Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

London Critics' Round-up of "On Bear Ridge": Part 1

At National Theatre

National Theatre Wales & Royal Court Theatre , Royal Court Theatre , November 11, 2019
At National Theatre by National Theatre Wales & Royal Court Theatre Readers, as a rule of thumb, are theatre-goers. Or, conversely, theatre-goers, as a rule of thumb, are readers. The Penfro Literary Festival took place over the weekend after the opening of “On Bear Ridge”.

At a lunchtime at Rhosygilwen Mansion there was a view from a confident enjoyer of both. The production was manifestly going down well in Cardiff but she forecast that it was not set to do the same on transfer to London.

As a forecast it was off-beam. The critical voices clustered, in the main, around liking the Cardiff-London co-production.

There was no Michael Billington as the Guardian had sent a Welsh reviewer to the Sherman. But Claire Brennan was there for sister-GMG newspaper, the Observer. She is an independent and unpartisan voice, having shredded “Mametz” five years ago. The full five stars are uncommon but that is what she gave it.

In edited form:

“John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) fears that daily wearing of his only pair of trousers will reduce his memories to shreds. Absurd? It seems so, but his logic, in the explanation he delivers to his wife Noni (Rakie Ayola), is convincing – as well as hilarious and disturbing. Memory is crucial to this couple in their butcher-cum-grocery store, empty of stock and of customers.

"Outside is the rubble of their war-devastated village. Inside, memory is knowledge, memory is identity, and it is in memory that those who are gone live on. In this post-apocalyptic setting, John Daniel and Noni recite stock lists and the names of disappeared customers. They remember their murdered son in the company of his best friend, the store’s youthful slaughterman (Sion Daniel Young) and the intruder, a disorientated captain (Jason Hughes), weary of war.

“But memories are stored in words, and writer Ed Thomas’s characters speak and think in a “majority language” that is not their native tongue. This loss of an “old language” may have particular reverberations in Wales, yet it resonates also as a metaphor for other losses, personal and universal.

“Thomas creates for his characters a fragmented world that is simultaneously credible and vertiginously destabilising. Its uncertainties and improbabilities are stunningly physicalised in Cai Dyfan’s design: realistic shop walls that do not meet at the corners, but leave gaps through which snow-spattered rocks and debris are at first part glimpsed, then fully revealed as the walls soar up into the flies.

"Lighting by Elliot Griggs turns interior into exterior and back again, snapping from neon-grey winter’s afternoon to bomb-blast bright. Sound design by Mike Beer and music composed by John Hardy combine, cutting and overlapping to suggest wind-scoured, desolate landscape and peopled rooms.

“...Perhaps it’s not surprising that the production so satisfyingly completes the play (and masks its slight fault of occasional overwriting), since Thomas himself co-directs, with Vicky Featherstone, this impressive joint venture between National Theatre Wales and London’s Royal Court theatre.”

Aleks Sierz was there for the Arts Desk. The inventor of the phrase “In Yer Face Theatre” he is the excoriator of “History Boys” and all things soggy. He too liked what he saw.

In edit:

“Memory involves places, people, things and words, especially words. This abstract proposition is given knotty life in Welsh playwright Ed Thomas's extraordinary new play, On Bear Ridge...Over a compellingly Beckettian 85 minutes, conceived and staged as a rare example of metaphysical theatre, he shows how the decay of language eats away at memory, identity and life. Yes, it's a grim story of loss in a metaphorically resonant absurdist fable. And one in which Rhys Ifans performs a masterclass in tragicomic sensibility.

“...“Deprived of meat, the survivors have words. John Daniel says that he can speak the "old language", and uses vivid images of rooms and corridors to explain how this ancient tongue is a repository of memory, of his life story. Of reality itself. Although Noni cannot remember this local language, she has a rapport with her husband which enables her to understand his elaborate explanation of such odd habits as refusing to put on his trousers, on the surreal basis that if he does so he might wear them out. While Ifan William shares this ability to speak the old words, it also emerges that both men use it to remember Twm Siencyn, the couple's now dead son.

“Thomas writes in a flinty prose that mixes a Beckettian incantatory bleakness – "Nothing moving. Nothing growing, Snowing heavy" – with absurdist comedy and metaphysical speculation. He slowly builds up a picture of loss, and the ungainly grapple between hope and despair. The fate of Twm Siencyn, who once went to university before the forces of nationalist insurgency destroyed society, acts as a potent metaphor for the sense of unease that many Western countries feel in the face of today's resurgent populism. Despite its rather abstract quality, On Bear Ridge has enormous symbolic resonance."

Time Out's headline ran: “Rhys Ifans shines in Ed Thomas’s surreal, tender drama about people making do in a post-apocalyptic world.”

In edit:

“Rhys Ifans spends most of this play stomping about in a blood-spattered apron, periodically accenting his frustrations with the jab of a meat cleaver; but the underemployed butcher he plays is tender, not violent. John Daniel is deeply in love with his wife Noni (Rakie Ayola), who has an almost mystical ability to calm him.

"Together, they escape reality down the corridors and remembered contours of the shop’s glory days. Thomas’s offbeat, Beckettian dialogue movingly itemises the tiny things that people in crisis hold on to: Noni’s cupboard of trinkets, John’s carefully preserved trousers, woven through with the memories of more normal days.

‘On Bear Ridge’ has odd moments of violence but it’s really almost impossibly tender. These are very, very nice people, guardians of goodness and of a non-specific time and place where the ‘old language’ was in every mouth, where community was everything, where insularity and acceptance of difference cheerfully co-existed round the same warm fireside. Outside, unseen armies rampage and snow falls hard on jagged rocks. Inside, any moments of conflict are glossed over with a cheerful ‘No, you’re alright, no problem’.

“Maybe there’s something a little too easy about this dichotomy, and something a little too sweetly nostalgic about its portrait of ‘the old ways’.

"But Vicky Featherstone’s haunting production also feels like a fairly explicit conversation with the stories we tell ourselves in times of crisis, and an attempt to show that, in an increasingly reactionary society, nostalgia can be progressive as well as regressive. Its cinematic staging creates a gloriously detailed shop-world that’s gradually dismantled, piece by piece, to leave only desolation. There’s nothing much new about this lament for lost rural identity, but it seeps into you like warm blood seeping into the grain of a worn wooden chopping board.”

Selected, with thanks, from originals at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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