Theatre in Wales

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Two Players, An Empty Stage: Theatre of Elemental Essence

At Theatr Felinfach

Bale & Thomas- West , Theatr Felinfach , June 9, 2022
At Theatr Felinfach by Bale & Thomas- West "West" has a distinctive provenance. It was commissioned by the North American Festival of Wales and premiered in the Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Milwaukee in August 2019. In the same summer it was to be seen in Machynlleth.

In 2022 this tale of a journey west makes its own westward journey. After performances in the valleys of Taff, Towy and Usk it arrives on a summer's Friday night in the valley of the Aeron. It is a location that has a special appropriateness for Owen Thomas' story of a nineteenth century sheep farmer and wife.

Overwhelmed by financial stringency, they make their irrevocable decision. From the docks of Liverpool it is an austere voyage to the multi-lingual hubbub of New York City. From there it is a train for days to Chicago and the beckoning of the rural mid-West.

Cilcennin is a couple of miles from Felinfach's theatre. It was the parish which had the highest depletion of population of any in nineteenth century Wales. The links remain. Exchange students from Ada, Ohio were to be seen on the campus of Lampeter. A memorial plaque a few miles away reads: "This oak tree is a solemn tribute to the hundreds who migrated (1818-1848) from this vicinity to Oak Hill, Ohio and the contribution to the promotion of God, music, education and industry in their chosen homeland."

The Welsh of America, like the Scandinavians, journeyed inland, farmed, built schools, chapels, and prospered. The landscape carries their mark. In 1850 there were 5000 Welsh in the Welsh Hills, living in Radnor, Gallia County and Gomer. In the 1860s eight thousand first and second generation Welsh moved to Kansas to farm in Bala and Arvonia. Wisconsin was the destination for one name, Anna Lloyd Jones, among the many thousands who sailed from Ceredigion. She was mother of the greatest Welsh-American artist, Frank Lloyd Wright.

"West" is a drama in verse with another local echo. Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, by their own account, frolicked just a mile or so away on the bank of the Aeron. Owen Thomas' rhyming pattern extends at times to a multiple in-line repetition. But he does not use the assonance that was a Dylan Thomas hallmark. The verse flows through the voices of the two actors with a grace and ease.

The production makes use of an economical sound design. Gareth John Bale again takes on the director role. The cadence of music, chapel and choir, is threaded throughout. That discipline of chapel was central, It pertains; the campus of the college in Ada, Ohio remains teetotal.

The story has an elemental arc to it. There is the affecting sweetness of love gauchely expressed. "I love you" says He eventually. "I know" says She. It is an exchange reprised late on. The actors take on a few other roles. But in the main it is the story of a life- love and work and family- to the inevitable. In this story destiny is to be malaria.

Underneath is the truth of exile. To be so far from home is, He says, "endless ache." It reaches an alleviation. The Chicago Exposition of 1893 includes an Eisteddfod. The event had twenty-seven million visitors, among them the Welsh from across the USA and Canada. The new homestead, He says, has come to feel a home.

A vibrant theatre has a richness of ecology to it. That ecology can embrace noise, starkness, ribaldry. The quality of variation can be seen in the best of this season, "Milky Peaks" and "Stone the Crows." But a theatre of quietness also matters, hugely.

"West" travels lightly. The two actors have three boxes that are moved to suggest various settings. The stage at Felinfach is not of a studio size. Gwenllian Higginson and Gareth John Bale command their space with the basics of their art: movement, voice, the charisma of human presence.

"West" travels through Wales under the umbrella of the Arts Council of Wales' "Noson Allan" scheme. Its westward journey continues: Milford Haven in the coming week, then the big leap, to Los Angeles.

Actor and playwright have worked together for many years. "Grav" also made the journey to perform in the USA. The performance in Felinfach features below March 2015.

Postscript

The company, actors and playwright, join the audience to talk about the play. "Theatr Felinfach", says Gareth John Bale, "is one of my favourite theatres."

The venue is now fifty years old. So much music and theatre have flowed through: Andean pipers, flamenco dancers of Andalusia, Mid Wales Opera in its fledgling years, for "Grav" not a spare seat to be had...

The history of the theatre was caught in the documentary of September 2015 below.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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