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Wales Theatre Company- the Thorn Birds , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , May 3, 2009
At Wales Theatre Company by Wales Theatre Company- the Thorn Birds Michael Bogdanov could take the Aberystwyth bus timetable and it would be staged with rhythm, flair and colour. With regular collaborator, designer Sean Crowley, “the Thorn Birds” looks great. For a production on tour it looks superlative. Scenes move from a country fair in Gillanmore, Australia (with bearded lady and man on stilts), to a lush garden with a lovely rose bower, a sumptuous black tie event, a Queensland bar, a sugar cane plantation, a Rome back alley, even to the Vatican.

The cast of seventeen brims over with talent, including several associate artists of the Wales Theatre Company. There is no young actor in Wales to out-do Gareth Richards for virile athleticism. Sadly, his character Frank kicks off at a boxing match but then vanishes to a prison sentence, hard labour with no chance of remission. Daniela Valvano can do a one hundred and eighty degree high dance kick. Kate Quinnell moves beautifully. The admirable Llinos Daniel appeared a couple of years ago on this stage as a sensuous aristocrat but is given here a dull character to play. Ieuan Rhys is a big actor, and that in a complimentary sense, who can command a stage. Here he briefly appears as a boxing promoter and then at the end as the Pope. The rich talent of Richard Munday is under-used as a stockman and, in the half-light later, I think, in the bit-part of a Roman pimp. Among a host of good voices that of Wyn Moss is particularly strong.

Colleen McCullough has written that the author is the only person who can turn two hundred thousand words of prose into drama. That is not true. The number of writers who have excelled in both novel and drama can be counted on one hand. A good adaptor works form the stage outward. Aberystwyth saw a model example in the last week in Simon Moore’s treatment of Stephen King.

A lot of characters have been ditched, events have been deleted and geography concentrated. Brothers, friends, a German parliamentarian have all gone so that the plot may be honed into a linear form but “the Thorn Birds” is the work of a debut dramatist. As such it misunderstands theatre on two counts.

Structurally, in a novel decades may pass, generations come and go, and characters may be tossed around by world events. But drama is fuelled by the opposite. Characters make things happen and here they are stuck in a one-note groove. There are events a-plenty but events are not dramatic action when the characters barely shift. Again and again in the first act poor Matthew Goodgame has to turn down Helen Anker’s Meggie “No, no, I'm a priest. I am married to Jesus.” A dramatist does it once.

At one point the commentator-narrator Cardinal di Contini-Verchese, a scandalously under-stretched Peter Karrie, repeats to priest Ralph what has occurred in the previous scene. Has he forgotten, or does the dim audience need reminding, the way that Evan Davies irritatingly repeats everything over and over in “the Dragon's Den”?

But, structure need not make or break a play. Australia has as vigorous a vernacular as anywhere. But the dialogue is second hand. As a fellow audience member put it lines like “God, what a fool I am” and “You've changed, grown hard” were the stuff of comedy parody a generation ago. And it rolls on and on. Meggie has “skin like silk”. A life “has been littered with broken promises.” Of a father and son “They're like two peas in a pod.” A character could “charm the birds out of the trees.” “If I could only rest my eyes upon him, just once” laments a widow. “You will assume the mitre and cope of a bishop.” “I'm bashing my head against a brick wall.” No actors can animate dialogue where the language has been put to sleep. “Poor souls” commented my fellow viewer.

There is one point at which the stage ignites, and that because a character has to make something happen. Meggie has to re-interest husband Luke, to mask her pregnancy by Bishop Ralph. Helen Anker bursts into the Queensland bar where he's boozing with his cane-cutter mates, blazing with a raunchy black-stockinged sensuality. The publicists for this show have made great play with “forbidden love”. When it takes the form of priestly chastity it is ethically interesting but it is a dramatic killer.

Still, a musical can live with anything- it’s the music that counts. To this ear the music sounded part Les-Mis-ballad-anthem, part Euro-rock-declamatory, driven by over-emphatic drumming. Many composers have given up on hummable tunes as part of the art. Maybe, but two years on I can still hum one of Mal Pope's “Contender” tunes.

Some of the freshest music happens in the interval. The cast have a working interval and Phylip Harries plays some jaunty tunes on his accordion. I did check with a music professional her take on the score. “Borrowings from Schoenberg. Some brilliant a capella singing. No idea how to structure a musical number. What worked well was probably due to the musical director. But the lyrics...”

There is indeed fantastic harmony, particularly on “No Child any Longer.” But the lyrics are generally stuck on rhyming couplets. “You are my destiny/ I never will be free.” “What a surprise/ So much beauty blinds my eyes.” “This was Mary's wish/ She served up the dish.” “I know what I'm worth/ I've done so since my birth.” “So much pain/ Let's wipe away the stain.” “Live a little first/ This family is accursed.”

The Thorn Birds” is what I imagine an ocean cruise would be like. It is opulent and easy, there is always something there to grab the attention, but only now and then do you land on something authentic. Cast a McKellen or a Mirren and they would be stumped in getting any emotional life out of the comatose language. Seeing Ieuan Rhys and Kate Quinnell together was a reminder that they last appeared here as father and daughter in “My Fair Lady”, aided by much the same creative team. That “the Thorn Birds” can make George Bernard Shaw by comparison seem an emotional volcano must be a first.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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