Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

New Writing Productions: Part 2

At RWCMD

Richard Burton Company- Animal/ the Endless Ocean , Bute Theatre RWCMD , April 6, 2015
At RWCMD by Richard Burton Company- Animal/ the Endless Ocean The RWCMD has always been bigger than its mission solely to teach and train. Venue 13 is a reliable oasis of calm in the melee of Edinburgh. Long before the new building in Cardiff the programming has been adventurous and stimulating. When Rattigan’s “After the Dance” won a string of London awards a few years ago it was hailed as a major rediscovery. Not so: Cardiff audiences had had the opportunity to see director Charlotte Westenra give it a sparkling revival in the Caird Studio.

Productions from its Richard Burton company routinely make it into my personal best of the year. Seventy-three thousand visitors entered its spirit-raising atrium last year, dividing almost equally between music and drama. That a company of the heft of Brewin Dolphin chooses to back it speaks of its importance.

New writing is irregular enough to make four new productions an event. In this second year the four again move from Cardiff to London's Gate Theatre. In 2014 “VS09” and “Spring Awakening” were received warmly on this site. “Pomona” went on to vie with the marvellous “the Nether” as the most argued-over play of the year. It heads ever upward and is to be seen at the South Bank's National later this year. From a small stage in Cardiff it does not get much better for a young writer.

In this context the selection for 2015 disappoints. The principal reward for the viewer is to see a new cadre of young actors. In the aggregate their collective talent is superior, by some way, to the material given to them. “Animal” is the stronger of the two productions in the Bute Theatre. It is a play in two parts.

A programme note declares that “Animal drags the two and a half thousand year old Bacchae kicking and screaming into the 21st century.” This is not a posture that an academy devoted to the theatrical arts should be promulgating. Euripides has endured two and a half millennia and will likely do the same again for the next two and a half, while we will all long be forgotten dust.

“Animal” scores when it evokes the raw power of Greece. It was that power that runs straight through to “Blasted”, judiciously selected for the opening of Cardiff's newest venue. The aspect of rampaging modernity would not matter but it jars linguistically. It does not matter in the slightest that the guards, Hector and Horace, are armed with pistol and revolver and come with estuary accents. When their language jumps from “muvva” to “creative arts vibe” it does not fit.

“Animal” is made of a language lacking confidence in its own integrity. Thus the cast is left with lines like “there's a perception about God that you're all kind of crazy.” Figurative language fails. Pentheus the king is declared so green he “doesn't know which side of a bed to piss on.” As beds are not the usual place for urination, from a source regal or otherwise, it makes small sense.

The feminist stress has a dated quality to it, more “Mad Men” retro than the place of women of today, not least in the context of this week. Seven million have seen the Wood-Bennett-Sturgeon trio live- and many more in summary afterward- more than holding their own against Westminster, Eton and Corpus Christi.

Happily there is Euripides as the base element. Sebastian Noel's design on the ten square metres of stage comprises bare rock and a twisted petrified tree. The action when it gets free of the intrusions acquires an elemental power. “Animal” in its power and ambition makes demands on its young actors; the cast of eight all rise to the challenge admirably.

“The Endless Ocean” is a puzzler. The wisest counsel from the Royal Court, with a judgment and experience to be respected, is in the audience and likes it. The author has an already good relationship with the Royal Court. Acknowledgment is given to an involvement of the National Theatre of Wales.

The piece is bracketed by two sequences of extended music and a particular all-cast choreography owing a nod to Tourette's or Parkinson's. These sequences have no connection to the main part that they bookend. But a work of art is first and foremost a unity. The bulk of the words between comprises the cast making commentary about third parties, who themselves are only fitfully enacted as stage personages in their own right.

This form would not matter were the language to be driven with vigour, descriptive power and insight. But it has the vigour and motive energy of blancmange. The lines limp on and on. In a foreign destination “they know what they are going to do now. They are going to exist.” A character has eyes so dark they offer no reflection. This is used to denote “the void” within her. This might work in prose but statements do not make theatre.

The play is principally about parents and a child. “You might have wondered what I was as a person” says the child in a rare moment of inter-character address. The cast of eight engages in some group singing, very nicely harmonised. The lyrics include the line “I won't shit myself any more.” Numerically “shit” is probably the most commonly employed noun.

When the writing jerks from generalisms to specifics it frequently jars. “Hitler didn't want you to like him” occurs in an exchange. But Hitler was never Frederick the Great and the Goebbels propaganda machine went to great pains to capture images to purposes of ingratiation, with children in particular. “The waves cut through water like knives” is a rare attempt at simile. Figurative language achieves its effect through a recognition of correspondence that works instantaneously. Once it gives cause to stop and pause it has failed. The knife simile fails because waves are not like that. This thus goes straight to an issue of base competence in the handling of language.

“The Endless Ocean” comes without rhythm or crescendo. That is not the same as slow. Performance may be glacier-slow- look to “Told by the Wind” or “the Threat of Silence”- and still mesmerise. But this is inert, an aesthetic content hard to discern. The cast is engaging, the under-stretching of their collective talents regrettable.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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