Theatre in Wales

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A production of importance

At National Theatre

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru / Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Porth y Byddar , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October-07-07
At National Theatre by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru / Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Porth y Byddar “It isn’t who possesses the future that’s important. It’s who possesses the past. Remembering and cherishing are twin sisters.” These lines by Saunders Lewis from “Brad” might serve as epigraph for this timely and accomplished production.

Aberystwyth was the seventh leg of an eight-venue tour for “Porth Y Byddar.” On its first night it played to a packed and predominantly young house.

Timely; August 1st this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the City of Liverpool Corporation Act, the parliamentary bill that legitimised the sequestering and damming of Cwm Celyn just North of Bala.

The closest relative to Manon Eames’ play would be 7:84’s “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil”. Like that play “Porth Y Byddar” is led by two narrators- nimbly played by Phil Reid and Llion Williams- who slip in and out of the action and preside over a cast, twelve in total, in literally dozens of roles.

The text is decorated with lyrical touches but the sheer weight of events in the first period, up to the passing of the legislation, does necessitate, and rightly, that the first act follows something of a documentary pattern.

The action moves at speed, from smoke-filled clubrooms to council meetings, chapel to the House of Lords, children fishing by the riverbank to interrogations by bewigged QCs. It is all here; the ejection of Gwynfor Evans from a council session, the relative indifference in nearby Bala, the heated debates within Plaid Cymru, the pusillanimity of local councils, the ambivalent role that the local police is obliged to perform. Wyn Bowen Harries among many roles gets to portray a splendidly dismissive, and offensive, Henry Brooke, Minister of Housing and Local Government and Welsh Affairs.

The second act permits a slowing of pace and a more varied dramatic pattern. The accidental apprehension of the two Dai’s, naïve saboteurs from South Wales, is treated quite light-heartedly, but later offset by the bitter picture of Owain Williams in isolation in a prison cell.

Wisely, on the part of author and director Tim Baker, the 1965 celebratory opening, that lasted less than three minutes due to protestor action, is narrated by the full cast rather than dramatised, and makes for a gripping climax.

In a play of power and politics the emotional weight is carried by the members of the Capel Celyn community. These are led by Dyfan Roberts, in a role of colossal dignity, and Victoria Pugh as Rhiannon, the mother whose prematurely deceased son has to be disinterred, by night, from the cemetery.

“Porth Y Byddar” is an austere evening. Wings and backdrop are painted black. The cast performs beneath twelve grey suspended lights. The 1950s costumes are monochrome, marginally lightened by an early 60s duffel coat. The music design is restrained although a seven-note piano sequence projects the theme of loss with great poignancy. Grainy photographs from the time are back-projected. When the play is revived, as it loudly calls to be, some use of colour might be reconsidered. It does after all commemorate a place whose communal life is portrayed as one of quiet joyousness.

The use of the recorded voice of Saunders Lewis is affecting and dramatically apposite. Film of Elvis and Suez, the Beatles, the Berlin Wall and Martin Luther King are less convincing. The narrative is powerful enough in its own right not to need reminders of the contemporary context.

Water politics are here to stay. Threaded throughout Manon Eames’ text is the assertion that the water requirement, ostensibly caused by Liverpool’s slum clearances, could be satisfied by the already existing drawings from Llyn Efyrnwy. A short scene shows a conversation between councillors cooking up a deal to resell water to a neighbouring county. This additional theme of corporation capitalism is potent stuff indeed.

This is an important production. By the time the curtain has fallen at Theatr Mwldan on 12th October it will have been seen by six and a half thousand people. “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil” eventually played to thirty thousand, made it to Ireland and Belgium and was even televised.

An irony of the new television age is that “Porth Y Byddar” is unlikely to make that jump across media. But, were the unlikely to occur, it would in any case be both diminished and lose its physicality. If anything a production like this restates the basic facts of theatre, that it is both inimitable and irreplaceable.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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