Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“A Flourish of Personal Signature”

Last Ditch

Lurking Truth Theatre , Castle Theatre Aberystwyth , September 28, 2023
Last Ditch by Lurking Truth Theatre Novelists regularly make good literary critics. The disciplines are similar; a feel for form, the making of prose that counts, an eye for the detail that tells.

The dramatist and the drama critic do not enjoy that same link. It is very difficult to forge something that works on stage. A professor of theatre has written a drama about the nuclear scientists of Germany who were held in quasi-captivity at a country house in Cambridgeshire. The author knows theatre well but the result feels like a colouring-in exercise by numbers. It lacks the connective energy that is needed.

David Ian Rabey reprises his career in the programme for “Last Ditch”, subtitled “Anhrefn yn Nghymru.”. Thirty-five years in Aberystwyth his main work as a scholar has been David Rudkin, David Edgar and, latterly, Jez Butterworth. Rudkin's “Merlin Unchained” is explicitly acknowledged as an influence. He knows form, structure but also knows that theatre is elementally one thing. It is human energy unleashed across space. “Last Ditch” plays out as a taut sequence of bouts of movement, sound, gesture.

Aberystwyth's Castle Theatre is not used greatly for public performance. It melds the advantages of both immediacy and scale. Rabey and co-director Oliver Turner ensure that there is little to impede their large cast. Shannon Black and Connor Elliott are assistant directors. Props are limited to an occasional bench or seat. A blind woman attempts to find solace in learning a violin. A pillow is needed for an act of euthanasia. The audience sits either side of an elongated space. Enveloping ceiling-to-floor curtains are essential to the design for image projection..

All art is allusion. “A hall full of mirrors or a whispering gallery”, as Gombrich put it in “Meditations on a Hobby Horse”, “Each form conjures up a thousand memories and after-images.” The audience enters past bodies that gyrate and twist. Oliver Turner's Boneblack in bowler hat and frock coat invites memories of Weimar. Rabey has been a lifelong champion of Howard Barker, a dramatist little loved in his own land. “Last Ditch” certainly accords with the reaction against what Barker called “authoritarian dramas”, articulating "messages" under a camouflage of "questions."

Certainly “Last Ditch” fits into an older tradition of Wales. “A sense of the fantastic”, as Simon Harris once wrote, “the development of an avant-garde and anti-naturalistic theatre, as evidenced by such companies as Brith Gof, Moving Being, Volcano and Y Cwmni-Fiction Factory.”

The language surrounding the play is clothed in a cosmic grandeur: “a gang of broken renegades ...aim to effect a worldwide cultural and spiritual transformation.” Spectres from theatre's history, Toller and Kaiser, haunt the Castle Theatre. But if an art-work is held in an embrace of its predecessors it is also itself and David Ian Rabey has given it a flourish of personal signature.

The two and a half hour course of action divides broadly in three. In truth the narrative flow is not easily interpreted. The first part presents a sequence of human experience at extreme points. Reminiscent of Tony Kushner these are mainly two-handers. The scenes play across suicide, interrogation, disease, the suppression of demonstrators and come in a language that is frequently terse and demonstrative.

The narrative moves towards the arrival of supernaturals, described as an angel of anarchy, a fearful djinn, a gatherer of memories, a genius of time. A theme may be discerned. “Someone is defining what is real. But in whose interest?” As for the small humans in their own small place and time there is a line of plea: “You hope that you've made the best story for when the time comes.”

The energy that propels “Last Ditch” is propelled by its visual elan. It starts with the players themselves. Richard Downing has devised plaster-white faces with jagged cracks. The result is as disquieting as it is distinctive. The third part unveils a change to startle. The curtains have been used throughout for projections. A new character, the Lynx, voiced by Richard Lynch, takes the lead. He sets off a sequence of visual bravura. Monumental statues shake themselves into graphic motion. They begin with Owain Glyndŵr in Corwen and include lumpy figures from Italy's fascist era. The Castle Theatre is a few hundred metres from Mario Rutelli's seaward-looking women of stone. They too join the action. The credits are digital scenography and animations by Piotr Woycicki, soundscape by Craig Shankster. Richard Downing has guided.

Inflation continues to inexorably hit the economics of performance. A company of fourteen has a density rarely to be experienced now. Roger Owen and Ritz Wright are long-recognisable faces of Aberystwyth theatre. The young cast members are Iona Greenslade, Oliver Riordan, Katherine Taylor, Oliver Turner, Matthew Sole, Adrianna Wanda Czajczynska, Ella Thomas, Jade Roberts, Rachel Barwise, Kuba Pawelczak, Shannon Black and Connor Elliott. Other credits: stage management, Maddy Cook and Jonno Cassell, lighting design Stephen Griffiths, lighting operator Laura Bragg.

The opponents of theatre in Wales are few but powerful. They received a hefty set-back at the hands of the Arts Council of Wales the day before the first performance of “Last Ditch.” The theatre that we know of goes back two and a half thousand years and Lurking Truth and its friends are faithful to the art. “An entity is composed of opposing forces” says a character. Theatre is simple, it is the art of that illustration.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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