Theatre in Wales

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Mae’r Y Siartwyr Yn Dod

At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Cymru Cymru- The Rape of the Fair Country , Swansea Grand Theatre , March-26-13
At Theatr Clwyd by Theatr Cymru Cymru- The Rape of the Fair Country “The Rape of the Fair Country” has been a critical and popular success. It looks superb. Mark Bailey’s set has an elevated rail track at a thirty-degree angle that crosses the width of the stage. Nick Beadle’s lighting captures that night-time inky blackness that is rarely found now in an era of round-the-clock illumination. Lighting below the stage captures the thousand-degree blaze of an industrial forge.

The sixteen-strong cast is one to die- names like Geary, Harries, Nehan, Patterson and Pritchard embellish any production. Kevin McCurdy is fight director for the fisticuffs that break out between Alexander Cordell’s Blaenavon and Nant-y-Glo industrial workers. Rachel Catherall is choreographer for the folk dancing that accompanies the wedding between Sion Ifan’s Iestyn and Charlotte Gray’s Mari.

“The Rape of the Fair Country” raises several questions; the relationship between theatre and literature, theatre’s responsibility to its source material and to the historical record itself. It is a rare novel that comes in the right shape for drama. The adaptation here does not aim at remaking it into theatrical form.

Thirty-two characters may impart a sense of epic breadth, but they also act as a dramatic dilutant, with broadly one-tone characterisation. Drama wants to focus on the two sources of conflict, that between workers and bosses, and that between different worker groups. Figures of authority make only an occasional appearance. The iron-master clans of Guest and Bailey are absent, mentioned for purposes of demonisation. Professor H V Morton of Swansea, and Convenor of History Research Wales, published an essay last year in which he yearned for an end of the cliché depiction of the capitalists as both alien and parasitical. There is a small irony to be had that a modern-day Guest is Chair and Patron of one of Wales’ best-known cultural exports. “The Rape of the Fair Country” has colour and song, but theatrically it is a piece of deep-stained cultural conservativism.

The adaptation is both faithful to Cordell, but also divergent. Two things matter in issues of novel versus script. One is that of the authorial voice. The setting is a culture of violence. The extreme violence of the Scotch Cattle against their strike-breaking foes is represented unstintingly. But father Hywel also commits violence upon his child. Its representation is different in the novel. Because of the compression needed to fit every plot episode into two and a half hours, character shading has to be sacrificed. The authorial stance over this culture of family violence disturbs, the limitation on character precluding any cultural critique.

The plot follows Cordell’s entire narrative arc, the climax excepted. This has the result that dramatic highpoints have a tendency to be narrated rather than enacted. Thus, a scene between father and son ought be one of physical intimacy with all that physical, and visual, awkwardness that entails. Instead the line is a piece of brief narration: “a strange thing happened. My father kissed me”. Theatre has a duty to its audience of enactment.

In a dynastic novel characters may happily leave the scene part-way, but in a concentrated stage piece it leaves a sense of bittiness. Characters have small scope to establish themselves, before they depart. Tomos Eames’ Richard Bennett has only a scene or two for himself before being shot. Sion Pritchard is an inimitable actor. His Dafydd Phillips, in a cap with the flappiest of ear-flaps, looks set to be a villain, but the character goes absent after his wedding. Hedydd Dylan’s Morfydd too more or less vanishes. The script draws little on the deep talents of Gwawr Loader. When her Edwina dies the effect is utterly different from Cordell’s writing. The script has not permitted the audience any emotional engagement. The family lament, but we do not.

Cordell ends with his hero in a tumbril heading for Monmouth gaol. It is a fine ending and the comparison is explicitly made with the victims of the French Revolution. Theatr Clwyd changes the ending. The line “Plundered. Violated. Raped” is declaimed, but this is not Cordell. The staging has the entire cast in three rows. It is a reference, intended or not, to the climax of “Les Miserables”, in the use of the flag, the declamatory singing. It hints also that to be an industrial worker is somehow to be more authentically Welsh than to be a Newport resident. That is a slippery slope. But then “the Rape of the Far Country” tips away from history towards pageant.

To the representation of history. A scene like the annual trip by barge to Newport is represented brilliantly, but has no dramatic content. It is essentially tableau. The Newport Rising is, as it happens,a subject of personal interest, some ancestors of mine having been there that day. The battle depicted here is not that as written by Cordell. It is briefly conveyed as a one-sided assault. Historians debate what actually occurred, and it will never to be known, cannot in fact be known. But the consensus is that around eighty shots were fired from the Chartist side, some at fleeing constables. The mayor was wounded. The twenty-five minute battle marked the greatest loss of life by one group of Britons upon another, but its course was most likely directed by panic and terror.

But “The Rape of the Fair Country” has been a critical and popular success.

A cultural footnote: Wikipedia is incomplete, thus unreliable on the Newport Rising. But another site, the National Library’s project to digitise Wales’ local newspapers, is remarkable.

Its starting year comes too late for a contemporary report on the Rising but a viewer can go straight from theatre to reading an account of John Frost’s return to Newport. The interface is simple to navigate. The report from the Newport correspondent for the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette for 16th August 1856 is thoroughly jaundiced but is full of life.

This is a cultural event of significance that has been undertaken by the Library.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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