Theatre in Wales

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Things That Begin with P

101 Nights to Remember

Thirteen Years a Reviewer , Theatre of Wales , May 10, 2020
101 Nights to Remember by Thirteen Years a Reviewer An episode from memory.

There was no private access to see “the Persians.” The production cost was raised by the necessity of a fleet of coaches assembled at the Sennybridge base. For the return journey I, by chance, entered a coach with just two seats left. I took one of them and my heart dropped when the last passenger entered.

I had given a stage adaptation of “the Thorn Birds” a critical mauling for its lyrical ineptness. As had every other reviewer.

“I'm-” I said to my passenger on the return journey.

“I know who you are” said Michael Bogdanov.

In fact the journey down Epynt to the A40 and the eight miles back to the army camp was a delight. Not a word was spoken about “the Thorn Birds.” Bogdanov pointed out the obvious about the production we had experienced. After the part with the car we had spent most of the time sitting in rows looking at a stage in front of our eyes. For us as an audience it was largely as it would have been for an audience of Athens in the fifth century BCE.

We were also in agreement that the man on the stage holding a bulky camera was a visual annoyance. Happily, the rest was of a quality and bravura to compensate.

Of the other three in this foursome two tackled public issues, Tryweryn and Afghanistan. The Llanarth Group was a pioneer in collaboration with theatre of Asia.

From “The Persians”, National Theatre Wales, Mynydd Epynt, 2010

“Cilieni village can be seen middle distance from the public road that crosses Mynydd Epynt. With its steep-pitched roofs and tall fake-church tower it has a disjointed Mitteleuropa look to it. The first view close-up that “the Persians” audience gets is a wrecked armoured vehicle wedged in a dug-out. The buildings themselves are unadorned breeze block with retractable metal shutters for windows.
For the last night of the National Theatre of Wales’ unique production a thin mist seeps across the plateau. What the audience, dressed in hand-out identikit brown ponchos, lose by way of the famed view of seven counties we gain in strangeness, atmosphere and the chill of the claustrophobia of war.

“Stewards lead on foot up a desolate track. The first sight in Mike Pearson’s granite re-imagining of Aeschylus is an antique, flat-fronted, colourless Peugeot van converging from another track. It pumps out martial music. A black Rover 110, once in its native Midlands the talismanic vehicle for executive success, drives with care into our midst. Four suited men alight and move to microphones and a set of portable tannoys. The chorus’ opening scene is staged as hectoring declamatory bellicose propaganda. The bulk of the production takes place in an open-fronted, four-storey building with the audience face-on on hard benches. The view to the side is a five-mile semi-circle of hill and moorland...Sian Thomas makes that Middle Eastern keening that uses the vibration of the arched back tongue...Towards the close the chorus (Richard Lynch, Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley, Gerald Tyler) makes its plea to the dead Darius. They move from the building to the grass verge in front of the audience. In their agony of chest-beating, rage and lament Mike Pearson raises their combined voice, movement and gesture into a realm of sublime Dionysiac theatricality.”

From “Pink Mist”, Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Aberystwyth, 2017

"Director John Retallack’s superb, physical adaptation of Owen Sheers’ Wales Book of the Year “Pink Mist” transfers with ease to stage. It has a symmetry to its casting, three men who sign up for duty in Afghanistan, three women who remain differently at home. It has a skilfully interwoven tripartite structure. It has a finale that links straight back to its opening. Its language, that of six Bristolians, necessarily avoids words of Latinate origin and length. A rhyme that shocks like “from six foot two to four foot three/…double amputee” is as complex as it gets. It works entirely on those words in the language that are the shortest and the crispest. Surprisingly, given the nature of the subject and setting, it contains just one single f----. Peter Edwards’ Geraint aka Taff looks into a butcher’s window, sees a string of chickens, “scrawny f---ers”, that remind him of the three boy-recruits that they once were. “Pink Mist” is rebuke to the practice, and belief, that an expletive-drenched language is indicator of authenticity and substitute for expressiveness.

“Writing for performance needs an eye. The script sees the bizarre image of a blue and a green plastic chair blown up into a tree. The pale blue shade of a heron’s egg from the Severn Estuary is contrast to the ever-looming threat of the pink in the title...Phil Dunster’s Arthur, born and bred in Severn Beach, drives imported cars onto the vast car parks at Portbury Dock. Alex Stedman’s Hads has had a grandfather shot in the head at point blank range in Somalia. For his mother (Zara Ramm) his job with a fashion chain at Cribbs Causeway, between the do-nuts and the store of cinema merchandise, is an accomplishment. For the Shirehampton teenager it is not enough. The staging is a fifteen foot square and all six actors are present throughout. Peter Harrison’s lighting reaches to a harsh yellow for the scenes in which the soldiers depart Camp Bastion for their deadly patrols in Afghanistan. John Retallack’s production has a particular strength in capturing that sense of conflict’s instantaneity, that point when a patrol without incident is hit by assault. Jon Nicholls’ sound design is complex and crucial. Erin Doherty’s Lisa is the partner and mother who has to live with the effects of post-stress traumatic syndrome in all its manifestations. The details are searing. A stricken veteran back home can let a cigarette stay lit until it burns a knuckle. “Nothing is as it was” says Gwen, even with a man unscathed on the surface.”

From “Playing the Maids”, the Llanarth Group, Gaitkrash & Theatre P’yut, Aberystwyth, 2015

“Playing the Maids” is substantially, but not always, meditative and over its unbroken seventy-five minutes is mesmerically absorbing. The action is not easily communicable. The stage comprises five actors in black playing to the shifting, elliptical sound and occasional words from two sound artists also in full view, Adrian Curtin and Mick O’Shea. The voices of Regina Crawley and Bernadette Cronin, both resident in Cork, are richly Irish. Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo is from Singapore and Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim from Seoul. These culturally heterogeneous strands are fused by the partnership of Kaite O’Reilly in a dramaturgical capacity and director Phillip Zarrilli.

“Playing the Maids” assaults familiar criteria of aesthetic judgement, in particular the emphatic beat of rhythm and propulsion The viewer has to allow the artists their own pace and the subtly shifting changes in sound and action. As for the clash of language and the moments of meta-theatricality they carry themselves with conviction... It is entirely true to the spirit of Genet. It is a variation, looking at among other subjects “the politics of intimacy.” But “we are not in the realm of words” runs an early line... Po-Hsin Liu’s design makes much use of floor-based lighting, creating an eerie monochrome that is reminiscent of Kirchner woodcuts, another artist who vaulted outside the confines of the European tradition. “Playing the Maids” has its moments of playfulness. The lights go up, always a disconcerting touch for an audience, for an enlivened stage-front song of unfamiliar Asian origin. Rear stage Regina Crawley and Bernadette Cronin break simultaneously into a “Riverfront” duet..”

From “Porth y Byddar”, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, Aberystwyth, 2007

“The closest relative to Manon Eames’ play would be 7:84’s “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil”. Like that play “Porth Y Byddar” is led by two narrators- nimbly played by Phil Reid and Llion Williams- who slip in and out of the action and preside over a cast, twelve in total, in literally dozens of roles. The action moves at speed, from smoke-filled clubrooms to council meetings, chapel to the House of Lords, children fishing by the riverbank to interrogations by bewigged QCs. It is all here; the ejection of Gwynfor Evans from a council session, the relative indifference in nearby Bala, the heated debates within Plaid Cymru, the pusillanimity of local councils, the ambivalent role that the local police is obliged to perform. Wyn Bowen Harries among many roles gets to portray a splendidly dismissive, and offensive, Henry Brooke, Minister of Housing and Local Government and Welsh Affairs.

“Wisely, on the part of author Manon Eames and director Tim Baker, the 1965 celebratory opening, that lasted less than three minutes due to protestor action, is narrated by the full cast rather than dramatised, and makes for a gripping climax. In a play of power and politics the emotional weight is carried by the members of the Capel Celyn community. These are led by Dyfan Roberts, in a role of colossal dignity, and Victoria Pugh as Rhiannon, the mother whose prematurely deceased son has to be disinterred, by night, from the cemetery.”

Picture: “Pink Mist”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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