Theatre in Wales

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The lost voices of Tryweryn heard again

At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Drowned Out , Theatr Clwyd, Mold , October 23, 2008
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Drowned Out My review of “Porth y Byddar” a year and a fortnight ago closed with the comment that it was deserving of an audience beyond the six and a half thousand people who saw it on its first tour. A year on Clwyd Theatr Cymru has re-mounted it under the title of “Drowned Out” with its double meaning. Much of the same cast, led by Phil Reid as one of the two energetic narrators, has been retained. The bulldozer in Max Jones’ design still intrudes on the stage in the second half and Dyfan Jones’ music again poignantly underscores the action.

Seeing it again Manon Eames' artful structure comes across more forcefully. The damming of the valley had two parts, intention and execution. These are mirrored in the two acts. Act One criss-crosses between Capel Celyn, Liverpool and London with the cast of twelve swapping roles at a speed that dazzles. Act Two follows the slow wrecking of the community, on both levels, and the responses it engendered

What also comes over a second time is that it is bluntly about power. “Whose is the water anyhow?” says a QC in the House of Lords. In this light the closing scenes might well be seen as over-harsh. That it should be synonymous with “shame”, “cowardice” and “indifference” is to view the 1950s through a filter probably not available at the time. Meirioneth Council may well have been unable to express any opinion at all but a patchwork of local authorities and town councils, presiding over small rural populations, would have been no match for a juggernaut like Liverpool Council. An institutional structure was lacking. As a Londoner states in the play there can by definition be no national opinion from a place that lacks an institution to express that opinion.

The subtitle of the play is “the Lost Voices of Tryweryn.” In the valley itself a single small plaque stands in the doorway of the more or less permanently locked chapel. Meanwhile a perfectly formed water colour in tribute has been showing at Machynlleth’s MOMA all month. John Meirion Morris’ memorial sculpture is on display in maquette form at the British Embassy in the United Nations.

There is much potent material simmering in Manon Eames’ play. The print version of “Deep Cut” has more supporting material than text and it would be good to see something similar happening with “Porth y Byddar”/ “Drowned Out”. The play makes reference to a backroom deal, unspecified, between Liverpool and the Labour Party prior to Harold Wilson’s wafer-thin 1964 victory.

If the document exists it would be instructive to see the order to Liverpool Council employees to take paid time off in order to pack out a rate-payers’ meeting. (I observed this tactic myself once when a meeting in Tripoli was broken off for the civil servants to attend a “spontaneous” demonstration; I little suspected the Qaddafi regime was merely taking its cue from a British city).

The form of municipal capitalism in which a city was able to initiate a major capital project, then re-sell the water is a chapter of government history which deserves a greater hearing.

“Drowned Out” has the production qualities to be expected from Theatr Clwyd Cymru and Tim Baker’s direction. Back projections show contemporary events. Saunders Lewis is heard and there are ironic pop songs from the era. But the text is strong enough to live without them; as long as Dyfan Jones’ elegiac theme is retained I suspect that the play may become a standard in different settings.

With “Deep Cut” Carmarthen, Mold and Cardiff have now between them in the last fifteen months produced two stirring, semi-documentary plays. Both are painstakingly researched, skilfully structured and humanly moving. Both deal with the practice of power, ostensibly rational and consultative, but selective and illegitimate in its deployment.

Neither production is going to rampage around the world in the manner of the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch.” They do not have the explosive topicality of Iraq, but in their more restrained manner they are equally epochal. The play may be sub-titled as lost voices but here and in the memorial sculpture those voices are receiving their fitting and lasting echo.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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