Theatre in Wales

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Gravity and Precision

At National Theatre

A Provincial Life- National Theatre of Wales , Sherman Theatre , March-07-12
At National Theatre by A Provincial Life-  National Theatre of Wales “A National Theatre for Wales?” This was 2008. “If it means Chekhov-on-the-Taff…” The voice belonged to one of Wales’ most prolific theatre veterans and the expression said it all. Four years on and it is indeed Chekhov-on-the-Taff. In the meantime National Theatre of Wales has been everywhere. If they haven’t yet taken their audiences coasteering on the Pembrokeshire cliffs or diving deep into Nantlle’s Dorothea quarry, they will, they will. There are years to come.

“A Provincial Life” differs from the sixteen productions that have preceded it. They have all been different in their own way but this one differs in one particular respect. Its purpose is to do honour to Peter Gill. That honour is obvious where an actor of Ieuan Rhys’ stature has joined the company in a minor part.

The choice of play is Peter Gill’s, a first full staging of a short story adaptation from 1966. “A Provincial Life”, extravagant in cast size, has an awesome precision in its direction. The promotion for the show has its light-hearted side, as if the company too is a little surprised. “We’ve got wigs and beards, lorry loads of set, props and lighting equipment.” Indeed they have. In scale and production values the viewer might well be in London’s Olivier theatre.

Peter Gill’s opening line is as simple as it comes. “I’ve brought you something to eat.” It is given to Cleopatra, played by Sara Lloyd-Gregory. It is spoken with perfect pitch and cadence, indicator of all that is to follow. In the first scenes Peter Gill has his players stand quite still on the large bare stage. He lets the words speak. The colour, black for men, cream or lilac for the women, helps in adding a statuesque quality to the visual imagery.

The acting is honed down to fine detail. Hear the way in which Clive Merrison’s martinet father articulates the letter “k” in the word “work” or the slightest of elongations given to the three syllables of “id-i-ot.” William Thomas has to listen to some high falutin’ theory from Nicholas Shaw’s magnetic Misail. His response is contained in the raising of his eyebrows.

The first night of “the Provincial Life” has been chosen for the day after Russia’s presidential election. Maybe it is fortune, maybe design, but the news agenda is filled with news from Russia. On stage the characters in true Chekhovian fashion bewail the stasis of pre-revolutionary Russia. Corruption and lethargy lurk in the background. “A minority should not live like vermin on the rest” declares a character. That mix of rage and resignation on stage is a mirror to the events being broadcast all evening.

The date of “A Provincial Life” is 1896. It comes after “the Wood Demon” and before “Uncle Vanya.” “Uncle Vanya” is a ghost that haunts the plot. There is the deep-seeing doctor, the attempt to find meaningful work in place of idleness, the glum melancholy of life in an ossified society. John-Paul McCleod’s comically balanced Ivan runs amok with a gun, albeit offstage. There is also a touch of Tolstoy overshadowing the story; the two writers first met the previous year in August 1895. Peter Gill opens his second act with a specific reference to “Anna Karenina”. A group of synchronised scythers moves across the stage.

As an adaptation of a short story “A Provincial Life” does not possess the intricate internal architecture of a Chekhov play. But it has a slow gathering force up to the last revelations of cruelty and anger. Alison Chitty’s design does away with those richly textured wooden verandas. Five large rectangles fifteen foot high stand around the stage’s edge. In summer Paul Pyant’s lighting gives them the tone of fresh pine. As the seasons turn they take on a gaunt winter light.

As for all those props mentioned by the publicity, tables of food and drink are brought on swiftly. Menna Trussler’s Nurse sits by a stove for warmth. Men relax over the billiard table. Barrow-loads of building material are unpacked. Pipes are lit. A sledge is laboriously hauled across the dismal winter landscape.

In the huge cast Lee Haven Jones brings to his role a pained helplessness. Alex Clatworthy radiates a luminous optimism where dismay is inevitable. Sara Lloyd-Gregory’s performance has all the vulnerability and hope of youth.

“A Provincial Life” closes three days before “As You Like It” arrives the other side of the railway line. Cardiff has never had two pieces of classical theatre of this stature back to back. Together, more than three dozen class actors, two directors at their peak. As Dickens wrote, it may be the best of times, it may be the worst of times. Wales is possessed of two theatre companies that are giants.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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