Theatre in Wales

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


A critical comparison....

Having been brought up just a few miles from Loughor, the birthplace of Evan Roberts, I have occasionally wondered why he didn’t figure more largely in my consciousness when I was a youth, immersed in the chapel-going culture of the region. He was mentioned from time to time, sure, but not that much – considerering that he had sparked a religious revival that swept through Wales and reverberated in America.

Now we have two shows, one in English and one in Welsh, that seek to get inside the mind of the man and show the impact he had on Welsh life at the beginning of the last century. Whether they fully succeed in explaining this phenomenon is open to question, but the fact is that both shows have been hugely enjoyable – uplifting,even – and you can’t say that too many times after being to the theatre.

For the purposes of comparison, I would have liked to see both fairly close together; this is of course not possible at the present time, but we can say without contradiction that the English version, Amazing Grace, by the Wales Theatre Company is an out-and-out musical , whereas Hen Rebel (Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru; author, Valmai Jones) is a play with music. Naturally, hymns figure in both, but Amazing Grace uses a number of other musical influences to good effect, as one would expect with Mal Pope being one of the writers.

Both use a lot of humour, too. Again, that is not suprising in the case of Amazing Grace,
when you consider that Frank Vickery was involved, but there were some sequences in Hen Rebel which were, if anything, funnier, particularly when Maldwyn John was on the scene (taking the part of a sceptical newspaper editor). His reactions to some of the events were worth the price of admission on their own; e.g. the news that a baby had been christened Revival Jones: “Fancy being lumbered with that for the rest of your life!” Or his assertion that the religious revival was doomed anyway, as his wife had been converted and she was always backing a losing horse: “You’ll know it’s all up with Mrs. Pankhurst when my wife asks for the vote.”

There are more family scenes in Amazing Grace – Roberts’ intention of training for the ministry was not universally welcomed by his family; Hen Rebel concentrates on the friendships in Roberts’ youth and the way they develop through his career, with one friend, Wil (Rhys ap William) becoming a reporter (a sceptic like his editor) and dogging Roberts’ footsteps - before going into politics – while another, Elin (Angharad Lee), becomes a devoted follower who tries to reach Roberts when he has gone into silent exile in Leicester.

And here we come to a major difference in the two shows: Amazing Grace tells us that Roberts (Robert Barton) withdrew from his ministry and lived in Leicester, while Hen Rebel gives more space to the mysterious Jessica Penn-Lewis (Carys Gwilym), who took Roberts (David Lyndon, in this case) into her home (in Leicester) and then refused to let friends and family see him. What was she up to? She claimed she was protecting him – but it’s a strange epsiode, to say the least.

Amazing Grace makes more of the malignant presence of the Reverend Peter Price (who claimed that Roberts was a sham.) For this character the Wales Theatre Company used the astounding Peter Karrie, well-supported in his musical numbers by a talented singing cast.

Not that Hen Rebel suffers musically by comparison. The singing, whether in choir, quartet or solo, was beautiful, and reminded us – if we needed reminding – that hymn singing was one of the glories of the Welsh Nonconformist tradition.
The miners’ struggle for better working conditions is given more prominence in Amazing Grace; you have scenes showing the miners at work and agitating in the streets, and the influence of growing unrest in what was soon to become Bolshevik Russia is made clear (while it is only a passing reference in Hen Rebel).

Both shows emphasise the role of the journalist. Amazing Grace has London newspaperman W.T. Stead (Jon Cecil), hard-bitten and cynical, who nonetheless comes to believe that Evan Roberts was sincere. Hen Rebel has the editor Stokes, a North Walian, also cynical, but who eventually finds God. (Stokes is the “old rebel” of the song and the title.)

In Hen Rebel, Roberts seems to be assailed by doubt from the beginning. He hears the voice of the devil (we are allowed to hear it, too), as well as the voice of God; and at one point the voices of his angelic troupe of girl singers change scarily into the mocking voices of devils, cojugating Latin verbs. He is also troubled by a persistent cough, but whether this is a legacy of his work in the pit, or caused by nerves, we do not learn.
He seems to have been struck dumb in Liverpool, and from there the rest is silence.

Somehow, the Wales Theatre Company seem to have injected a feel-good factor into the conclusion of their show. The whole cast lined up to sing “There’s a warm wind blowing my way,” and at the end of it the whole audience rose to its feet.

Hen Rebel ends with a group of young men on a stag night. One of them turns out to be a descendant of the editor, Stokes, and announces that it is important for him to be married in chapel. Not entirely convincing, this, and for me the only false note in the play. But make no mistake, the audience was rapt throughout this performance, and here also there was a standing ovation.

author:Ieuan Watkins

original source:
09 November 2005


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