Theatre in Wales

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Utter Confidence and Conviction

At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Roots , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd Cymru , November 22, 2011
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Roots Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum hosted a lively debate on October 26th entitled “What Makes a Play Scottish?” That in turn prompted a flurry of comment on the National Theatre of Wales site. It included an observation that a Chekhov production by Fluellen had become, in some manner, utterly Welsh.

Kate Wasserberg's production of Arnold Wesker's 1958 play moves the setting from the Norfolk heartland to the Brecons. The shift is indicated the moment the house doors open. In Ruth Hall's design a forty-foot wide backcloth depicts in sombre tones a mountain landscape. At its right end, the distinctive profile of Hay Bluff is unmistakable.

Theatr Clwyd Cymru credits Steffan Rhodri as script consultant. A few “bachs” have been written in. Abergavenny has taken the place of Gorleston. The Norfolk “I aren't grumbling” has been amended. Pronunciation of “babies” has become “bay-beez”. An antiquated piece of vocabulary like “dickey suit” has been changed. It makes for a transposition that is both successful and unobtrusive.

As a piece of dramatic writing “Roots” is quite distinctive. “Not a play of action” in Wesker's words “drama did not reside in the Aristotelian tradition of cause and effect, but in expectation.” Its unfolding is slow. In the summer of 1958 George Devine and Tony Richardson of the Royal Court urged that the first two acts be merged. But “these brilliant men of the theatre missed the point.”

The audience is left intrigued as to quite where the play is heading. There is instead a slow building of detail. Caryl Morgan's Beatie is hardly off stage. Revelation comes gradually of the split between the life she lives and the life she comes from. She lets on to sister Jenny (Victoria John) and brother-in-law Jimmy (Brendan Charleson) the joys of making love in the afternoon.

Brendan Charleson, aged by decades, is a slow dragging physical presence with his pain of indigestion in the shoulders. It is a token of the unusual dramatic structure that as much as two hours pass before actors of the calibre of Catrin Aaron and Sion Pritchard make their entry. His Frank is all brittle exuberance, her Pearl a pane of frosted glass.

“Roots” is a triumph for Caryl Morgan. Beatie is a focal point of energy in a stultified world. She starts in the calf-length jeans of the rock 'n roll age. When she changes to a red Swan and Edgar frock she looks physically diminished. All trace of today is purged from her performance. She simply is of the nineteen-fifties.

This world is not just one where hot water for a bath is carried bucket by bucket. The news on the radio is routinely switched off after a headline or two. Those who make small connection with the world make small connection with each other. In the neutered emotional response to sorrow can be seen a prefiguring of Mike Leigh. “Words” says Beatie are “bridges, and the more bridges you know about, the more places you can see.”

Kate Wasserberg's direction is that of complete confidence. Meals are slowly prepared, chewed over, washed up. The design detail is complete. Ice cream came for a long time as a white and pink rectangle. That was the way that the cardboard folded. For the detail in the acting, even the difference in Brendan Charleson's and Caryl Morgan's feet at table reveals character.

The last lines of “Roots” are as tough as any with their abrupt change in tone. Director and actor have in Nick Beadle a lighting director who carries it off brilliantly. Alice Malin is assistant director. She is also author of an illuminating background article on Wesker in the programme.

“Roots” is distinctive in having a sizeable amount of quotation attributed to a character who never appears. Ronnie Kahn is in the other two plays of Wesker's trilogy. Michael Billington says in his “the State of the Nation” that only in the third play of the trilogy does Wesker’s full purpose become clear. Theatr Clywd Cymru could do many things worse in Autumn 2012 than unleash the same tremendous production team to work on “I'm Talking About Jerusalem”.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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