Not Quite of This World: Shôn Dale-Jones
Published in The Stage, 22.11.2012
Who’s Hugh Hughes? Well, um, it’s complicated. You see, the puppyish emerging artist from Wales – specifically the small town of Llangefni on the isle of Anglesey – doesn’t really exist. But nor is he entirely fictitious either. He’s sort of somewhere in between.
Hughes is the alter-ego of Shôn Dale-Jones, co-founder and artistic director of the East Anglian theatre company Hoipolloi. After ten years of making “ensemble-based physical theatre, full of imagination and nonsense” with Hoipolloi, telling fantastical stories of alien bakers and time-travellers with homespun theatrical flair, Dale-Jones wanted a new direction.
“I started to feel like I needed to know why we tell stories to each other,” says the 43 year-old, “What an audience really likes is when they feel people are really willing to share with them, when someone’s being emotionally transparent and telling the truth.
“I was keen to find a way of using my own life experiences, but I didn’t want to do that without the safety of a character. I wanted to talk to you directly, to be able to look everybody in the eye and shake hands with people, but not as myself, not as Shôn. I wanted to be just some guy telling you a story about what it is to be an ordinary person.”
Hughes is Dale-Jones’ way of standing at one remove from his own life and mining autobiographical material for something more universal. “Say I kissed a girl called Sian in the woods,” he continues, “Well, Hugh kissed a girl called Jane in the school yard. You hold on to the real essence of that experience, but dress it up differently. It’s still a first kiss.”
This distorted autobiography takes its inspiration from Luis Buñuel’s insistence that memory is infiltrated by imagination and emotion, so that “we end up transforming our lies into truth.” It can be stretched quite far: Floating – the first Hugh Hughes piece – recounted Anglesey’s drift away from mainland Britain and out into the Atlantic. “You get to a point where you don’t quite know whether you’re in the real world or the imaginary world,” he says, “In fact, you can go quite a long way before an audience goes ‘Hang on…’”
During Floating’s Edinburgh run, for which Dale-Jones won a Total Theatre Award and a Best Actor nomination at the Stage Awards, he realized quite how blurry the line could become. “After the show, people would start talking to me as if I was Hugh, which took me by surprise. I walked onstage, said ‘Hello, my name is Hugh,’ and they just bought it, as if they’d forgotten they’d come to the theatre.”
So Hugh took on a life beyond the stage. He started his own website, often blogging about his friend Shôn, and doing his own press and publicity. Later the work became more personal. Story of a Rabbit dovetailed his father’s death with that of a neighbour’s pet rabbit and 360 recalled a trip up Snowdon with his childhood friend Aled.
His new show Stories From an Invisible Town is his most autobiographical yet. Joined by his brother and sister Derwyn and Delyth, Hughes revisits his (and Dale-Jones’s) childhood home to unearth the memories therein. The show consists of a collection of anecdotes in different forms, including films and audio recordings, that give a sense of the process of research. “I started this process thinking I was talking about the town I came from, then realised that I kept returning to the house where I was brought up, so it’s actually all about family. That took me by surprise.”
With additional material on an accompanying website – www.invisibletownstores.co.uk – it means Hugh is more rounded than ever before. “What I’ve got now is a much more realistic version of a human being, but to my mind he’s always been a theatrical archetype: the wise fool.”
A wide-eyed bundle of enthusiasm and fascination, Hughes is essentially Dale-Jones with rose-tinted specs on. “He loves people and he’s endlessly curious about life’s minutiae and its big questions. It’s his way to find things beautiful. That’s why I’ve stayed with the character so long, I think, because it’s a lovely world to dip into. As Hugh, it’s easy to go, ‘Oh wow; it’s beautiful.’”
At this, his – or rather Hugh’s – Welsh accent takes off, as if turbo-boosters have kicked in. His tone changes into one of almost gormless wonder: “Beau-ti-ful,” he repeats.
Before training at Lecoq, Dale-Jones performed as a stand-up and Hughes was in part a reaction against a certain prevalent style of comedy. “I never enjoyed seeing how some comedians trade in hard-nosed cynicism. People laugh, but for me it’s not great humour. I can’t see the truth in it. I just find it cynical and that’s all, so I was determined to make people laugh by being very open, soft and generous, by thinking of people in a kindly way.”
Dale-Jones is also spoofing certain performance art techniques, particularly multimedia-heavy theatre that he believes can be “very serious and earnest; almost a case of Emperor’s New Clothes.”
“Hugh’s basically a happy victim of the democratisation of art, the fact that anyone can be an artist. It’s like the funding ended up in the wrong hands. By standing there saying, ‘Hello, I’m an emerging artist,’ anything I do and say becomes artistic. There’s a lot of fun to be had with that.”
Amazed by the performance theory he’s picked up, Hugh is free to explain them to his audience, allowing Dale-Jones to render quite sophisticated theatrical techniques accessible.
Yet some degree of mystery always remains. Who’s Hugh Hughes? “That’s part of the enjoyment: an audience trying to unravel what they’re actually watching; what’s real and what isn’t.”
Photograph: Jaimie Gramston