Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

London Critics' Round-up: Part 2

On Bear Ridge

National Theatre Wales & Royal Court Theatre , Royal Court Theatre , November 16, 2019
On Bear Ridge by National Theatre Wales & Royal Court Theatre This production comes with a West Wales connection, not noticed to date. The last airing of an Ed Thomas script was in Aberystwyth in 2014. That “Flowers of the Dead Red Sea”, which also features slaughtermen, also went to London, albeit not so vaunted a location as Sloane Square.

“Director Izzie Rabey brings a sharp syncopation to this hyper-real, rapid-exchange, regularly and unfailingly comic situation” ran the review on this site 2nd May 2014. In 2019 Izzie Rabey is part of the company of this high-profile event that links Cardiff and London.

There are few print critics left standing but Times and Telegraph both retain writers of substance. They have made trips to Wales on occasion in the last 10 years and have filed respectful but measured reviews. While Guardian declared Port Talbot to be the happiest place on the planet Dominic Cavendish for the Telegraph gave it a decent three stars.

So too three stars for “On Bear Ridge”.

“Rhys Ifans is far, very far, from Notting Hill in this beguiling-infuriating drama from Welsh playwright Ed Thomas, set amid a remote depopulated and devastated rural (implicitly Welsh) landscape, and filled with a shiver-making sense of mourning but also a fair bit of shudder-making mumbo-jumbo.

“His eyes sadly bereft, his beard mighty and unkempt, Ifans’s John Daniel haunts the scene in a numb, reeling, rasping way, contending with grief on multiple fronts (a dead son, lost youth, a vanished world, even a language – the “old language” – defunct and erased). Surrounded by futile meat-hooks and knives, his blood-stained apparel – pyjama bottoms, lots of layers, little warmth signified – give him a scavenger’s air. The sole sustenance for him and his life-partner (Rakie Ayola’s stiller, stronger Noni) are the words they feast on, as they conjure tantalising meats and rhetorically fillet their emptied-out existence (the walls of Cai Dyfan’s set fly up one by one, revealing a harsh, rocky, snowy terrain).

“I wish director Vicky Featherstone had applied more pressure on Thomas (who has successfully turned his hand to TV, with crime series Hinterland, since his last Royal Court play 21 years ago) to cleave more strongly to his core themes and to find more interiority – yes, hinterland – in the characters. Increasingly, after the introduction of the store’s young slaughterman and a despairing intruding soldier, the writing sounds contrived and hollow, slipping from playful peculiarity to glib unreality (“The war is won. But it is also lost”).

“Despite committed performances and the magnetism of Ifans, the short evening winds up being as cold, woolly and unmoving as a sheep trapped in a snow-drift. The Royal Court must of course look to the periphery for points of interest – dramas from the edge. But with something volatile and even feral seizing the country as a whole right now, a work that in duller domestic times might have better impressed looks barely equal to the needs of the hour.”

Dominic Maxwell in the Times of 26th September pointed out that it is a play of situation without plot.

“It is hard to imagine the show being better served than it is by Thomas and Vicky Featherstone's production...apocalyptic sub-Beckettian torpor...a clunky piece of poeticism in a wearingly obscure play heavy on intimations of profundity, but light on anything actually happening...I'd exchange a lot of the undeniably vivid sense of loss here for a bit more story and a bit less mooning about remembering things...These rural dystopians, bearing traces of latterday Pinter and Churchill too, are too familiar and too forced.”

Exeunt had a cheerier take.

“With its dystopian setting and absurdist influences, it’s surprising that the show isn’t that nihilistic, or at least the characters aren’t. Its central couple shake off fear and shout at the jets overhead, their chemistry and comic instincts bringing a certain lightness to the play, even when it trembles on the precipice of despair. Even the potentially catastrophic entrance of The Captain is met with a kind of cautious kindness. When he says he is ‘not what you think I am’ it seems not only to be addressed to John Daniel and Noni, but to an audience who could easily see him only as a symbol for the encroaching chaos.

“But the show does not reject nihilism in favour of a kind of naïve, ridiculous hope. As Noni and John Daniel talk of their beloved lost son Tom Shenkin [sic] they seem to talk with equal fondness for his ideas – that the universe is a dark, cruel place, that human greed has always won out against compassion – as they do of the boy himself. There is something beguiling about the way the play refuses both despair and hope – it is a story of people surviving with love, but where love cannot help them survive, made all the more touching by the idea that maybe humanity isn’t inherently bad, but will destroy itself anyway.

“This delicate balance – of melancholy and playfulness, of anger and acceptance – creates a feeling of limbo, almost numbness, that is masterfully maintained throughout Vicki Featherstone’s production. Cai Dyfan’s set and Elliot Griggs’ lighting work together to heighten the sense of isolation, the whole space seemingly encased in a lightbox which makes it seem like the rest of the world could not exist at all. As the walls of the shop disappear, the characters are left with just the mountain and each other, with John Hardy’s soft strings (inspired by duo Bragod) drawing out the mystery and gentle sadness.

“…The language trips along to a playful rhythm, particularly in a moment where it is accompanied by the sounds of a knife being sharpened. As with many an absurd(ish) play, the plot is quite meandering, and it works well for it – there’s a feeling of waiting, without knowing what for, that pervades the play, but it never caused my attention to wander. It feels like the play is at its best when it is bouncing back and forth between the characters. In fact, it is when the play seems to enter Big Monologue Territory near its conclusion that it stumbles. Its expository explorations of the past don’t carry the same power as its earlier vagaries, which allow it to skip over ideas of language, identity and community in nuanced and interesting ways.”

Taken, with thanks, from full reviews at:

Times by subscription

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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