250 numbered items that had to be described in full (‘one detachable tin puppet nose’) and then sealed to await customs inspection. In Dublin we were nearly sent back home because there were a few strands of loose hay on the floor of the horse box. These joys once again await post-Brexit.

But having weathered that potential catastrophe we literally walked into a series of others. On Thursday 9th July we arrived in Dingle to find that the drays had arrived a day earlier than planned. They had been roughly dumped by Pandoro at the site of the next day’s campsite, and were damaged. On Saturday 11 July we opened with our first show – the diary says ‘from the beginning… things seemed to go well. People’s eyes were caught by the magic of it. They laughed at all the right moments and gasped at the tense ones. At the end we were asked back for two curtain calls. People crowded round to tell us how much they enjoyed it…’. R.T.E asked us if they could broadcast the whole tour on national radio.

An injury

That night we sat round the fire full of good humour, feeling encouraged, confident it would be a successful tour. Then disaster happened – Steph Bunn left the fireside to go behind a bush and stumbled in the dark, badly damaging her foot. In the morning we took her to the medical centre, and we were told that she had badly torn a ligament. Her leg was put in plaster. Luckily our administrator, Sue Williams, was with us for the beginning of the tour and she gamely stepped into Steph’s role. The next day, the Sunday performance, was attended by a representative of the British Council.

The damaged drays had to be repaired and we urgently needed to work out how to deal with Steph’s injury. Meanwhile we were about to embark on a horse-drawn tour of one of the remotest parts of Ireland. Steph couldn’t walk, but at first she was told that her plaster could come off in two weeks. But when we reached that deadline another hospital visit advised that this would actually need to be eight weeks. Sue couldn’t stay with us for that long, and so we had to ask Jill Swales, the student who had been doing lighting for us, if she would swap roles with Steph.

We didn’t need to cancel any shows, and the performances were reasonable. But we all knew that the show was only just getting by, and it wasn’t improving in the way that we would normally expect it to as it bedded in. Having to grab short periods for rehearsal, and frequent trips to clinics with Steph took up all of our spare time. ‘Owing to the accident we were simply treading water…’ says one entry in the tour diary. Inevitably the incident left Steph feeling extremely dejected too.

Another injury

Then at the end of July, Gill’s back went, and she too was in a lot of pain. Kay Kennedy happened to be visiting and she volunteered to stand in for Jill. But Kay couldn’t stay with us for the duration of the tour, and we decided that we had to fly a permanent replacement out from England. The whole experience was an illustration as to how fragile life on the road could be although it has to be said that in over 20 years of horse-drawn touring these turned out to be the most serious mishaps by far. We managed well, at least in the sense that the tour went ahead without cancellations. Other years we had other injuries, but either we were closer to home and able to substitute performers more easily, or the injuries healed themselves within a day or two. In 1987 however, there was no doubt that this string of unfortunate events adversely affected the quality of the production.

The Island – Inis Bofin

The tour of 1987 included a short residency on the island of Inis Bofin in early September. The weather had broken and the crossing was delayed by storms, though we finally sailed on Paddy’s mailboat, ‘The Glorious’, on the 5th September despite warnings from some of the locals that it was too dangerous (the diary quotes overhearing one saying it was a ‘suicide mission’). I let the team make their own decisions, and Tim Petter chose to remain behind on the mainland that evening. This was possible since we weren’t performing the show, but were putting together a parade and a fire sculpture in the harbour. The mailboat was (over-) loaded and crammed with goods, and we had to hunker down under tarpaulins to protect us from the high seas. It was indeed a heart-in-mouth crossing, especially as the boat had been out once earlier in the day but turned back because of engine trouble. Gannets skimmed across the rough waves and most of us were soaked through. One young boy, the diary tells us, was sick over Tim Bender’s trousers. However the weather rapidly improved, the next day was glorious, and with Tim Petter back the group reunited. In 1988 we revived An Roth, now with its English title The Wheel, for a UK tour.

The shows during this period tended to have a cast of eight, of whom two or three would be the musicians. At this point we were paying performers £145 a week, equivalent to £365 in 2018. In my notebooks I can see that we hoped to earn £36,000 from touring a show for 22 weeks, which is equivalent to £90,800 today. I suspect this would actually have been a rather difficult target for us to reach, but clearly it was seen as being a possibility. It’s a measure of how funding for touring theatre has declined in the UK that in 2017, Horse + Bamboo struggled to earn £8,000 from touring a show.

I 1988 the show was revived for a tour of North East England (including 2 nights on Holy Island), Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

Review - The Guardian
….The Wheel is a mixture of myth, music, mime, legend and symbolism depicting the trials and the triumphs of an elderly couple along life’s way. And that’s as far as I can get to setting the scene for you. Almost every art form you can think of, with the exception of the spoken word, is brought into play and if you think this sounds like eclecticism run riot let me assure you it is not. The actors wears full-head masks, human and animal, in a succession of scenes which are by turn exciting, comic and chilling. A pair of stags lock antlers in combat, a man is broken on the wheel after an encounter with a sinister, monkish figure.

The relevance of one scene to another, and the interpretation of each scene is left to the audience so this is not a play for the literal-minded. But to the uncluttered imagination of children it presents no problem.
It was like a dream, with its fleeting images alternately nightmarish and serene and always inconsequential, born of experiences on the west coast of Ireland…The musicians, performers, lighting technicians and other members of this amazing company have provided us with an unforgettable theatrical experience.

Richard Kelly, The Guardian, 12 July 1988.


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