Theatre in Wales

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Literary Tribute Spot-on and Full of Surprises

At National Theatre

National Theatre Wales- The Dark Philosophers , Y Stiwt Theatre, Rhosllanerchrugog , November-25-10
At National Theatre by National Theatre Wales- The Dark Philosophers “Barely anyone with any practical theatre-making experience in the last fifteen years, barely any links to theatre elsewhere…dull, conservative, unimaginative and about as much vision for theatre as a pint-pot... very uninspiring...look like the greyest of the grey to me.” Thus in characteristic style did the blogosphere respond in March 2008 to the announcement of the Board for the new National Theatre of Wales. Thus in characteristic style did anonymity go hand in hand with bile and gracelessness.

Forget the eight productions. Forget that it is possible to open a broadsheet on a random day and see the words “Wales” and “theatre” linked to a string of superlatives. Forget that first-league reviewers journey to Swansea and Mold (“where exactly is it?”) Not the least of the Board’s vision has been its aspiration to generate a critical culture of the kind that poetry in Wales enjoys. That young audience members have been encouraged to generate their own responses to theatre is a cause for applause. Performance is too vital to be the preserve of the over fifties.

Reviews on their own, be they level-headed or demented, are not enough. To use the terminology of philosophers, dark or otherwise, they are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. In the case of the company’s eighth production, its own website has generated a stimulating “beyond-review” debate. At its heart is the question of how does a theatre production envision a literary figure, and indeed why?

In the case of Gwyn Thomas there is a practical reason. According to an avid fan, much of the work is out of print. The light that another medium shines can only serve to revive interest in the source.

As to the treatment, Thomas himself is onstage throughout in the script co-created by Kneehigh veteran Carl Grose and the Company. He offers his characters a helping hand to negotiate Angela Davies’ vertiginous set. He stands behind them and suggests the next line for them to speak. With his tight suit, his elbows forced back, his trilby, his three-quarter mask with its bulbous nose, there is an echo about him of the Shen Te/ Shui Ta figure from Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Szechwan”

As an author he was never the quiet recorder of human folly and foible. The personality is everything, the complement to those other literary Thomases, Dylan, rhapsodic, romantic but abroad and R. S., deep, austere but rural. This third Thomas would have thrived in the era of five hundred channel television. The production cleverly interpolates a TV episode to break the action and provide a structural symmetry.

It is important because the television performances are unforgettable and because they also belie many common national clichés. The scene also allows a cast member (no photos in the programme so he cannot be identified ) to give a gleeful imitation of Billy Connolly. An inflated Bettrys Jones, identifiable from a previous memorable performance, sits alongside as Dolly Parton.

What really impresses in the production is the honed physical action. It looks like many weeks of rehearsal have passed by to get it just right. To lie horizontal on the stage as a miner is one thing. The stage of the Stiwt is big, with the highest and most traditional of proscenium arches. To evoke the claustrophobia of the coal seam and the weight of the earth above, that is acting.

But best of all, it catches the exuberance without sentimentality of this particular author. A watering can is tipped over an actor so he really does get wet in the rain. Goats bleat and sheep baaa. A tyrant swells to a faceless eight foot in height. As in the best of humour it rests on a base of deep moral seriousness. Poverty, guns, “the smell of cabbage, damp and rent” permeate. Near the close the author voices his philosophy: “You see, to me absurdity is the most beautiful thing.” “We are the victim of a grand over-riding joke.” As a philosophy it is less dark than light and liberating.

At the end the cast's combined voices sing “All Through the Night” and drown out the television screen. Whether this is metaphor or theatre's wishful thinking, the last word can be left to the Guardian’s weekly “What to See” feature of 19th November. The view there: “Completely insane if “The Dark Philosophers” doesn't have a future life.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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