Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Eirian & Lewis Join in Production of Grandeur

Woman of Flowers

Theatr Pena & Taliesin , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , February-28-18
Woman of Flowers by Theatr Pena & Taliesin Each year in theatre follows its rhythm. After the winter shows have been cleared away a production arrives west of the Tawe that sets a quality marker for the year. In 2017 it was “My Body Welsh”, the year before “Smash It Up”, and the year before that “Y Tŵr”. My review for that performance by Invertigo was headed “First Tour of the Year Sets the Bar High.”

The same place of honour applies for “Woman of Flowers”. In 2018 Theatr Pena and Taliesin have seized the high ground. Their production is one of statuesque grandeur; all that follow will be held in comparison with the quality established by director Erica Eirian and producer Ceri James.

The company of course has form with Saunders Lewis. “The Royal Bed”, reviewed February 2015, won Holly McCarthy an award for the year's best design. Kay Haynes is again lighting designer. Her work here is superb. The production is evidence of the maturity that ensues from years, if not decades, of knowledge and collaboration. As well as Ceri James another Mappi Mundi founder, Peter Knight, is crucial to “Woman of Flowers.” His music and sound are fresh, surprising, and always supports, never distracts from, the action.

It takes a literary specialist to know the boundary line, where Saunders Lewis ends and Sion Eirian begins. The venue being Aberystwyth there is one such expert to hand and her verdict on Sion Eirian is an unambiguous thumbs-up. There are no out-of-place modernisms to jar. Robert Icke, for instance, inserts the word “ideology” into his adaptation of “Mary Stuart”. There is a directness of speech and also a lyricism. The movement of hunting dogs in the forest is likened to the movement of oars upon the spume of water.

The best test of any theatre is to imagine how it looks and sounds with the words taken away. The production is visually and aurally compelling. Unlike the recent work of Von Hove, for instance, technological resource is used to augment and not to upstage the actors. The design comprises two slabs twelve feet square that dominate mid-stage. They are placed four feet apart for entrances and exits. The images projected are variously a Gothic interior, dense woodland and wild coastline. The waves are slowed down so as to fit the rhythm of speech and action. The credits for this brilliance span the disciplines: Peter Firth is cameraman, Jon Cox relighter and Ceri James is editor of the videos.

Holly McCarthy's costume design is a study in stylistic and colour appositions. Theatr Pena's wardrobe supervisor Deryn Tudor has what must be a unique track record, having worked for both national theatre companies, National Dance Company Wales and WNO. The visual contrast between Eiry Thomas' black-costumed Gwydion and Betsan Llwyd's majestic Arianrhod is mirrored in the movement. Llwyd is steely regal majesty, Thomas shape-shifting mobility. The least dramatic role is given to Olwen Rees' Rhagnell who has to demonstrate loyalty that is frankly little deserved at the hands of her mistress. The men, Oliver Morgan-Thomas' Llew and Rhys Meredith's Gronw, are strong martial presences in black leather. Rhys Meredith ends in the manner of Schiller's Mary Stuart, movingly attaining sublimity in acceptance.

All art of worth is steeped in a familiarity with history. The paradox in the making of something new of value is that makers have to know history to be free from it. The technological resource is twenty-first century. But the forest background has echoes of Altdorfer, the silvery-grey palettes hint at Balthus, Gerhard Richter, the ghost of Piscator walks the lighting. As for the central character who dominates, the Woman of Flowers herself, Caroline Lamb is choreographer for Sara Gregory's Blodeuwedd and brings a balletic action. In costume and stage being her Blodeuwydd is pure art nouveau, a Jan Toroop brought to vital life.

A critical postscript: big media in London will not stir to see a co-production of Theatre Pena & Taliesin. That is their editorial right. But it is also a moral choice. To dance only to the tune of big money is their signal about culture beyond the M25. But indifference is a dual signal; it also conveys their smallness of relevance.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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