The first original TV drama of 2020 to emerge from Wales is a short one-off piece called Handstand. It may be quirky and slightly clichéd on the surface, but there is a dark underbelly that gradually reveals itself over the course of half an hour. Director Peter Watkins-Hughes has chosen to shine a spotlight on domestic abuse through what is essentially a love story between the hardworking and compassionate Luke (Darren Evans) and his new neighbour Sarah (Mabli Jen Eustace).
Evans and Eustace demonstrate a wonderful onscreen chemistry from the get-go, their characters’ first meeting being the perfect mix of socially awkward and humorously sweet. The telling camera angles and silently knowing looks to one another add to the sexual tension between them, whilst the synth-pop soundtrack and cinema setting coat their relationship in youthful possibility and nostalgic innocence respectively. It is this portrait of young love that makes the turning point in the story all the more dramatic and affecting, as Luke hears the raised voice of Sarah’s father, Alan, resonate angrily through the ‘shockingly thin’ walls of his bedroom. What follows is a moral dilemma centred on the public and private dichotomy, where the question of intervention is explored rather well, given the drama’s brief running time. Christian Patterson is excellent as the two-faced Alan, whose jolly exterior slowly slips away to reveal a manipulative man whose obsession with power and control is ultimately his undoing.
As a stand-alone piece, Watkins-Hughes has created something that is both entertaining and informative. It is also educational insofar as it deals with the subject of domestic violence, thereby reflecting the three Reithian ideals that the BBC was founded on. I believe that this is important to highlight as the BBC and its licence fee comes under increased scrutiny and ever sharper criticism. There is no doubt a conversation to be had about its future funding model, but I believe Handstand is an example of what publicly-funded broadcasting does best, supporting projects that have no commercial value but nevertheless tell important stories that need to be heard. It is also why public service broadcasting is needed, because without it, I fear that the voices wanting to tell such stories in Wales may be bereft of opportunities to do so in a media marketplace driven solely by profit.
You know you’ve hit on something good when the support act is as good as the headliner. It may have been The Trials of Cato that we had come to see, but it was the five-piece female band Tant that we went away talking about. Running slightly late, we wandered into the theatre at Pontio Arts Centre and were immediately transfixed by their magical and melodic tones. They proceeded through a half hour set that traversed the boundaries of folk and pop with tremendous subtlety, producing a sound that felt highly original and resultantly captivating. All are clearly talented musicians, whether on harp or guitar, but it was their combined vocals that really struck me. Performing acapella on the song ‘Gwydyr Glas’, their voices played together like wind chimes, singing in beautiful harmony whilst also producing distinct tonalities that made this a really fascinating piece to listen to.
At the end of their set, Tant were wildly applauded off stage. Recognising their popularity, The Trials of Cato twice paid tribute to them during their own set, where the praise was again handed out, and deservedly so. It was clearly an inspired choice to have them open. Only the best could follow. The Trials of Cato are certainly that, having already scooped up Best Album at the Folk Awards in spite of their relatively short career. Opening with an instrumental piece before going straight into ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’, these early numbers demonstrated the toe-tappingly catchy rhythms that make their music such a joy to listen to. ‘Haf’ added a lightness of touch to proceedings before ‘Cân John Williams’ was given a Lebanese vibe thanks to a particularly strong instrumental section at its end. The only slight melancholy in the evening came courtesy of ‘My Love’s in Germany’, but even here the performance was more rousing than depressing.
We were then treated to some new material in the form of ‘Dog
Valley’, from an album that should be out later this year. It was a track to
sit back and enjoy, reminiscent of freestyle jazz and showcasing their skills
as truly accomplished musicians. This and ‘Gawain’ are highly recommended for
first-time listeners, the latter their “prog rock” offering, which turned this
intimate venue into a few thousand seater stadium through excellent lighting
and amplified sound. Two favourites in ‘Aberdaron’ and ‘Gloria’ then followed
before they closed out with an excellent rendition of ‘Kadisha’. So good was
this final number that there was no need for an encore. Indeed, in hindsight,
there should not have been one, for it was hijacked by a woman intent on
playing tambourine with them on stage. The intervention of security a few
moments later meant that any chance of the band making the best of this
unexpected entrance was lost. A chorus of boos followed, and the subsequent
final song fell a bit flat. It was a disappointing end, but the only blot on
what was an otherwise incredible night of Welsh folk music. The strength of and
sheer originality on the national scene at the moment is inspiring. The Trials of Cato most definitely
reflect that, and after their performance here, Tant are undoubtedly doing the same.
I am walking up the High Street in St Asaph on an unseasonably warm January evening. The final remnants of Christmas hang in shop windows. The town’s tree is already stripped bare. It stands awkwardly on the side of the street. Meanwhile, opposite, a yellow glow emanates from the inside of the Cathedral. It stands, as always, resplendent at the top of the hill. As I reach the door, I can hear Robert Guy, Artistic Director of the NEW Sinfonia Orchestra, introducing the opening piece. I pull out my phone to show my ticket and notice that I am three minutes late. As a result, I decline the kind steward’s invitation of a seat at the front, and wander to a row of seats at the back. It helps that I know the place, for it allows me to settle immediately and enjoy the final section of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz. It receives the first of many rapturous applauses on the night, and deservedly so. Made up of professional musicians from across North Wales and beyond, Robert and his brother, Jonathan, have assembled a talented cast whose collective sound brings the bricks of this ancient venue to life. It is no wonder that the well-dressed crowd in front of me look relaxed and fully engaged in every bit of what follows on this mild eve.
There is a rousing rendition of Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka, a sprightly performance of Chit-Chat Polka, and a fascinating piece by Vittorio Monti called Czardas. However, it is a special guest appearance by Erin Rossington that particularly grabs my attention. Winner of the ‘International Voice of the Future’ at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 2019, the Guildhall School of Music student both looks and sounds like a future star. Dressed resplendently in a silk dress, she delivers a note-perfect performance of Porgi Amor from the Marriage of Figaro. Following that up with Waltz of My Heart, I am struck by the gentle power of her vocals. Hers is a voice that never overwhelms. Instead, it reaches out and softly touches the wooden beams that adorn the roof of the Cathedral. It is strong, but not overbearing; confident without being arrogant. It sits beautifully alongside the orchestral score.
Rossington is indeed a rising talent, as is Jonathan Guy,
who showcases his aptitude for composition with a new piece called Fire Dance. Coming at the start of the
second half, it is an intriguing bit of music that reflects the tempestuous
element of the title. The low tones of the introduction speak of danger, before
a more uplifting section produces something of a magical effect that, in the
final part, produces a majestic sound that captures the awful beauty to be found
in flickering flames. It is a far cry from those fireside images of Christmas
which are now fast being extinguished from the memory for another year. In their
place, thoughts turn to those caught up in the Australian bushfires. It is
fitting that an encore of Auld Lang Syne is
touched with poignancy. The string section is solemn, and the audience, in
unison, lend a certain pathos to the closing moments of this excellent concert.
Thunderous clapping gives way to a politely crowded exit. And as I walk out
into the pleasant calmness of the weather, I wonder if there could have been
any better way to start the New Year? The answer, I conclude, is no.
My love affair with theatre began a few years ago with Under Milk Wood. Theatr Clwyd’s production of Dylan Thomas’ most famous work was a revelation, a conversion experience that has led me to take a seat for many a show since. Over the last year or so, such journeys have become less frequent. Life has a habit of evolving with time, and I think I lost a sense of what made theatre so special for me in the first place. Two plays have recently rekindled the fire within me. I do not think it a coincidence that both happen to be made and based in Wales. Along with Emily White’s Pavilion, Theatr na nÓg’s Eye of the Storm reflects the nation in which I live; the nation from which I claim part of my identity. I wonder whether a lack of representation has been a factor in my dulled appreciation of theatre. If so, these two plays have supercharged my passion for the medium back to life.
Set in a small town, post-mining community, Eye of the Storm draws numerous parallels with Pavilion. This includes a focus on young people and the theme of aspiration. Writer and director Geinor Styles chooses to tackle the challenges faced by this demographic through an excellent supporting cast that circle around the main lead, played by Rosey Cale. Cale gives a strong and quietly emotive performance as Emmie Price, an intelligent and practical teenager whose ambition to study tornadoes at an American University is severely tested by the circumstances of her present reality. Living in a caravan with her mum, who has bipolar disorder, Emmie must juggle her role as a young carer with the demands of school and household chores, along with negotiating the rent and constant electricity problems with inept park manager Mr Church (Keiron Bailey). It is a wonder that she has the time, let alone the inclination, to dream big. Yet Styles has created a dogged and determined young woman whose empowering presence makes her the perfect role model for those facing adversity. She represents what can be achieved if you pursue your dreams in spite of your present situation.
Eye of the Storm is
an uplifting narrative that does not shy away from the difficulties of life but
adds splices of humour throughout. The poise and astuteness of Emmie is
beautifully contrasted with the lovesick innocence of Lloyd, the cartoonish
physicality of Dan Miles making for a truly affectionate character. Along with
Keiron Bailey, who is fantastically hilarious as class clown Chris, Miles
ensures that laughter is never far away in this production. For all that it
deals with bigger issues such as climate change and the effects of austerity,
like Pavilion, the real joy of Eye of the Storm is in its shrewd
observance of ordinary life. The characters on stage are recognisable,
relatable; all the more so to a predominantly Welsh audience who see and hear something
of themselves reflected, including in the witticisms and references that season
the script with a particularly Welsh flavour.
The script is bolstered by an original soundtrack created by prolific songwriter Amy Wadge. Most recently known for her work on Keeping Faith, here the ethereal, soulful sounds that accompanied Eve Myles and co are nowhere to be found. Instead, country music provides the backdrop to the action on stage. And it complements the narrative really well, offering extra pathos to the character arc of Emmie in particular. ‘Emmie Don’t Say’ is my personal favourite track, not least because Cale and Caitlin McKee (Karen) duet with such gorgeous harmonies, creating a poignant and tear-inducing moment that also represents a neat summary of the character of Emmie. It is a song that will stay with me for some time to come.
Awarded ‘Best Show for Children and Young People’ at the Wales Theatre Awards, such an accolade could lead to some confusion over its target demographic. Indeed, if my motivation to see Eye of the Storm had not come off the back of meeting Rosey Cale in her other guise as an independent singer-songwriter, it is highly likely I would have overlooked it entirely, considering I’m now approaching thirty. It is certainly a show suitable for children and young people but do not mistake Eye of the Storm as a show written exclusively for this age group. It can be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from 8-98. Indeed, overhearing the feedback as the audience filtered out at the end, it was overwhelmingly positive, from old and young alike. Coming off the back of Pavilion, it certainly made its mark on me. It reignited that spark which I had lost somewhere along the way, returned through seeing something of my own life reflected on stage. Eye of the Storm has been, for me, a reminder of the importance of representation on stage.
It is a rare but pleasant site to see North Wales used as the setting for TV drama. The mountains of Snowdonia offered a bleak and stunning backdrop to last year’s hit Hidden. Now, it is Conwy’s green and rugged coast that provides the scenery for Pili Pala. Translated as ‘Butterfly’, this four-part series stars Sian-Reese Williams as Sara Morris, senior consultant in a Fetal Medicine Department. When she agrees to take on her pregnant friend Elin (Fflur Medi Owen) as a patient, it is against the advice of colleagues. Their concern appears to be warranted when it becomes clear that there is a problem with her baby’s growth, resulting in both Sara and Elin facing some difficult decisions that will have significant repercussions.
Pila Pala may be a slow burner, but it is worth sticking with it. Unlike Keeping Faith, where the drama unfolds out of extraordinary circumstances, here it gradually builds out of the ordinary, the everyday. The first episode may feel slightly pedestrian in pace and tone. However, as the characters make choices in the various moments of their daily lives, it is the consequences that come with them that make this a progressively engaging narrative. In particular, I appreciated the writer Phil Rowlands’ exploration of the personal and professional blurring, on both an ethical and human level, and the interactions, pressures and problems that arise as a result.
It is just a shame that his story was restricted to a mini-series. Its steady build-up of tension and the strains and stresses that are placed on the characters lead to so many different and fascinating strands being produced. Yet they all feel as if they are required to suddenly be tied up in the final episode. Reese-Williams’ performance was beginning to show signs of Eve Myles-like frustration with the situation that her character finds herself in. Instead of being given the space and time to fully explore the ramifications and resultant emotions however, it appeared that (production? budget?) constraints cut short what should have ideally been a 6-8 episode run. It warranted as much. The characters certainly had so much more to give.
Despite its all-too-brief stint, Pili Pala achieves much. It deals with what might be considered a
controversial issue with unashamed ease. It is unafraid to show and explore the
impact of high-risk decisions on individuals and their relationships. Sian
Reese-Williams is as composed and accomplished as ever. It is refreshing to see
Owen Arwyn (Jac) occupy a more sensitive role than the ‘hard man’ we are used
to seeing him play. Fflur Medi Owen brings a wealth of nuance and subtlety to
Elin. There is certainly nothing wrong with the performances here, only that
they haven’t been allowed to flex their acting muscles to their full potential.
The momentum that was crafted so brilliantly through the first three episodes
seemed to come unstuck in the fourth. Perhaps a second series would solve this.
I’m unsure. But S4C must be commended for continuing to invest in original
drama. Pili Pala is not a
disappointment by any means.
Emily White’s Pavilionis a sharp and witty ode to small town Wales. Described as a modern day Under Milk Wood, it is an acute observation of life in a once proud, increasingly hopeless community. Whilst we may read the childhood memories of Dylan Thomas’ days of being ‘young and easy under the apple boughs’ through rose-tinted spectacles now, White’s play is a reminder that for all its sentiment, Thomas’ world was borne out of reality. His poem Fern Hillis as much about the loss of childhood as it is a celebration of it. Pavilion strikes much the same chord.
Set on a Friday night fuelled with booze and infused with lust, we are witness to the final hours of the Pavilion nightclub before it closes down for good. Here is where the ‘hoi polloi’ gather: girls in their ill-fitting dresses and lads in their best-kept trainers and tracky bottoms. They drink, they dance; they dream, they despair. There is laughter and tears, love and loss. Not since Jack Thorne’s Junkyardhave I felt such affinity for a cast of characters. They resemble a microcosm of my own home town. White’s great strength in this production has been to create drama out of the mundane, the everyday. She does so through the innocuous language of routine conversation, cadenced with humour and pathos behind which lies a depth of emotion and meaning. It leads to an immediate investment in her characters and their story. They are recognisable, relatable. We see in them something of ourselves and those around us. Theirs is a fully functioning, wholly believable world.
Annelie Powell deserves huge credit for assembling such a fine cast. It features some of the best in both upcoming and established Welsh talent. Director Tamara Harvey is no doubt the reason for the strong onstage chemistry between them. It is becoming a regular feature in her productions. The result is a thoroughly impressive ensemble piece, in which the professional debut of Caitlin Drake goes unchecked such is her striking turn as Myfanwy. Lowri Hamer (Bethan) and Carly-Sophia Davies (Jess) already appear like seasoned actors such is the strength of their performances alongside the reputable Ifan Huw Dafydd (Dewi) and Tim Treloar (Dylan). The dialogue between Michael Geary (Evan) and Victoria John (Big Nell) fizzes off the page. A special mention must go to Ellis Duffy (Gary) who is simply sublime as Gary.
My one criticism of Pavilion is that can sometimes overstate the nation that it represents. It is undoubtedly a fantastic thing to see Wales portrayed onstage. But the strength of this play lies in its subtlety. It is through realism that White succeeds in creating a strongly-defined Welsh play. There are moments of ethereal transcendence that add a beautiful dimension to the otherwise real-world setting. However, once or twice these scenes verge too close to sentimentality. In particular, the end of act one teeters on the brink of schmaltziness. The giant red dragon that descends as the cast carry out a rendition of ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau’ may be a dazzling set piece. However, it feels like an unnecessary indulgence in national pride. There is no need for such overt, celebratory statements. Pavilion’s success lies in its tact.
Come the end, the audience sat in stunned silence, the darkness sustained for much longer than I have ever experienced before. This tells you all you need to know about the power of this play. Once you have entered into the world of Pavilion, you won’t want to leave. Emily White deserves the rambunctious applause that finally spilled out into the auditorium. She has freely admitted that with its large cast and herself an unknown writer, Tamara Harvey has taken a huge gamble with Pavilion. It is one that has paid off. It may have taken time for it to see the light of day, but it is now unlikely to be returning to the shelf any time soon.
Considering they had never played together before, Gareth Bonello, Georgia Ruth and Toby Hay seemed like a long-established trio. Their first gig as a three-piece was certainly an enjoyable one. Coming together from Cardiff, Ceredigion, and Rhayader respectively, these three folk musicians brought real warmth to what was a pretty wet night in Bangor. With songs inspired by land, place and people, this concert, as part of Pontio’s Cabaret series, was a gently inspiring, fairly lucid affair. Transforming Theatr Bryn Terfel into a downtown night club, the ambient lighting and tight staging made this a really intimate experience. It felt refreshing, relaxed, and played well to a hushed and attentive audience.
Taking the form of a songwriters round, the evening began
with Bonello, who performed a straight-up folk number before handing over to
Hay. The highly-accomplished guitarist began with a short piece, inspired by
home, before providing us with a wonderfully atmospheric version of his song ‘Starlings’.
Hitting such high, soft and delicate notes on the guitar, the addition of Ruth’s
harp and Bonello on the harmonium created an incredibly visual sound that hung
in the air long after the last note was played. It was then over to Ruth for a
performance of her song ‘Terracotta’. Its hauntingly beautiful tones struck me as
being very reminiscent of 9Bach’s ‘Anian’,
and was just as good. It was then the turn of Bonello again for a performance
of his song ‘Pen Draw’r Byd’ before we returned to Ruth for what was, for me,
one of the highlights of the night. Watching Ruth’s fingers gliding gracefully
across the strings of the harp during ‘Clychai Aberdyfi’ was mesmerising. And
with Bonello keeping a steady beat on duitara and then double bass respectively,
and Hay strumming gently on the guitar, it made this a song to savour, both
visually and aurally. To finish the first half, Bonello played a song written
as a tribute to his grandmother, who used to pick cockles down by the local
river. The low notes of the double bass and deep echo of the electric guitar,
along with the yellow lighting, created a truly evocative scene of a river at
sunset. It made ‘Merch y Morfa’ a beautiful tune with which to close before the
The second half opened up with Bonello performing ‘Y Deryn Pûr’
before handing over to Hay for another double header. Asked by his fellow
singers to choose a traditional folk song from his home county to perform, a
lack of forthcoming material meant that we were treated to two originals by Hay
himself instead, both inspired by his local landscape. The first, ‘Radner Lily’,
was gorgeously performed under glowing lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. The
gentle grace of the electric guitar and accompanying harp led to a delightful
skip into the second song, ‘Water Breaks Its Neck’, from Hay’s forthcoming
album. Ruth then performed ‘Week of Pines’ from her latest album to rapturous
applause and cheering from the audience – a clear fan favourite. Bonello then
treated us to two tunes written specially as part of his PhD on the duitara.
This Indian folk instrument proved a fascinating listen on both ‘Maid Marian’
and ‘Diamonds’, the former’s medieval associations really evoked by the sound
of this four-stringed cousin of the guitar. It was then back to Hay for a
performance of an as-yet-untitled song that I recognised from his recent gig at
Focus Wales. It was excellent then, and with the addition of the double bass
here, it was by far another standout moment of the night.
To finish, Bonello, Ruth and Hay took to the forefront of
the stage to perform off mic. With only the harmonium for company, once Bonello
had found the right vocal range, the three performed a gorgeous final number
that was received extremely well by the audience. It rounded off an impressive
night. They left the audience wanting more. Any nerves they may have been
feeling did not show. There was no sense of awkwardness or any hint that this
was their first time performing together. And after such a positive reaction,
my guess is that it won’t be the last. Keep your eye out for future dates. I’d
be surprised if there isn’t more to come.
Focus Wales in one of the nation’s premier music showcase festivals. Held in Wrexham, it brings together some of the best people in the music industry for three days of talks, meetings, and, of course, musical sets. The best of both emerging and more established talent from Wales and beyond featured on various stages around the town centre. Headliners on Friday night, 9Bach were excellent, as per usual. But apart from these giants of the Welsh folk scene, who else stood out? Here are my personal ‘ones to watch’ from this year’s festival:
Hailing from Snowdonia and currently studying in Leeds,
Hannah Willwood and her band created the most incredible sound during their
set. Blending jazz, folk and indie, her music is at once familiar yet fresh and
unique. With resonances of an earlier era, it is a sound that intrigues,
mesmerises, and captivates. This girl is going places.
If I had to pick a winner for Best Performance at this
year’s festival, I would award it to Katie Mac. The singer-songwriter from
Huyton played an absolute blinder from start to finish. She delivered such an
enthralling set that I became completely absorbed in the experience. Here was a
prime example of quality songwriting overlaid with some incredibly accomplished
He proved popular with the Old Bar No.7 crowd. And it wasn’t
just his interaction with the audience that made this performer standout. Take
a listen to Albert Jones and you will find a vocal that is incredibly soulful and
wonderfully versatile. Comparisons with James Morrison are inevitable. But to
try and pin down his sound is much more difficult. Whether blues, country, folk
or pop, it seems that Jones can turn his hand to anything. A really engaging
What a stonker of a set from The Dunwells. Full of energy, enthusiasm and real excitement, every
song seemed to be a crowd-pleasing anthem. They not only succeeded in winning
over a raucous, increasingly drink-fuelled crowd. They managed to encourage
some well-judged audience participation that only added to the feel-good
factor, rounding off the festival (for me at least) in style.
If God Were a Woman / Beta Test
The inaugural Focus Wales Short Film Festival had an excellent shortlist of eight films. All independent, all made to a high standard, my personal front-runners were If God Were a Woman and Beta Test. The former is a provocative and thought-provoking spoken word from Evrah Rose, made all the more so by the choice of director Joe Edwards to film in a derelict Church. The latter is an American production that is very much in the mould of Black Mirror. It sees Eric Holt enter into a simulated world to relive some of his favourite memories. But then a glitch in the programme leaves him facing much darker stuff.
Writer Siwan Jones blends social realism and surrealist comedy in the most delightful way in Enid a Lucy. The S4C mini-series, which came to a slightly abrupt end on Sunday night, made for an entertaining and enjoyable drama. Termed the ‘Welsh Thelma and Louise’ by some, Eiry Thomas and Mabli Jên Eustace certainly provide plenty of laughs as the two leads whose offbeat road trip takes them from Llanelli to London via the most unconventional of routes.
The drama begins on a modest housing estate in Llanelli
where we meet next door neighbours Enid (Thomas) and Lucy (Jên). Enid is a piano
teacher whose home is neat and tidy, fitted with mod cons and well lit.
Meanwhile, Lucy lives in a dark, dank and messy space. The drained colour palette
of the cinematography, as well as the use of handheld camera, gives the
impression that this is going to be a gritty, class-based drama. The
introduction of Lucy’s drunken and abusive boyfriend Denfer (Steffan Cennydd),
in contrast with the genteel and traditional images of the Mother’s Union that
Enid is involved in, only serves to underline the divide that exists between
them. Yet early indications that this is going to be a serious piece of realist
drama are confounded by the end of the first episode when Enid turns getaway
driver for Lucy in order to escape the hapless Denfer and his buffoon of an
uncle, Sid (Nicholas McGaughey). What follows is a random and raucous
cat-and-mouse chase across the country as the men seek to reclaim a holdall
containing drugs and a gun from Lucy, who is determined to use the contents in
order to make a better life for her and her baby.
Siwan Jones’ script plays like a melody that is pitched just
below hard-hitting but doesn’t quite decrescendo into absolute farce. It manages
to deal with some big issues, such as childlessness and mental health, but
these never feel forced. Neither are they allowed to consume the overall
narrative, Jones ensuring that the escapades of Enid and Lucy are filled with
much hilarity and randomness. This includes perhaps the most comical scene of
the series, where two farmers that they end up staying with accidently take some
of the drugs in the holdall. Actors Ifan Huw Dafydd and Rhodri Evan really let
loose their inner zombie to produce a very funny scene. It borders on the
ridiculous but never descends into the realms of the unbelievable. It is this
kind of accurate measurement which Jones must be applauded for in the writing
of Enid a Lucy.
My only bone of contention with this drama was the finale. It was as if a timer had suddenly gone off with five minutes to go and all the loose ends had to be tied up tout suite. It left me feeling rather out-of-kilter; that such a well-paced journey should end so abruptly. Although not quite on the same level as the conclusion to BBC1’s The Replacement(2017), it nevertheless conjured up similar feelings. It is a shame because, otherwise, Enid a Lucy is a great drama, with particularly notable performances from Eiry Thomas and Mabli Jên Eustace. Thomas, in particular, slips into her character with ease here; in contrast to her over-exaggerated performance as the detective in Keeping Faith, she is completely believable as Enid. She is a joy to watch, especially during her exchanges with Eustace: the two bounce off one another wonderfully.
It is great to see S4C, via producers Boom Cymru, giving a prime-time platform to female writers at the start of 2019. Both Fflur Dafydd (35 Awr) and now Siwan Jones have provided Welsh audiences with some quality TV drama already this year. Enid a Lucy may have only received a short run, but it was fun whilst it lasted. Its slightly left-field style follows on from some of Jones’ previous work – not least 2011’s Alys – but it still feels highly original. It would have been great to have spent longer with these characters. Despite its rather hasty end though, Enid a Lucy still manages to thoroughly entertain.
Take four actors, three chairs, three sets of neon lights,
and one stage, and what do you get? Two new plays conceived for the 2018
National Eisteddfod now touring the country with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru
(TGC). Both Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd are making their way
from North to South, beginning in Mold and ending where they are set – in Cardiff.
And thanks to TGC’s Sibrwd app, it could be said that these are the most
accessible Welsh-language plays yet.
The Sibrwd app is a simple concept, designed to guide
non-Welsh speakers and Welsh learners through the performance. Until now, it
has provided audio synopses during plays, to help those not fluent in the
language understand the gist of the narrative being played out on stage. When I
arrive for this tour however, the app has undergone a significant change. For
the first time, TGC, and the app’s operator Chris Harris, are providing
audiences with a full translation of the dialogue. Think surtitles at the opera
but on your phone. Ingenious you might think. And to some extent it works. But
I’m not entirely convinced.
The main problem that I encountered was being drawn away
from the action on stage in order to understand some of the dialogue being
spoken. As a Welsh learner whose proficiency level floats somewhere between
Intermediate and Advanced, this wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have
been. I was able to grasp a general understanding of the narrative and the
characters’ stories without needing to refer to the app too much. However, if I
wanted to understand a particular word or phrase, it became difficult not to
disengage from the play in order to seek out the translation amongst the bulk
of text being shown on my screen. In one sense, I can see how this would suit a
non-Welsh speaker or beginner better – they could easily follow along and not
miss a trick. The transitions between each piece of dialogue on the app flowed
seamlessly. The problem is that they would then be likely to miss out on one of
the primary thrills of theatre: live performance. It is as much about the
action on stage as it is about the dialogue being spoken. What both Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd have are strong,
powerful and engaging performances by a hugely talented cast. They bring such
immersive and intimate details to their characters through their physicality
and movement as well as their emotion and vocals. But this could be missed if
one is concentrating too much on reading in English what is being said ‘yn
This balance between the aural and the visual is a tricky
one to maintain when one of those requires translation. The more translation
needed, the harder it becomes to maintain a kind of equilibrium. Without prior
experience of the app in its audio descriptive form, I cannot say with any
confidence which style is better to enable non-speaking and/or learning audiences
to engage most fully in Welsh-language theatre. I suspect that from my own
position, an audio option would be preferable (particularly if it offers a
synopsis, rather than the whole script). I could then maintain my focus on the
stage rather than being drawn down to look at my screen. The main benefit to
this, in my opinion, would be that you remain engaged in the production as a
whole. To be so engrossed in the stories being told by writers Catrin Dafydd (Merched Caerdydd) and Roger Williams (Nos Sadwrn o Hyd) respectively is to be
made more open to being challenged and moved by their messages; more vulnerable
to empathy and emotion.
Both Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd are fascinating pieces of theatre. Whilst the former focuses on three women and the significant choices that they have to make at an important juncture in their lives, the latter concentrates its attention on Lee, a gay man whose blossoming relationship is disturbed by an act of violence that threatens his life. Performed as a series of monologues (interweaving in the case of Merched Caerdydd), the simple set and subtle use of lighting and sound help plunge the audience into the increasingly messy and fraught situations of the characters’ lives. We cannot help but become entangled in their relational quandaries and bodily vulnerabilities. The sharp focus of Merched Caerdydd on sex, love and relationships feels very relevant, particularly with its themes of control and power. Meanwhile, the mixture of humour and heartbreak, sweetness and violence found in Nos Sadwrn o Hyd, portrayed so eloquently by Sion Ifans, makes for a fraught and funny hour. It cannot be underestimated how important, how needed – these stories are.
Despite them being unrelated, both Dafydd’ and Williams’ plays
seem to complement one another well. They are but a small snapshot of the
strength and depth of talent coming through in Welsh-language playwriting. I
find it interesting that both feel somehow connected to their own language and
place – the feeling that these would not have come out of, or would at least have
been conceived differently in, an Anglicised context. To give non-Welsh
speakers and learners the opportunity to access and engage with these worlds
through the Sibrwd app then feels important. In its current form, Sibrwd enables that to an extent. What
is exciting about the app is that it remains in the relatively early stages of
its development. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru should be commended for testing and
experimenting with live audiences and being genuinely open to their feedback. Give
it time, and give it chance, and I think that this app will become a
significant tool, not least in opening up Welsh-language plays to a wider and
broader audience. That can only be a good thing for plays like Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd. For these are stories
that need to be told, and experienced by as many people as possible.