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On the surface, Paul Hurley and Shaun Caton’s Strange Newes was world’s apart from Fern Thomas’ Springtide Archipelago, but Emma Geliot found some unexpected connections at Chapter’s Experimentica festival.

When I was expecting my first child, I did all the things that a sane woman would know to avoid; I ate squashy cheese and offal, picked wild mushrooms, with only a very ancient field guide to keep me from serious poisoning. And I read books and watched films that all seemed to have dark themes of giving birth to monsters, demon children and deranged mothers. By the time I came to give birth, and possibly thanks to a faulty valve on my Entonox dispenser, I was seriously surprised when the midwife cried, “It’s a boy!” replying, “Oh, it’s a baby”, in a shocked whisper.

“What’s that got to do with the price of fish?” I hear you cry, and I can see your point, but then you quite probably didn’t spend an hour staring at the sticky end of the most bizarre performed midwifery I’ve certainly ever encountered. Paul Hurley (https://paulhurley.org/), shrouded in a red sheet, knees akimbo, lay on a hospital gurney, while Shaun Caton (http://www.shauncaton.co.uk/), also all in red, save for a yellow nightmare of Mr Blobby headdress/mask/hood (who can really know what it was?), pulled assorted limbs and objects from between Hurley’s legs to a rather menacing electronic soundtrack, designed to raise anxiety levels and get the blood pumping. Heads, legs, torsos (all doll parts, but even so), were hauled out with forceps and put in giant cooking pots. We laughed, even as we were appalled.

When all the birthing was done, Hurley emerged in a dishevelled blonde wig, black frock undone, make up bleeding all over his face. The pair began to  lash disparate body parts and random objects together with rubber bands. If you’ve seen Sid’s mutant toys in the first Toy Story, you’ll get the general idea. The soundtrack continued to rise in intensity – it became clear why we’d been issued with earplugs – as the gruesome twosome switched their attention to the racks and poles, strung with grim cardboard cut outs of all the things you have nightmares about. There were a lot of teeth; teeth and eyes and claws, swirling around the room, flowing in and out of a 3D effect as the pair flicked torches madly and the music got louder and louder. Rosemary’s Baby has just been born.

Strange Newes takes those early woodcut pamphlets as its jumping off point. Those were published at a time when people were prepared to believe that a woman could give birth to rabbits and the freak shows were full of dubiously spliced taxidermy. We wouldn’t fall for any of that sort of nonsense now, would we [cough *Fake News* cough]? In any event, I doubt that the Royal College of Midwives will be using a film of this performance to calm expectant mothers.

Hurley and Caton’s grotesque nativity was in stark contrast to Fern Thomas’ dreamy gestation. A day later and half a building away, Springtides Archipelago, was a performed talk full of tides and the moon, birds and animals and children’s conversation. Where Strange Newes was frenetic, this was calm and muted. Small gestures, soft tunes, and the singsong lilt of Thomas’ voice, as we followed her on a journey of sorts. Thomas also made use of cardboard cutouts, but these were benign representations of nature, and without ominous fangs. Part academic research paper, part journal of maternity, part lullaby, it was lyrical, gently humorous and, despite my inept description, not as away with the fairies as you might think and the occasional singing was beautiful and made me shiver.

Thomas evoked the dream-like state that pregnancy and early motherhood can prompt: conversations with an unborn child; an acute awareness of the moon in its various transitory states; the pause at the tide’s turn (a pregnant pause, perhaps?) and more prosaic matters, like supermarket shopping, butter-making and getting the washing done. The dream-like passages were interspersed with reported humorous commentary from her toddler, and with practical descriptions of nature and traditional women’s work, before spooling off into shamanistic journeys, full of spirit animals giving advice. I left feeling that I’d just had a very refreshing drink.

For very different reasons, these two performances tapped into some of the feelings that accompany maternity and motherhood; on one hand, the pure fear that what you’re carrying is a monster and on the other, a weird sense of connectedness to nature. So, two loosely thematically linked works, worlds apart, but this is the joy of Experimentica – it’s like getting to eat all your favourite meals at once, while getting to grips with all the things that ‘live art’, ‘durational art’, ‘experimental art’ and performance can be.

Strange Newes and Springtides Archipelago were performed as part of the programme for Experimentica 2018, at Chapter, Cardiff.

Images: Paul Hurley & Shaun Caton, Strange Newes; Fern Thomas, Springtides Archipelago, Experimentica 2018, Chapter, Cardiff Photo: Warren Orchard