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Posts Tagged ‘National Theatre Wales’

I think I would best describe this intriguing play by Ed Thomas as Samuel Beckett meets Dylan Thomas. It’s dialogue is poetic and it’s story is obscure, something I often turn against, but here I found it rather captivating.

John Daniel and his wife Noni are the last inhabitants of Bear Ridge. They’ve had to close their butchers shop. The post office has stopped delivering mail and their phone line has been cut. Their shop assistant & slaughter-man Ifan William has stayed with them. We don’t exactly know why Bear Ridge is being deserted, though it appears to be the result of a war of some sorts. Fighter planes occasionally fly overhead and an army man, The Captain, pays a visit.

Their conversation ranges from their plight to reminiscences about a happier past and reflections on tragedy, when we learn that John Daniel & Noni’s son, and Ifan William’s best friend, went to university to study philosophy but was killed because he spoke ‘the old language’. The Captain, a clearly tortured soul, has his own tragic story to tell. I’m still trying to piece it all together, with an intriguing note in the play-script suggesting it is ‘semi-autobiographical’.

Rhys Ifans and Rakie Ayola are both terrific as the couple at the centre of the story, with fine support from Sion Daniel Young as Ifan William and Jason Hughes as The Captain. Cai Dyfan’s design is hugely atmospheric, the exit of the walls representing the decline, as is the music and sound design. The Royal Court’s AD Vicky Featherstone co-directs with the playwright.

National Theatre Wales has gone through a difficult time of late, but it’s good to see them back, and in London, with this Royal Court co-production. I suspect I will be processing it for some time yet.

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This Owen Sheers play covers similar ground to his extraordinary work with injured servicemen, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, but on this occasion it follows the fate of three friends and their experiences of war, and the women they leave behind; a girlfriend, a wife and a mother. It uses the same research as Charlie F, but its characters are fictional. It still packs quite a punch.

Taff and Hads follow Arthur’s lead and enlist in the army. They train together in Catterick and are posted together to Afghanistan. The reality of life in a war zone soon hits home and its not long before they come home, on leave or with physical injuries and emotional traumas. We occasionally flash back to their school days; in fact the whole play is looking back to events that have happened rather than happening in the present.

You can tell Sheers is a poet. It’s a very literary affair, partly in verse and largely in monologue rather than dialogue, most from Arthur as the lead character. Storytelling rather than drama. Stylised movement and mime is used to illustrate and sound is used to great effect, occasionally making you jump. 

The second half is tighter than the first, which I felt was a touch overlong. The dominance of the role of Arthur is at the expense of the other characters who I felt were a bit underwritten, particularly the women. The ending was a touch sentimental for me. John Retallack & George Mann’s staging is simple but effective and all of the performances are committed, especially Phil Dunster, who carries the play as Arthur. 

It’s a very powerful examination of the impact of war on real people. With this, Charlie F and NTW’s stunning 1st World War play Mametz, Sheers clearly has great empathy with the victims of conflict and this piece does much to help us understand and sympathise with them, and that alone makes it important and essential theatre. 

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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In their short life, National Theatre Wales have become pioneers of unique, innovative and accessible theatrical experiences. I’ve seen theatre in my home village, which I never did when I lived there. I’ve seen Shakespeare brilliantly reinvented in an RAF aircraft hanger. I’ve explored Dylan Thomas’ adopted town, his characters and his life. So it’s no surprise to find me in a forest near Usk transported back to the First World War for an extraordinary experience and as moving a tribute as we’re likely to see in this centenary year.

We embark on our Cooks Battlefield Experience Tour, through the trenches (walking back in time?) to a French village where soldiers are embarking on a bit of R & R and an explanation by our guide of the field of battle. We follow four young soldiers from diverse backgrounds, Welsh and London Welsh, who have volunteered to fight. We meet their wives, girlfriends and mothers, their officers and the local French village girls they encounter. When we come to know and love them, we follow them out of the trenches onto the field and into the woods, and into senseless tragedy.

Though the journey is in some ways epic, the stories are very personal. One of the surviving officers older self accompanies us as guide and narrator. A Dutch man pops up occasionally with a side story about Einstein, who had just developed his most famous theory, to provide a connection with and a context of time. In the woods, the rain somehow adds to the atmosphere, whilst the tree canopy keeps us relatively dry. You feel the heartbreak of the families and the hopelessness of the situation. It’s all so deeply moving.

Director Matthew Dunster and designer Jon Bausor have solved a lot of the problems of site specific work by staging the two main sections with the audience seated, free from the typical distractions of the form. You can hear every word of Owen Sheers beautiful narrative and dialogue, using the work of the war poets, and see every scene without interference. The battlefield tour premise works well, though I was less convinced by the Einstein thread – but it doesn’t detract. The performances were all committed and engaging, some breaking your heart – for me the gung-ho but fragile young miner from Senghenydd, neighbouring village to my family home, who survived the mining disaster only to volunteer for the front.

The setting, writing, staging, design and performances come together to provide another unique and powerful experience which is also a moving commemoration of the tragedy of this and other wars – the loss of so many young lives. National Theatre Wales continue to lead the way.

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National Theatre Wales’ contribution to the Dylan Thomas centenary wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it proved to be a lovely afternoon and I was glad I made the trip from London. A wander around Laugharne to see installations, watch VT’s and listen to ‘broadcasts’, bookended by scenes behind the Tin Shed, in a bus garage and outside the Town Hall, with a funeral procession through the main street following a fish & chip hut with neon signage!

There are only two characters, Mike Voyce (Russell Gomer) – a spin on Thomas’ first voice / narrator – and Roy Ebsworth-Williams (Charles Dale), our ‘tour guide’, but we also get all sixteen Lauharne Players, who’ve been putting on Under Milk Wood annually since 1958, including the town mayor, who proves to be a proper raconteur in true Dylan Thomas fashion. The ‘broadcasts’, superbly written by Jon Treganna (who runs Browns Hotel!), emanate from loud speakers at four points during your wander, with ‘handouts’ for you to relish the Dylanesque narrative. The installations created by Marc Rees are all over the town, and in a series of huts (Corrugation Street!) on the edge of the estuary you’re shown footage from the (then) forthcoming BBC Wales (Welsh) star-studded TV production of Under Milk Wood. You peer into Dylan’s writing shed, walk through his home The Boathouse and make a pilgrimage to his grave in St Martin’s Church yard.

We struggled to visit all of the locations in the 90 minutes allowed between the two opening scenes and the finale, but caught up with those we missed later. It had a homespun feel, a real community project, and when we’d completed it all and read the broadcasts it all fell into place, leaving a very satisfying feeling. A sunny afternoon probably helped. I so admire the ambition and imagination of NTW and have loved all four of the shows I’ve managed to catch and now can’t wait for my First World War adventure in a field in Usk next month!

 

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I broke my ‘no monologues’ resolution on the first day of the New Year. This time (for it has happened before) enticed by the playwright (Tim Price, responsible for National Theatre Wales’ out-of-town 2013 highlight The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning), the actor (Rhys Ifans, not on our stages often enough) and the subject matter (Occupy London, something that captured both my imagination and my heart). As it turns out, a resolution well worth breaking.

Danny is a rough sleeper whose world is turned upside-down when Occupy turn his nighttime spot at St. Paul’s into a bloody great big protest camp. At first angry (he pisses on their tents), he eventually becomes drawn in – first taking advantage of the hospitality of their canteen, then participating in the work of the kitchen, building relationships with protestors and enjoying the company as well as the food, As the camp becomes more of a society, Danny becomes more of an outcast and his resentment rises.

Ifans prowls around the bare black space talking directly to the audience, collectively and individually. It stirs a whole host of emotions in you – sympathy, anger, repulsion, hopelessness, fear…..The mood is lightened by some of our interactions, most notably an audience rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas where the things brought by ‘the system’ include two racist policemen and a vote in a democracy, and five gold rings becomes Boris is a c*** The levity is cut off halfway through and the play turns towards it’s coup d’theatre ending.

I hope Ifans won’t mind me saying that he doesn’t have to do much to get the look of Danny, but he goes way beyond the look, inhabits this character and conveys his loss, regret, rage and disillusionment. We learn about the lives of the rough sleepers as well as the characters and motives of the protesters. The play is no homage to Occupy and your attitude to rough sleepers is more likely to change (positively) than your views of Occupy. I can’t get rid of that ‘that could be me’ feeling and the change in me was visible a matter of minutes later as I passed a rough sleeper on the way to Waterloo station.

So my theatrical 2014 starts with a broken resolution, but also with a stimulating, challenging and thought-provoking hour that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

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During the 18 years I lived in Abertridwr (the mining village in South Wales where I was brought up) I don’t recall ever seeing a show there – not even a panto. The only thing I do recall was a visit by BBC Wales to the Workman’s Hall to record a TV show with Victor Spinetti and The Flower Pot Men (well, that tells you how long ago!).

I’ve watched the rise of National Theatre Wales with great interest. The show in the Brecon Beacons intrigued me and I’d have loved to have been at the Port Talbot Passion. My first exposure was the terrific Dark Philosophers at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, which fuelled my enthusiasm and added more than a touch of pride that things that good were coming out of NTW so soon.

I was in Wales a few weeks ago when news that the premiere of their new show was in Rudry (I think I’m related to most of the inhabitants of that village, even though I’m no longer in touch with any of them!). Twitter started twittering, with the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner the first to suggest something special. I looked up the tour venues for a local friend and discovered it was going to theatre-starved Abertridwr. How could I resist?  So I rounded up five friends and relatives, bought 6 tickets for less than the price of one in the West End, and re-routed myself from York to London via Abertridwr (+200 miles and 6 hours). No pressure there then….

The show starts before the show starts with the five organisers of the annual Cae Bach (Little Field) village social making last-minute preparations, greeting people and panicking. There’s Clean Jean (as her badge says) the Health & Safety Officer (cleaner,) Security Dave feeling superior with his walkie-talkie, his wife Yvonne glamorous and just a little bit pissed, local historian yoga teacher and one-woman community force Lisa Jen, and self-appointed leader Lawrence. They’re later joined by Lawrence’s son Dion and what appear to be a ‘chorus’ of locals.

The star guest is a medium but she’s late, so there’s a lot of ‘filling in’ with songs and stories, the latter mostly folk myths and legends. When she does turn up, they get more than they bargained for as the myths come alive and more recent truths are revealed. This is all executed with great skill by Sue Roderick, Oliver Wood, Carys Eleri, Rebecca Harries, Darren Lawrence and Gwydion Rhys and there are lots of laughs and bucketloads of charm. It’s completely bonkers, becomes absolutely surreal and the smile hardly ever left my face.

There’s a small band led by co-writer Dafydd James (no relation – well, I don’t think so…) who was also responsible for that other Edinburgh Welsh hit (in Welsh) Llwyth. It’s directed, but seem not to be (this is a compliment), by co-writer Ben Lewis with authentically amateur designs (another compliment) by Cai Dyfan.

It was huge fun and I’m very glad I made the detour. I appreciate that there was an extra something ‘going home’ but I defy anyone not to find it enjoyable. Perhaps above all, for me, is that we have (and can hopefully continue to have) another National Theatre that lives up to its name. The wonderful National Theatre of Scotland pioneered this homeless outreach approach; now we have two. When I’m sitting in the National Theatre in London, which I often am, I will be thinking differently about the word ‘national’ and it took a trip back home to show me what it really means.

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