When a performer creates a character, the line between self and invention blurs. A question many Hugh Hughes fans ask is how far the lovable, emerging Welsh artist is an extension of his creator Shon Dale Jones’s personality and circumstance.
“Hugh Hughes is an extremely enthusiastic and optimistic, curious character,” explains Jones, his Welsh accent coming over as thick as Hughes’s as we discuss the latest instalment of his journey from Langefni around the world and back since 2004.
“That is taking a slice of who I am then throwing loads of fuel on the bonfire.
“Especially the way he sees the world – he is always looking to find the positive and improvement and betterment, so it’s clear what he is, then it becomes clear how there is part of all of us who see the world like that.”
So convincingly has Jones inhabited Hughes’s skin that many fans did not know that Hughes was even an artistic creation.
Jones says a quote by the great surreal artist Luis Buñuel makes what could be a very complicated point very simple: “Fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.”
“There is no difference between reality and imagination,” explains Jones, “and as a writer, I am kind of suggesting there is a zone in the middle between our reality and our imagination which make the two things work.
“I’m trying to navigate between the two. That runs through the project because Hugh is appearing to some audiences as a real person, whereas others know he isn’t but still say, ‘OK, I can accept that he isn’t real, but are they his brother and sister? How can he have them if he is not real?’
“People still want to ask that question. That to me shows we can’t separate the image from reality.”
Jones is the artistic director of Hoipolloi Theatre, which produces Hugh Hughes’s warm, comic shows. His company makes a point of conducting its work so fully that the childlike world-view of Hughes becomes completely immersive.
After a trilogy of well-received and award-winning shows, which all played at Edinburgh and also had a sell-out run at Sydney’s Opera House, Hoipolloi’s artistic focus now moves to helping Hughes, plus brother Derwyn and sister Delyth, explore his childhood, his family and his origins.
It follows Floating, which saw Hughes imagine that the Isle Of Anglesey had broken free from Wales to raise questions about the idea of home; Story Of A Rabbit, which raised questions about the death of his father via the death of a rabbit, and 360, which tackled issues about friendship.
Stories From An Invisible Town also advances the company’s techniques by combining a live show with a new online space, invisibletownstories.co.uk.
Work started on the show five years ago and Jones says Hoipolloi have been chipping away in the background making a huge back catalogue of material ever since. Even now, with the show on the road, the company continues to add more to the online world, which allows visitors to explore Hughes through family stories told through short film clips, radio snippets, photos, animations, maps of the house and poems.
“The truth is the website and the show both exist as self-contained entities. The process of making the website was to leave no stone unturned. It made a real difference to what might be considered significant or insignificant and all the choices you make about what to tell and what not to tell.
“Though the website didn’t have to consider those questions, it did mean we had a huge amount of material out of which we could try to shape some kind of narrative for the show.”
In the live show, Hughes returns home to help his mother pack up and move house. The memories soon unravel.
“However well we know or do not know a mother, we all have one,” says Jones. “And we had to decide what the priorities are for the character of Hugh looking at his family.
“Those priorities are that he needs to bring the family back together because they have been in conflict.
“And that they need to care for their mother. There is something going on around the importance of the mother’s role within the family unit.”
The big challenges in life come with change, when one’s perspective is shifted. Love can make one suddenly see the world as a beautiful place. Grief can suddenly make everything feel difficult – even making a cup of tea (something Hughes loves to do). Having to return home as an adult to care for a mother is another big theme which Hughes’s perspective is suited to consider.
“We know that these states of emotion absolutely alter the way we see the world. As a company we try to tune in to those fundamental feelings.”
Jones believes the imagination is triggered by emotion. Hughes’s beauty is that he manages to touch profound emotions by stating the obvious.
“It’s quite extraordinary, he can say the obvious, but by stating the obvious he uncovers some very deep truths and feelings.
“That’s what we have been doing from the start – really looking at things which are intensely personal and specific and also incredibly shared and unspecific from the obvious – birth, love, death, to these things such as home and leaving.”
Three things to check out online at www.invisibletownstories.co.uk
- Nuclear War: a wry poem with Hugh discovering the truth about nuclear war
- The Glove: a short video with the family sat round the table remembering dad’s sinister glove of punishment
- Weeing In The Shampoo Bottle: a video discussing the positive side effects of urine on Delyth’s blonde hair
Brighton Dome Studio Theatre, New Road, Friday, November 16, and Saturday, November 17. Starts 7.30pm, £12/£10. Call 01273 709709