Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

A Voyage of Fabrication and Discovery

Theatr Y Byd presents Ian Rowlands' Pacific

Môr Tawel. Lucidity. Respectively, they are the penultimate words of Ian Rowlands' Welsh-language play Môr Tawel and its English-language version, Pacific. In Pacific, which was presented by Theatr Y Byd at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 8 March and is currently touring, "Lucidity" is the second-to-last word spoken by the dying, guilt-ridden Welsh poet, opium-addict and ship's surgeon David Samwell, who sailed on James Cook's 1778 final voyage and helped Cook to "open a wound across the Pacific." Lucidity, clarity, môr tawel or "calm sea" are the conditions that Samwell, marooned in Deptford and drowning himself in an opiate haze, is seeking. He won't find them. Stranded between his Welsh heritage and his culpability as a crewmate and accessory to the destructive imperialist English explorer, Samwell speaks with deadly accuracy when he recites the motto under which he sailed: "do unto others that which has been done unto you."

The set is perfect for the play: a skeletal, scaled-down ship of unpainted wood, consisting only of keel, mast, decks, and a drooping sail. There is no hull. Obviously unseaworthy, you can see right through it. Its bleached ribs look unfinished or-perhaps more appropriately considering Cook's demise-cannibalised. The steeply raked platforms that form the ship's decks look distorted, skewed, and difficult to keep one's balance on, although Richard Elfyn, who plays Samwell, seems to manage.

The lighting, which I realise was supposed to evoke obscurity, night, and stormy weather, often was insufficient to show Elfyn's face, and I struggled to see his expressions. There was one great moment when he disappeared below the deck of his ship and crouched under the boards singing before reaching one arm up through the trap and pulling himself out of the hole. That was a great moment, which was helped by his invisibility and re-emergence. But in other scenes he needs a little more illumination.

This is one of the most brilliantly-written plays I have seen in a long time. Since I first read the script this past October I've found myself increasingly amazed by Rowland's provocative, double-edged prose-poetry. Of his contemporary, the Welsh poet and forger Iolo Morganwg, Rowlands' Samwell demands, "Fabricate me!" Samwell wants his personal history to be more heroic, less contradictory than his actions in the actual past. It doesn't sound as if the modern-day poet Rowlands has entirely gratified his character's wish, despite having written the wish as well as the character. Samwell tells Iolo: "Make me the Welshman I might have been." Instead of doing this, the playwright opens up the guilt-ridden, self-divided surgeon's wounds.

In an interview I conducted a week after Pacific was presented in Aberystwyth, Rowlands discussed Môr Tawel/Pacific with me, revisiting several points from the plays and the writing and rehearsal processes that produced them, including the issues of language, nationality, and the discovery, recovery, and "fabrication" of "history" upon which the dramatised Samwell is tempest-tossed.

As was the case for many of the traditional explorers, Rowlands discovered Samwell when he was looking for something else. In the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, while working on another project, for BBC Radio, Rowlands was perusing the volumes of the Transaction Cymrodorion Society, collections of essay on historical aspects of Welsh culture. In these works he first read of Samwell's eyewitness report of the death of Cook, as well as the doctor's involvement in the fledgling Welsh Society, which met in London. But how do these facts and shades make a play?

Rowlands commented that history has included a significant number of disasters at which "Welsh people were there." However, those people weren't often credited with writing the definitive account of such catastrophes: they were rarely the star witnesses. In Samwell's case, things are different. According to Rowlands, Samwell's description of Cook's death became the definitive report. Rowlands declared that Cook's voyages, and his murder, constituted "a monumental event… a defining moment… in world history…" And this history-inasmuch as history is what is recorded and remembered, not necessarily the literal, experienced past-was made by David Samwell, ship's doctor, poet, and Welshman.

In the play, Samwell engages in a very modern-sounding battle with his national identity, a sort of internal tug-of-war suggestive of the contemporary politics of global post-colonialism and Welsh and Scottish devolution. But, as Rowlands explained during the interview, when the historical Samwell read his poetry at the first Eistedfodd (the Welsh-language poetry and performance event, which is celebrated annually even today) he gave his reading in the English language; Morganwg gave his own reading in Cymraeg, the Welsh language. The city where that Eistedfodd was held was "Lions' Den"-London. Did the doctor realise a contradiction there?

Not necessarily, in Rowlands' opinion. In the eighteenth century, Wales did not have a capital city, so meeting in London may have been construed by some (although probably not all) of the Society's members as a practical necessity. More importantly, in Welsh culture at that time the word "Briton" was taken to mean the earlier inhabitants of Britain-not the Norman invaders and their descendants. According to this interpretation, the Welsh people could more accurately call themselves "Britons" than the English could. But this situation has evolved. In the seventeenth century, according to Rowlands, the Welsh language was generally not "on the defensive"; in the present day, it is.

I recall that in his 1981 tragedy Translations, Brian Friel depicted the struggle of the Irish language to survive in an increasingly, aggressively Anglophone world. English, as one of Friel's characters says, is the language in which business is conducted. In the age of the global economy, global dialogue, and global spread of the English language, the preservation and animate use of other languages must be seriously encouraged and actively promoted.

What does the Samwell of Pacific mean when he pleads the unseen Morganwg, "Fabricate me?" Rowlands observes: "In Wales, we are rarely the people we would like to be. Welsh drama, literature, and culture doesn't [sic] export. In a conversation I had once with [the BBC's] Peter Edwards, he said that in Anglo-American literature and film, there is a hero. He struggles against all odds and becomes the victor." In Wales, "We have a culture of victimisation. Even Owain Glyndawr, he was a hero, he resisted… but in the end he also was a victim. Morganwg was interested in seeing Welsh figures as heroic." With Morganwg's poetry-and his 'discovery' of some works of archaic Welsh poetry which were later exposed as his own fabrications-an alternate, perhaps more productive tradition in Welsh self-scripting emerged: a tradition that concentrated not upon victimisation, but emancipation. Of David Lloyd George, Rowlands says that had he not been confronted with the all-consuming emergency of the First World War, the Prime Minister would probably have achieved devolution for Wales long ago. In fact, Rowlands states, "Then, there was a stronger push for that than there was for Scotland."

This necessary move, from a concentration on victimisation to a concentration on emancipation sounds a lot like objectives in feminist writing and re-envisioning. Rowlands emphatically agreed, and added that in order to truly end imperialism and colonialism, sexism needs to be confronted and eradicated. In his earlier dramatic work Blue Heron in the Womb, from the Trilogy of Appropriation, Rowlands examined "the colonisation of women by men through words and through aggression."

In Pacific, the English sailors sexually colonise the women of the various islands they visit, in one instance by appearing to the Tahitian islanders to be gods. Samwell, himself considered a "savage," cognisant that his nation was conquered by Cook's, is not innocent of the crew's "poxing the whole of the Pacific." Do unto others as others have done unto you. Rowlands asserted that this maxim did not die two hundred years ago with Cook. He declared: "We must stop being victims in Wales. That creates only self-perpetuating spirals… Chauvinism leads to immobility." True emancipation for Wales (or in any case) can be achieved only, as Rowlands believes, by men and women, "shoulder to shoulder in mutual respect."

Like Rowlands' Samwell in his staged nightmare, the drama itself drifts between the eighteenth-century past and our own past-permeated present, touching both shores but never coming to rest at one or the other. Rowlands recalled: "The play fermented in my mind for ten years" as he debated whether to look at the story from our time, Samwell's time, or "in-between times." Finally, having received a commission to compose a play for the Eistedfodd, Rowlands started writing Môr Tawel, and began to anchor these thoughts to words on paper.

Is Pacific, the English-language version I saw, a translation of Môr Tawel or was it written as an independent, original piece? Rowlands answered: "A lot of Samwell's writings were in English." In fact, in surviving letters written in Welsh, he apologised for his command of the language, which he feared was not sufficiently "literary." In Pacific, Rowlands' Samwell voices that insecurity and regret: "I blame the sea that has bleached the Welsh out of me."

So Rowlands wrote up the basic structure in English, then "fleshed it out" in Welsh. During rehearsals, he cut down that text, and those cuts influenced his direction and revision of the English play. But the plays are not mirror-doubles. Môr Tawel and Pacific are different stories, in part because the rules of the two languages they are composed in are very different. English is a noun-based language: Welsh is verb-based. "In English," Rowlands says, "one says, 'I walked.' In Welsh… you would say, 'walked I'. The verb precedes the subject."

In short, the playwright-director remembers, "there was a dialogue between the two plays." In their most final forms, Môr Tawel and Pacific "differ quite radically" but that is due in a large part to the uniqueness of the two actors who play Samwell in his two tongues. In Rowlands' view, Dyfan Roberts, who plays the role in Môr Tawel, "is quite a histrionic character," who performs his monologues like a preacher delivering a sermon. Elfyn's performance in Pacific is "more gutsy."

In the performance of Pacific I saw, Elfyn played the entire script at a fever pitch. Begging for "calm," he shouts half of his lines into the sky. This made some parts of his monologue very powerful but the overall effect is dampening because there was little variation in his delivery. The thunder and lightning that crackle throughout the play explode and abate by turns, and the performance would be much stronger if Elfyn, too, raged at more than one level.

In some parts of the play, Elfyn is obliged to play multiple characters, and act out dialogues alone. He does this effectively; Cook, his subordinate Bligh, and Olmai, a Tahitian man whom Cook has converted, then abandoned to his regained home and his newfound confusion, all became distinct individuals in Elfyn's portrayal. Late in the play, when Samwell confronts Cook's memory as if he were speaking to the explorer himself, both the dead man and the haunted one seem present on stage.

One of the more problematically engaging aspects of Rowlands' script and Elfyn's performance is the fact that the self-pitying Samwell, who struggles to find his "calm sea" by confessing his complicity in spreading rashes of cultural disruption, societal chaos, violence, and sexual exploitation and disease across the island nations of the Pacific, renders himself simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. His listeners' loyalties are torn and pitted against each other just as his have been. Despite being the only player on the stage, having the floor to himself and nobody to directly contradict or challenge him, he still manages to stir up a storm of contradiction, uncertainty, and unanswerable questions that follow the audience out of the theatre and back into present-day reality.

According to the oft-repeated legend, Alexander of Macedon cried because he thought there were 'no new worlds to conquer.' Outer space and, less often, the space under the surface of the oceans is termed 'the final frontier.' Forget this, Samwell in Pacific seems to say. The real question is not where there are "new worlds to conquer" and how they can be reached, but, in the world we have inherited, to quote Rowlands, "Can we break this cycle of oppression?"

Currently the artistic director of the theatre company Bara Caws, Ian Rowlands has written several other plays for stage and television. These include the stage plays The Sin Eaters (1992), Marriage of Convenience (1997) and the Trilogy of Appropriation (1997-8). Rowlands' work has been shown at the Edinburgh and Dublin Festivals; he has received nominations for the Herald Angel Award (Edinburgh), the Paines Plough/Granada Award, and the Arts Foundation Fellowships. The television play A Life in the Valley, written by Rowlands and directed by Michael Bogdanov, won a Royal Television Society Award in 1999. His plays are published by Bydbooks, Serenbooks-Poetry Wales Press, and Parthian Books

author:Rebecca Nesvett

original source:
30 April 2001


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