Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The most beautiful and powerful play I have yet to see,

RAPE OF THE FAIR COUNTRY

TFTV Dept., UWA, , Emily Davies Studio, Parry-Williams Building, UWA , November-12-06
RAPE OF THE FAIR COUNTRY by TFTV Dept., UWA, Very, very rarely, as a critic, you come across a production for which mere words will never be enough in summation of its beauty, its power and its sheer, dizzying greatness. One might expect to find such a play in the halls of the National Theatre or the RSC, but for me, it was a cold November night in a black, concrete studio in the drama department of Aberystwyth University when a company of twenty-nine students, under the direction of Richard Cheshire and the management of Crystal Mendoza showed me what passion, anguish, joy and raw, biting humanity meant when they staged their production of Manon Eames’ adaptation of the Alexander Cordell story ‘Rape of the Fair Country’, in a run that continues until Saturday, November 12th.

Set in the heart of industrial South Wales in the 1830s and following the story of young Iestyn Mortymer, his people and their neighbours through carefree youth, tempered by the fires of the forges, through to the Chartist Rebellions and the violence that met them, Cheshire guided his young company through every conceivable human emotion, and the harrowing tale of a slice of Welsh history sadly all but forgotten.

The action took place on Trudi Molloy’s beautifully economical set. Broken ladders, harsh steel spiral staircases and vaulting scaffolding swept into the playing-space (its floor a mottled mess of reddish paint on black, like cooling molten metal) to emphasise the towering importance of industry in the lives of the folk portrayed, while gauzes slung from the metal balcony which runs round all four walls of the studio were utilised to tremendous effect to create mystery and a sense of voyeurism into lives one can only hope never have to be lived in their bittersweet horror again. The set was lit superbly by Helen Taylor, whose lighting design was more than a match for her last work with the department, in March’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the Arts Centre. Cold steel blues were met with fiery, oppressive oranges, startling whites and warming straw hues at just the right moments to capture the mood of any given time. It was not a subtle lighting design, but this was not a subtle story, and the balance was struck perfectly. Add to this the breathtaking soundtrack designed by Charlie Carter (which ranged from lively folk music to grating industrial sounds, explosions and melancholy strains) and the live vocals of the cast and you have an environment rich with potential and dramatic fertility, expertly stage managed by Lewis Gwyther and his team, and beautifully portrayed in very evocative costumes overseen by Cat Winton.

Though I would love to be able to take the time and space to do so, it would take too long to mention all the actors seen in the play, most of whom rose to the challenge of learning an unfamiliar Welsh accent, but it would be deeply remiss of me not to mention a few of the outstanding performances, and certainly those of the central characters.

The role of Iestyn, whose story is told through the play, was taken on with great fervour by Graham Hill. His portrayal of Iestyn’s growing-up was, simply put, perfect. His journey from wide-eyed eight-year-old through to married man, from fist-fighting youngster to fearsomely protective head of his family was a joy to behold and utterly believable from start to finish. He kept a firm hold of the sense of intensely likeable naivety with which he started and created a character whose intentions were always pure and noble, even when he occasionally failed, and proved himself a talent worthy of note and one to watch for future work.

Henry Pickett as Dada (Hywel) Mortymer was never anything less than galvanising. His towering presence and beautifully cadenced voice carried with them presence, honour, gravity and dignity, even in the moments of his greatest peril. And he was matched in this bravery and dignity by Kelly Williams as Mam Mortymer, who gave a fearsome, soaring and deeply human performance. Her angered speech to the striking miners towards the close of the play is one to remember – her power and poise throughout would put a lot of professional orators to shame. Sam Turner, who played both the youngest Mortymer – Jethro – and the tenderly childlike Willie Gwallter, also turned in a fine showing worthy of high praise.

The two Mortymer girls – Edwina and Morfydd – were beautifully if necessarily very differently played by Patricia Graham and Sarah-Mair Gates. Though Graham’s Welsh accent was not very strong, this was negated by the simple power of her embodiment of the deeply religious younger daughter whose story is heart-warming and heart-breaking all at once. Gates proved a singularly dominant woman throughout, her portrayal of the agnostic, free-thinking, deeply driven Morfydd an absolute, unqualified tour-de-force. Her set-piece speeches were compelling in their clear, heartfelt delivery and her tragic story was told with dignified economy of movement and speech. This flower of Wales did not have to be hectic to grow wild and free.

Special mention should also be made of the mighty presence of Alan Mehdizadeh, particularly in his role as Tomos Traherne, the preacher, whose voice was every bit as imposing as his physicality. Also the richly comic and darkly disturbing Tim Newns as Iolo Milk and Billy Handy and Kate Edwards who embodied every shade of femininity in her roles as Mrs. Gwallter, Sara Roberts and especially as Polly Morgan and Mari Dirion. Steven Humpherson was a deliciously menacing presence as Dai Probert while Kris Darby – always an engaging actor to watch – turned in tremendous and interestingly nuanced performances as Dafydd Phillips and Mr. Gwallter, the former bouncing off a delightfully prudish Mrs. Phillips played with verve and waspish style by Jennifer Woodhouse.

Indeed, the entire cast (and I apologise to those who went unmentioned) gelled so completely, so beautifully in so deeply, gut-wrenchingly human a fashion that an entire community was created and every audience member was immediately drawn in to full, if silent membership of a neighbourhood bound by joy and terror, exhilaration and desperation. The live singing, under the musical direction of Elinor Powell, captured the best of Welsh close harmony, further underscored the shared bonds of the characters and offered the audience the chance to bind themselves to them.

The story of the harsh life of industrial workers moved seamlessly from chapter to chapter. Major set-piece scenes were not obviously so until after their completion. One event naturally followed another and a beautifully-wrought journey was created for the company and the audience to go on, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand. This chapter of Welsh history, with its sickening violence in the workplace which spills into politics, working-class wrangling and sanctioned torture, rape and murder is one which, to our shame, we often know nothing about. It is testament to the power of how this story was told by a group so young but so talented that by the end of the show, a man such as myself, confirmed and religious in my pacifism, was ready to join their fight. And more than that – as one who is notoriously difficult to impress, I openly wept and the only thing stopping my offering a standing ovation to this, the most beautiful and powerful play I have yet to see, is the fact that I was shaking so much that I couldn’t physically stand.

This show put forward some harsh questions. How dare we forget these crushing chapters of our history? How dare we forsake the lives and spirits of these honest folk? Richard Cheshire and his company, though they took our innocence and ignorance, stripped them bare and raped them like the fair country they showed us, gave the audience the gift of knowledge and showed us the meaning of dignity. Men, women and children in Wales who lie dead in their graves this night will thank them heartily one day. One fine, glorious day.

Reviewed by: Paddy Cooper

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