Theatre in Wales

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National Youth Theatre of Wales- Botticelli's Bonfire , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , September 11, 2005
“Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is safer to be feared than loved.” The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli

Many parallels between the 15th century Italian Renaissance and the present time are clearly and cleverly set out before us and underlined by the use of many modern day vulgarisms interlaced with the smooth standard English of Greg Cullen’s compelling writing, given added colour from time to time with Ian Staples Welsh translations. Hopefully there is no longer so much truth in Machiavelli’s maxim today, despite revivals in Religious Fundamentalism being on the up rise both on our geographic left and right.

The rise and fall of Machiavelli is one the main strands running through the play and Gruffudd Glyn’s performance in the role is a delight to watch and represents all that is so full of wonder and promise in what Greg Cullen, Artistic Director has made into an exciting National Youth Theatre of Wales Movement. If we ever achieve such energy, commitment and enthusiasm in a ‘grown-up’ National Theatre, Wales’ International cultural reputation may start to catch up with its reputation on the rugby field.

At the Royal Shakespeare Company Terry Hands regularly called on the talents of Welsh Actors to help sustain the company’s reputation; now he has come among us he almost exclusively relies on fine Welsh actors to sustain his own. The strength of acting in Wales simmers with passion and commitment, still waiting to be discovered and properly celebrated. And judging by the quality of the work shown here the wheels will keep on turning.

Cullen, an artist who revels in theatrical splendour and sensation, with his creative team, director, Debbie Seymour, a simple yet very effective set design from Rachel Canning, with exciting and subtle lighting by Ceri James, sumptuous costumes from Siân Jenkins and others supplying tremendous skills in music, movement and fighting, has created a bonfire of vanities that deserves to burn forever.

A joyous epitome of ensemble working with every member of the FORTY strong cast bringing a total degree of commitment and enthusiasm, all giving entirely captivating and very generous performances. Tom Cullen as Savanarola demonstrates the danger of religious extremism in every era. This was a beautifully observed and intense performance. His scenes surrounded by his zealous band of Nodders, white clad young nuns, so named as a result of the fervent way they nodded their head and beat their breasts as they prayed were part of the many compelling pageants that greatly deepened the overall colour of the production. Such an overwhelming aura of religious fever produced in these scenes that we, in the audience, almost felt we were being drawn into the spirit of the revival.

Another strong and fascinating stage picture came from the live realisation of Botticelli’s painting Primavera. First the burning and then the rediscovery of this artefact along with the superb characterisation of and ageing Botticelli from Tom Morgan was a major dynamic driving the plot intriguingly through the play. At the back of the stage, actors grouped as the mythological characters in the painting, gave us the vision whilst Botticelli, Machiavelli and Magdelena, another fine, sensitive and quality performance from Elain Llywd, gaze at the real picture hanging out over the audience. This was one of the many memorable moments of spectacular theatricality that strongly contributed to the great strength and achievement of this thrilling production.

There may have been a little bit of over writing in the first half and some of the scenes could have moved more smoothly from one to the other. If the play had been set up for a long run this would have been sorted out. But it was no distraction from the deep and glorious, high quality, ‘professional’ theatre that this beautifully realised production was. Yet another demonstration of the extraordinary high quality of theatre art that we are able to achieve in Wales. Let’s hope that this will help to break down the political philistinism in people like First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, who had been awarded the privilege of seeing this performance.

Reviewed by: Miichael Kelligan

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