Theatre in Wales

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"Rhondda Rebel": “We Won't Surrender, Until We've Won”

Arts Feature

Fresh Catch Films , BBC Cymru Wales & i-Player , October-15-18
Arts Feature by Fresh Catch Films The anniversaries have been regular and constant over 2018: the partition of India, the National Health Act, the flu epidemic, the Armistice to come. The events in response in Wales have had two high points: Marc Rees, Eddie Ladd and collaborators in an epic production in Swansea and, surprisingly, Welsh National Opera with the centenary of the first, albeit partial, suffrage for women.

Television's participation with the arts outside itself is, to put it mildly, capricious. But the opera company's tribute to Margaret Haig Thomas has prompted a documentary in accompaniment, and it is a good one.

“Rhondda Rebel” is a good documentary for reasons that are not complex. The budget is sufficient to get to the places that matter, Llanwern, Usk Prison, Westminster, the rehearsal room, the first night at the Riverfront. There is expert commentary, where it is required, delivered economically but fully from Lady Rhondda's biographer Angela V John. For instance a meeting in 1909 in Aberdare gets a vivid description. Margaret, then Mackworth, attracted her Welsh audience who brought sulphuric acid, live mice, dead mice, rotten tomatoes, jeers and smashed windows to the political discussion.

Formally “Rhondda Rebel” has the unifying factor that a presenter brings. Carolyn Hitt is a journalist. Hers may be a maligned profession but Wales' dire dearth of decent cultural journalists is of no advantage. She brings the best of journalistic virtues to the role. Most of all, behind the scenes, producer Meic Birtwhistle, director-producer Sian Roderick and team are interested in their subject. “Rhondda Rebel” does without the often appalling musical accompaniment, which mauled for instance the recent documentary on the Third Marquess of Bute. Instead it has benefit of composer Elena Langer's music and the WNO's acclaimed singers in full voice.

The life comprised three distinct activities, campaigner, publisher and multiple board member. The weight of the programme focuses on the first. The director role on 33 company boards is a larger subject. Lady Rhondda disturbs Wales' comfortable labour-versus-capital historiography. As for the title word “rebel” the New York Tribune called her “the foremost woman of business in the British Empire.” D A Thomas too is treated here with a high respect.

In terms of antagonists the Liberal leadership, in the form of Asquith and Lloyd George, is let off the hook. F E Smith is given the role of chief villain. Women's brains being the smaller, they were, said the Lord Chancellor, unfit for the complex business of politics. After the war he was the powerful authority intent on denying her taking up her place in the Lords.

The opera prompted a critical discussion in the spring which did not care that its subject's sexuality was not more dominant. The documentary follows the opera in making the late relationships a part of the life rather than its centre.

The editing cuts between historical locations, like the Risca Road postbox, and scenes from the production. At the close Bethan Sayed and Jayne Bryant appear. “The battle has not yet been won” says the AM of 2018. She mirrors librettist Emma Jenkins' magnificent ending: “we won't surrender, until it's done”.

The most notable feature of the opera is that it embodies its subject. Just as the show is an entire all-woman production so too women are predominant in “Rhondda Rebel”. David Pountney gets a few seconds to describe the concept, but that is it. At 46:04 Newport's most ubiquitous critical presence is to be sighted but, rarely, his voice is not heard. The best line goes to director Caroline Clegg and her observation of the creative team just cracking on with it. “I've never worked in an all female creative team before but boy, oh, boy, do I want to do it again.”

“Rhondda Rebel” is available until 29th October at

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bllm4b/rhondda-rebel

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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