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Posts Tagged ‘Usk’

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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