Theatre in Wales

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101 Nights to Remember

Thirteen Years a Reviewer , Theatre of Wales , May 14, 2020
101 Nights to Remember by Thirteen Years a Reviewer Time is plentiful and I have glanced at a few public documents about the arts in this season of crisis.

The first and most obvious thing to jump off their pages is the extent to which they avoid anything to do with why anyone goes out at night at all rather than click on some great television.

If there is anything to arise from this re-making it might start with some clear, candid language on dance, theatre, all the rest, and us. This comment was prompted by the headline given to the review of the first of these four. It had just three words:

“Audience in tears.”

That is what it is for, not everything, but a part of it.

At the fourth the curtain rose and the audience made a collective gasp. We gasped at its beauty.

“Beauty”- another word the gate-keepers are unable to utter.

Art is a bridge through time. We suffer when we think the world is just about us, for us, I had never seen an Arnold Wesker play. I was grateful when Terry Hands programmed it. I was left wiser about a moment in British theatre, British history and British socialism.

On the centenary of the first women's suffrage act David Pountney enabled something that was wholly fitting, wholly original and seen by a lot of people.

From “the Revlon Girl”, October Sixty Six Productions, Aberystwyth, 2016

“Owen Sheers is now one of the regularly most interesting voices of Wales on the public role of the artist. Nonetheless, he writes that “the prospect of trying to shape dramatically and render the nature of the village's loss seemed emotionally daunting and fraught with difficulty.” He is quite right. But Neil Docking, author of “the Revlon Girl” is to the contrary. “You tackle a subject head-on” he said on Radio Wales on 21st September. At a post-show event in Aberystwyth he says the same in response as to whether the enormity of the subject might daunt the writer. It is in fact more complex. The directness may send the dramatist to encounter the women and men from history but then the making is all to do with the application of artistry.

“The Revlon Girl” succeeds for three main reasons. The first is formal. Terri Dwyer's Charlotte, the role of the title, is the outsider. located in actual fact, who acts as catalyst to the four mothers eight months after the disaster. Docking provides with dramaturgical finesse a revelation that bonds her to the others. The most elusive aspect of writing for performance is the making of metaphor. In this case, with high compositional skill, the Revlon occupation elides into metaphor for the lives of Sian, Marilyn, Jean and Rona. Director Maxine Evans has taken on the role of Jean. The play is so structured that each character steps to the centre for a sequence of jagged emotion. The characters are delineated for contrast, each impelled on her separate course of action. In the quality of the playing there is not a hair's breadth of quality between Michelle McTernan, Bethan Thomas and Charlotte Gray.”

From “Rhondda Rips It Up!”, Welsh National Opera, Carmarthen, 2018

“In the centenary year of the first parliamentary act to grant women suffrage Welsh National Opera has got itself a hit. That is good for a national company. It has taken it out on the road. That is good for audiences of Wales, and it is good for a company too. The third performance of composer Elena Langer's opera is a tight fit on the Lyric's stage- the piece is performed by thirty women, comprised of nineteen singers, ten musicians and conductor all in view. It is nimbly done. “Rhondda Rips It Up!” has a lot of movement in it; with no choreographer in the credits the visual sparkle is down to director Caroline Clegg. “From its title to its promotion “Rhondda Rips It Up!” is intended as something different. Leslie Garrett at the close calls it opera-cabaret but it is not quite that. She plays the Emcee in Vesta Tilley-style waistcoat and tails. In the tradition of music hall librettist Emma Jenkins has given her a language of splendiforous, floribundant adjectival crescendo.

“Elena Langer's own description is that her music is a hybrid which draws on operetta, vaudeville, music hall. Categorisation is anyhow a cause of fret for critical pedants. An audience is enthralled or it is not. Carmarthenshire, which normally must travel to see its national company, demonstrably adores this show. The concept for the production belongs to David Pountney. Its working-out has a lot of boldness to it. The political objective of a century ago was deadly serious and the historical chronicle is grim. Violence against state property, and a Velazquez artwork, was met with state retribution. These campaigners regularly put themselves in hazard- not to the extent of Emily Davidson- but the risk of violence against the person was still high. The Asquith government's response in the “Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act” of 1913 had an absolute logic to it, albeit a logic of brutally pragmatic intolerance. To reanimate this historical material with a spirit of fun is a considerable artistic risk. .. The cast regularly changes dress to play clusters of moustachioed, cigar-chewing, frock-coated legislators. Lara Booth's design incorporates five high banners with a schematic design of pithead, mountain and valley across them. The stage is flanked by two high wooden panels of the Edwardian-era. Part-inspiration has been found in Newport's Temperance Hall. Panels pop open for Asquith to pronounce on government attitude. At the close a Lloyd George in cardboard mask appears to declare the first legislation to be enacted. Churchill and Lord Birkenhead also feature as characters...ends the first act with Madeleine Shaw's Lady Rhondda in a Rolls Royce heading for Usk gaol to the sound of “to prison, tally ho.”

From “Roots”, Emlyn Williams Theatre, Mold, 2011

“Kate Wasserberg's production of Arnold Wesker's 1958 play moves the setting from the Norfolk heartland to the Brecons. The shift is indicated the moment the house doors open. In Ruth Hall's design a forty-foot wide backcloth depicts in sombre tones a mountain landscape. At its right end, the distinctive profile of Hay Bluff is unmistakable. ..“Not a play of action” in Wesker's words “drama did not reside in the Aristotelian tradition of cause and effect, but in expectation.” There is instead a slow building of detail. Caryl Morgan's Beatie is hardly off stage. Revelation comes gradually of the split between the life she lives and the life she comes from. She lets on to sister Jenny (Victoria John) and brother-in-law Jimmy (Brendan Charleson) the joys of making love in the afternoon. Brendan Charleson, aged by decades, is a slow dragging physical presence with his pain of indigestion in the shoulders. It is a token of the unusual dramatic structure that as much as two hours pass before actors of the calibre of Catrin Aaron and Sion Pritchard make their entry. His Frank is all brittle exuberance, her Pearl a pane of frosted glass.

“Roots” is a triumph for Caryl Morgan. Beatie is a focal point of energy in a stultified world. She starts in the calf-length jeans of the rock 'n roll age. When she changes to a red Swan and Edgar frock she looks physically diminished. All trace of today is purged from her performance. She simply is of the nineteen-fifties...Kate Wasserberg's direction is that of complete confidence. Meals are slowly prepared, chewed over, washed up. The design detail is complete. Ice cream came for a long time as a white and pink rectangle. That was the way that the cardboard folded. For the detail in the acting, even the difference in Brendan Charleson's and Caryl Morgan's feet at table reveals character.”

From “The Royal Bed”, Theatr Pena & Riverfront, Aberystwyth, 2015

“Theatr Pena’s revival, directed by Erica Eirian from a translation by Siǒn Eirian, of Saunders Lewis’ 1954 “Siwan” impresses before a member of the six-strong ensemble has stepped on stage. Holly McCarthy's design, reinforced by Kay Haynes' lighting, has a statuesque grandeur to it, probably in truth greater than the actual thirteenth century Gwynedd royal residence of its representation. Its vaulting perpendicularity is emphasised by the six high-up candles in vertical alignment. Twenty-one more candles line the rear of the stage and form the left right corner. The furniture items, placed in formal ninety-degree relationship to each other, include a harp. Buddug Verona James, a company founder member, has done interesting things with music in the company's former productions and her role here as Musical Director is crucial.

“The opening music- Mike Beer on sound design- is a low repeated refrain with a tolling note at five second intervals. James sings, in accompaniment to Delyth Jenkins' harp, four French medieval troubadour songs between the acts of Lewis’ drama. In its composition the centre of the drama is slow in its revealing. Eiry Thomas’ commanding Siwan has been a royal mother at fifteen, carrying out her required duty to produce an heir and more. Aware of a bloom set, in her own words, to fade the erotic attraction from Francois Pandolfo’s part-latin Gwilym Brewis is irresistible. Only late on is it revealed that she is equal in Eros with a sense of political acuity. Russell Gomer’s Llywelyn is so consumed by the offence of infidelity that he sets the righting of personal affront before the dictates of realpolitik. Rounding out the company is Hannah O’Leary’s Alys. The role is dramatically central for her part as witness, rivetingly described, of an execution outside Siwan’s prison quarters.”

Picture: "the Royal Bed"

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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