Move over Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Joey and Phoebe: there’s a new set of Housemates in town, and they’re here to change the world!
And that’s exactly what they did, when in 1974 a group of residents at the Ely Hospital went to live with Cardiff University students in a small house in Ruthin Gardens. Alan (Gareth John), a young man born with Down’s Syndrome, meets Jim (Peter Mooney), a rebellious student volunteer. The two become friends, and so begins an odyssey that – after two years, countless letters and submissions and hospital board rejections – culminated in the end of institutionalised ‘care’ and the dawn of supported living.
Written by Tim Green and co-directed by Joe Murphy and Ben Pettitt-Wade, Housemates is a fun and affectionate tale that is raucously brought to life by a hugely talented cast of neurodivergent and neurotypical actor-musicians. The show moves through its story like a song, underscored by an excellent sense of rhythm, movement, and momentum. There are brilliant performances by John and Mooney as the central duo, who lead a superb ensemble cast that includes Natasha Cottriall, Lindsay Foster, Matthew Mullins, Caitlin Lavagna, Richard Newnham, James Ifan and Eveangeleis Tudball. They make a (shockingly) little-known piece of Welsh history feel like an instant classic.
The show begins even before you take your seat, with the cast performing iconic 70s hits that transport you to this era of rockin’ rebellions – and keeps the party going well after the curtain falls. It is simply the most joyous show I can remember seeing in a long time. This vibrant co-production between the Sherman Theatre (the ‘engine room of Welsh theatre’) and Hijinx (one of Europe’s leading inclusive theatre companies) is further proof of the magic of contemporary Welsh theatre: a concert, a comedy, and a clarion call in one.
Housemates is performing at the Sherman Theatre until Saturday 14 October. More information and how to book tickets here. Performances are captioned (in English), audio described and BSL interpreted. Please note that the show contains use of outdated terms for disabled people, ableism, strong language and descriptions of abuse.
The Sherman Theatre’s 50th year kicked off with an impressive triple bill of Ghost Cities, Romeo and Julie, and Imrie – but Love, Cardiff: 50 Years of Your Stories is truly the icing on this most stacked of birthday cakes.
Written by the cast in collaboration with Paul Jenkins, Love, Cardiff is indeed a love letter to the city and the people who call it home. The show is directed by Francesca Pickard, who joined the Sherman this summer as its new Creative Engagement Coordinator, and makes an impressive company debut. The production is a culmination of 15 weeks in which Pickard and producer Mehdi Razi worked with members of five community groups in Cardiff, supporting them in identifying and conveying the stories they wanted to tell.
Their stories are framed by a narrative featuring the Theatre’s namesakes: the Sherman brothers, played by actors Richard Emerson and Simon Howells. Harry and Abe Sherman, whose parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, were businessmen and philanthropists who helped to transform Cardiff into what it is today. The show’s framing device has the brothers learning about how the Sherman Theatre – which in 2019 became Wales’ first theatre of sanctuary – has continued their philanthropic work by cultivating a safe space for all, told by those who have now taken up the baton.
The cast includes members of Cardiff’s Deaf Community, Cathays Day Provision, Kurdish All Wales Association (KAWA), Waulah Cymru and the Welsh Ballroom Community. Their stories and performances, while at times tinged with tragedy, are authentic, joyous and fun – and resonate with the Sherman’s mission to tell local stories with global resonance.
Vibrant, diverse, and joyful, Love, Cardiff serves as a timely reminder of why, on its golden anniversary, the Sherman Theatre shines brighter than ever.
What is striking about Welsh play Imrie is its richness. Rich in language. Rich in description. Rich in lighting. Rich in characterisation. This coming-of-age story is like a rainbow bursting into life, pouring its colour out on stage with a vibrancy that reverberates throughout the whole production. Each element resembles a charged particle which, in collision, drives forward a powerful narrative about identity and belonging. It is a tour-de-force in aesthetics, as well as telling of its message.
Elan Davies and Rebecca Wilson take on the roles of Josie and Laura in this two-part drama. They are half-sisters seeking to fit in in their own ways. It begins with Laura dragging Josie along to a party on the beach, she wanting to become one of the ‘in’ crowd while her sibling would rather be elsewhere. So while the former attempts to act ‘normal’, the latter runs off, after being made fun of, and finds herself alone with only the sea for company. And when from the water she hears a voice calling, a journey into an otherworldly tale takes place. This ethereal experience is captured brilliantly by the lighting that shimmers and shapeshifts across the three walls of the enclosed set. But it is also the flexibility and freedom of Davies’ physicality that produces beautifully an event which exists between the real and the imaginary.
There are parallels with Caryl Lewis’ recent novel Drift, particularly in relation to the female protagonist. Along with Disney’s Turning Red and The Little Mermaid, it is fair to say that writer Nia Morais has tapped into something bigger with Imrie. Certainly, that desire to break free from the expectations of family and (patriarchal) society burns strong here. To tie it in with the theme and symbol of water gives it a weight that bears down on the scale of contemporary classic. Its relevance is shored up by its exploration of sexual and racial identity. In particular, the conversation between the two characters at the end is thought-provoking, challenging and inspiring in its interaction with intersectionality. This is a further facet to the richness of Imrie, whose immersive soundtrack wraps the audience in its atmospheric tones which, along with the Welsh language, contributes to a mythic quality. Its basis in Cymraeg also adds a poetic lyricism to the dialogue which, though stereotypical, actually strengthens its value as a cultural expression of (self-)acceptance.
Most definitely driven by Frân Wen’s passion for young people, when coupled with the Sherman’s support for innovative new Welsh writing, Imrie becomes a bold piece of theatre. Its message may be common but at its heart is an imagination that beats with such originality that it feels fresh. Celebratory of life, even as it depicts its struggles, Imrie reveals something of how identity blossoms, arising out from the depths to become all that we are, rich in colour. A play to be enjoyed whatever age you are.
Imrie ydy’r sioe ddiweddaraf i’w ddathlu 50 mlynedd o Theatr y Sherman. A chymaint o sioe yw e! Ysgrifennwyd gan Nia Morais (Awdur Preswyl y Sherman) a chyfarwyddwyd gan Gethin Evans, mae Imrie yw cyd-cynhyrchiad gyda Theatr Frân Wen sy’n teithio i fewn i byd arallfydol o dan y mor – a mae’n anhygoel i brofiadu.
Mae’r stori’n dilyn dwy hanner-chwiorydd: Laura (Elan Davies), sy’n mwyn fitio i fewn gyda’r merched arall yn ysgol; a Josie (Rebecca Wilson), sy’n dawel ac yn difrifol, ac sy’n darganfod ochr arall i’i hun. Nes i’r ddechrau y stori, dysgodd Josie celwydd teuluol a diflannodd hi mewn deyrnas hudolus o dan y donnau. Yna, ffeindiodd hi ferch arall, o’r enw Imrie Sallow, a newidiodd ei bywyd am byth.
Roedd Elan Davies a Rebecca Wilson yn anhygoel. Dalion nhw sylw y cynulleidfa trwy’r stori, a chreuon nhw awyrgylch ddoniol ac emosiynol. Mae’r ddau chwiorydd yn trio darganfod ble mae nhw’n perthyn yn y byd, a phwy ydyn nhw; pwy basen nhw’n hoffi fod. Perthynas y chwiorydd yn prydferth ac yn cymhleth, a roedd yr actorion wedi datblygu cydberthynas cryf gyda’n gilydd.
Doedd y sioe ddim yn troi i bant o bwnciau bwysig fel hiliaeth a rhywioldeb – ond sgript Nia Morais yn teithio trwy rhain yn haws ac yn hardd. Mae’r ddau cymeriad yn trawsnewid a tyfu fyny o’r ur amser: siwrnai anodd yw e, troi i fewn i berson chi ddim yn adnabod. Mae Laura yn ymrafael i fod ei hun ar y tir, tra mae Josie yn ffeindio ei gwir hunaniaeth yn y mor. Y ffordd mae’n nhw’n dangos deyrnas morol yw trawiadol iawn, yn enwedig gyda miwsig awyrgylchol gan Eädyth Crawford (sy wedi neud y cerddoriaeth i ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ llynedd).
Mae Nia Morais wedi consurio byd sy’n realistig ac yn hud: cydbwysedd annodd, ond mae Imrie yn llwyddiannu. Roedd y tim creadigol wedi neud rhywbeth arbennig yma. Dyma sioe am cynulleidfeydd o bob oedran: a gyda chapsiynau Saesneg ym mhob perfformiad, gall siaradwyr newydd a rhai di-Gymraeg mwynhau’r sioe. Imrie ydy antur hudolus ac emosiynol gan cast a chriw dalentog iawn. Mae o amdan sut deallrwydd, cariad a chysylltiad yw’r pethau mwyaf hudolus o bopeth.
For fifty years, the Sherman has made it its mission to be a theatre of Wales and for Wales. In the last few years alone, it has boldly reinvented the work of Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare and carved a space for budding Welsh and Wales-based creatives to shine. Its anniversary year is packed with a triple crown of creative artistry: first there was Ghost Cities, a reworking of Gary Owen’s Ghost City performed and with new material by the Sherman Youth Theatre; coming up in May there is Nia Morais’ Imrie, a Welsh-language odyssey co-produced with Frân Wen; and this month we are treated to Romeo and Julie, which sets its star-cross’d love story in Splott.
Co-produced with the National Theatre, Romeo and Julie is the latest collaboration from writer Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan, the powerhouse creative duo behind Iphigenia in Splott, The Cherry Orchard and Killology. Rosie Sheehy (King John, RSC) is Julie, a budding astrophysicist on the fast-track to Cambridge. Callum Scott Howells (It’s a Sin, Cabaret) plays Romeo, a young single dad struggling to raise both a newborn and an alcoholic mother (Catrin Aaron, flawless). He meets Julie not at a starry party but in the STAR Hub Tremorfa, where sparks fly and fates align. Their chemistry is in the physics and the physical: in Julie’s explanations of quantum theory to a starry-eyed Romeo, and in the brawny balletic interludes that literalise their connection. It’s a muscly, messy love; one that seeps into the cracks.
Sheehy and Howells are magnetic both together and apart. There is a striking synergy between the pair which keeps the audience invested in their doomed love, even as the choices they make turn from the sublime to the ridiculous. Fabulously bolshie and oozing bravado, Sheehy has shades of the original reckless Romeo, while Howells’ performance as the sweet young romantic gives the play its beating heart.
It’s a testament to the skill of the ensemble, and to Owen’s script, that the play is ultimately as comedic as it is tragic. Its distinctly Cardiffian sense of humour finds the light in the darkest of moments. Much of its finest quips can be credited to Catrin Aaron’s aptly-named Barb, who certainly throws around a fair share of gin-soaked jibes. Meanwhile, Paul Brennen and Anita Reynolds complete the thrilling ensemble as Julie’s concerned parents, whose lifelong sacrifices for Julie’s future might be derailed by the choices she’s made in her present.
Owen’s script navigates the thorny complexities of social mobility, working-class aspiration and intraclass conflict: while both teens were born and raised in Splott, Julie goes to a Welsh-speaking comp and owns a laptop, which puts her in a very different social site to Romeo, who is struggling even to afford nappies for baby Niamh.
The set is spartan: designed by Hayley Grindle, it is a black hole of sweeping greys, overhung by a flashing neon constellation, its geometric swirls flashing like comets’ tails. It seems to illuminate two very different futures: is it a prelude of Julie’s bright career to come, or merely the twirling mobile above a baby’s crib? Can we ever reach the stars, or even change our own?
Romeo and Julie is the perfect show with which to celebrate the Sherman’s 50th year: small-scale and specific, yet sweeping and universal, which upends a classic and makes it anew.
The Sherman Theatre turns 50 this year, and there’s no better way to celebrate than with the golden line-up they have planned for their anniversary: Gary Owen’s much-anticipated Romeo & Julie, Nia Morais’ magical Imrie – and the Sherman Youth Theatre’s Ghost Cities. It’s a new take on Gary Owen’s 2004 drama Ghost City, directed by Justin Teddy Cliffe and incorporating new material by the Sherman’s Introduction to Playwrighting Participants Mared Seeley, Loki Skyrme-Croft, Lauren Hindmarsh and Emma Phelps.
Set in Cardiff over a single night, Ghost Cities follows the capital’s lonely souls in a series of interconnected vignettes. There is little to link them directly, save a postcode and a prayer: a universal yearning for connection, understanding, and empathy. I haven’t seen the original play, but there seems to be a nice synergy between the original and its additions. You might be able to spot some of the new material, but it synthesises well with Owen’s text into a cohesive and rewarding whole. And while not every story carries the same sway (some seem as weightless as ghosts), others linger like spectres – largely due to the skill and enthusiasm of its cast and creative team.
Designer Ruby Brown (supported by The Fenton Arts Trust) and lighting director Rachel Mortimer have worked wonders with the set. Fragments of what’s happening onstage are projected onto an imposing pyramid, distorted and partial; casting doubt on whether what we’re seeing is what’s really happening. At one point, the pyramid becomes the inner core of a Matrix-like computer algorithm; at another, the live feed of an increasingly sinister political broadcast. These are just some of the many striking images that make the play gripping: a hooded stranger leaning against a door, a phone line stretched across the void, a eulogy illumined by a single beam of light as if from heaven.
After The It in 2020 and Treasure Island last year, this is the third Sherman Youth Theatre production I’ve had the privilege to attend – and it’s incredible to see such talented young actors continue to grow in their skill and their craft. They navigate brilliantly through drama, comedy, and even tinges of horror, creating a very specific world for the stories to inhabit: the standouts for me were a teacher explaining her gender transition to a previously scornful student, a hilarious night out at Walkabout that ends in both hope and disaster, and a Deliveroo rider philosophising on the meaning of life. All the while, a disenfranchised young man haunts the stage, very much alive and very much at our elbow – we, and the characters, may just overlook him at our own risk.
Ghost Cities is a celebration of Cardiff in its hidden corners. It begins with a single voice and ends with many: in doing so, it seems to say that a city is a living thing, and we are its lifeblood: our lives, our stories, the connections we make and the ones we might miss.
Ghost Cities is performed by Rashid Ali, Lily Cole, Rhys Evans, Theo Greenwood, Daisy Griffiths, Twm Llwyd, Edith McCarron, Maya McDarren, Orrin Niziblian, Pringles North, Elian Owen, Jim Pesticcio, Lucia Taher, Brooke Thomas, Nia Thomas, Rory Tune, Indigo Wernick, and Jett Wood.
Grangetown, 1913. A young girl called Stevie (Lily Beau) is about to face another Christmas without her mother, a Suffragette who is spending Christmas Eve on the campaign for women’s rights. Much to her mother’s disapproval, Stevie’s uncles gift her with a book of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Yearning for a story of her own, Stevie finds herself transported in the weird and wacky Grimmdom and assembles a chorus of fairy tale characters on a quest for a happily ever after.
Written by Hannah McPake (who also plays Mother / the Snow Queen), and directed by Joe Murphy, Tales of the Brothers Grimm is proof positive that there’s no place like the Sherman at Christmastime. Their annual production has become as integral a part of the festive season as a mince pie, and their latest offering is a treat for all the senses.
McPake, most recently Peter Quince in the Sherman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, continues to prove herself as a real tour de force both onstage and behind the scenes. Her writing is as crisp as snow and sparkles almost as much as her Snow Queen costume does: when she crashes onstage dressed like Elizabeth I as styled by Vivienne Westwood (actually the wonderful Hayley Grindle), you know you’re about to see something iconic.
While riffing on some of the most beloved fairy tales in existence, the show also affectionately draws on The Wizard of Oz, with Stevie stranded in a strange and magical world and wanting to get home. Her actions in the Grimmdom end up disrupting the fairy tale trajectories of Cinderella (Katie-Elin Salt), Sleeping Beauty (Bethzienna Williams), and Rapunzel (Sarah Workman) – and so they journey through the forest to find the Brothers Grimm and put their stories back on track.
The production plays with archetypes and doubles, with much of the hugely talented cast playing multiple roles and instruments. Kyle Lima and James Ifan play both Stevie’s stern bookbinding Uncles and the Brothers Grimm, who make a grand entrance singing a Europop banger while dressed in sparkly lederhosen – and if that doesn’t make you want to see the show, I don’t know what will. Ifan also steals hearts as a soul-searching Prince Charming while Lima huffs, puffs and blows the house down as a bluesy Big Bad Wolf.
Lily Beau leads the adventure brilliantly while Keiron Self as the Narrator (in his seventh Sherman Christmas production) holds everything together with a dollop of charm and a huge dose of silliness – he and apprentice actor Michael Morgan also get to join in on the sparkly lederhosen front, with much aplomb. Elin-Salt, Williams and Workman first take to the stage as the Uncles’ automaton-esque Bavarian helpers, before returning in full Disney mode to great effect. Williams, a finalist on The Voice in 2019, lends real power to ‘Wide Awake’, one of a host of brilliant songs by McPake and Lucy Rivers (with musical direction by Barnaby Southgate). Meanwhile, Hayley Grindle’s set and costumes underscore the jagged magic of this topsy-turvy fairy tale world.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation: straw can be turned into gold, a pumpkin into a carriage, and a frog into a prince. But while ‘happily ever after’ bookends the stories it can also trap its characters: in gender roles, in unhappy relationships, in the illusion of closure. The Narrator yearns for a name, Stevie for purpose – even the Snow Queen longs to rewrite her story. The princesses might all call on Prince Charming to save them, but he is just as much a victim to the patriarchy as they are. Even the Brothers Grimm are trapped by fame and expectations.
In a beautifully subversive move, McPake – as both actor and scribe – encourages her characters and her audience to think beyond ‘The End’: to flout the rules, to rescue ourselves, and to write our own stories. Tales of the Brothers Grimm is a feat of pure Grimmagiantion, and it proves something even deeper: the Sherman isn’t just the place you go to see a show: it’s a place you go to feel like you belong.
Tales of the Brothers Grimm is playing at the Sherman Theatre through to 31st December. There are a number of accessible performances (captioned, relaxed, and BSL interpreted) through its run, and reduced ticket prices for children and under 25s. More information on the show and how to book tickets here.
One of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the tale of four young Athenians who, caught in the throes of unrequited and forbidden love, seek refuge in the forest and find instead a strange new world of magic and mayhem. Sherman Artistic Director Joe Murphy’s joyous reinvention of the play, featuring Welsh Language adaptations by Mari Izzard (HELA) and Sherman Writer in Residence Nia Morais (Crafangau / Claws), sprinkles a little Welsh magic on this production, making it utterly unique and absolutely unmissable.
The play features some of Shakespeare’s most iconic lines and images: Bottom with an ass’ head, the love potion, and the chaotic ‘play within a play’ Pyramus and Thisbe (aka the original Play That Went Wrong) – and ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. And the Sherman’s version not only does justice to these classic moments but adds a new iconic spin to the tale that gives it an authentic Welsh flavor. The play features some of Shakespeare’s most iconic lines and images: Bottom with an ass’ head, the love potion, and the chaotic ‘play within a play’ Pyramus and Thisbe (aka the original Play That Went Wrong) – and ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. And the Sherman’s version not only does justice to these classic moments but adds a new iconic spin to the tale that gives it an authentic Welsh flavor.
Central to this is the combination of Welsh and English dialogue used throughout (all Welsh dialogue is surtitled in English). The (patriarchal) Athenians speak English while the (matriarchal) Fair Folk speak Welsh – and the moment a character is put under a spell, they switch languages. Welsh becomes the language of magic and mischief, of freedom and control, of love and lust. As with English in the play, it doesn’t just represent one thing: and that blurring between binaries, boundaries and borders underscores the subversiveness of this production; a production which also swaps the gender of characters like Puck (Leah Gaffey) and Lysanna (Lauren Morais) and the roles of Titania (Nia Roberts) and Oberon (Sion Ifan).
It’s a choice that deepen the star-crossed love story at its core, and which brings exciting new perspectives on sexuality, gender roles, and also to the hierarchies in both realms, where the tension between the soon-to-be-married Theseus and Hippolyta mirrors the widening schism between the Fairy King and Queen. Roberts brings a feral grace to Titania and commands the stage even as the conquered Amazonian Queen. Meanwhile, Ifan relishes both the imperious Duke and the impassioned Oberon; his eulogy for his fallen disciple is genuinely moving, even if the uneven power dynamics complicate his grief.
The set, designed by Elin Steele, an imposing Art Deco amphitheater of emerald green, doubles as both an Athenian temple and a magical forest. Its striking central feature is a RuPaul-esque runway fit for a Queen – and yes, we are indeed treated to the sight of Titania and Oberon sashaying their way down the stage (Shantay, you both stay!) In fact, many of the magic-induced brawls between Lysanna and Demetrius (Tom Mumford), and Helena (Rebecca Wilson) and Hermia (Dena Davies, in her professional stage debut), have the knowing melodrama of a Drag Race feud.
It’s tricky to pitch a Shakespearean comedy to modern day audiences, because the intricacies of the language and the shifting cultural touchstones mean that the punchlines don’t always land. But that isn’t the case with this production, which is easily the most hilarious show I’ve seen in years! Gaffey’s Puck ping pongs about the stage as an impish emcee with charisma to spare while the Mechanicals, led by Hannah McPake’s beleaguered Peter Quince and performed by members of non-professional theatre group the Sherman Player, lend a chaotic charm to their doomed dramatics. It’s brilliant to see these excellent young actors get the chance to shine in a professional production, and it will be exciting to see where Edward Lee, Cerys Morgan, Ariadne Koursarou, and Callum Davies go next.
Midsummer’s comedic lynchpin though is the marvellous Sion Pritchard as Nick Bottom, whose comic timing is a thing of beauty. (Anyone who has sampled the delights of S4C original comedy Rybish knows exactly what I’m talking about). His karaoke duet with Ifan’s lovestruck Oberon is a particular highlight – you’ll never hear ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ the same way again – and his Pyramus simply has to be seen to be believed (imagine a drunk Al Pacino doing an Elvis Presley impression, and you’re halfway there).
Fun, flirty and fabulous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the perfect remedy for the past few years, with a tremendously skilled ensemble of Welsh and Wales-based actors bringing new life and fresh laughs to a familiar tale. By the time Midsummer concludes, the story might be done but the dream goes on. The endless potential for transformation – of language, of text, of self – is the true dream, and the Sherman has shown it can be our reality too.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performing at the Sherman Theatre until 29 October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).
Time is one of humanity’s most enduring enigmas; it can be counted in eras and in seconds, it can seem endless or scarce, and however long you live, there’s never enough of it. These are some of the key tensions within Violet, a contemporary opera which is sung through in English and co-produced by Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears. Composed by Tom Coult and written by Alice Birch, the story takes place in a town where nothing changes until, one day, everything does: one hour disappears on day one, two on day two, and on and on – but while the world seems to be ending around her, Violet’s is just beginning.
Directed by Jude Christian, Violet is an exhibition of artistry, from Rosie Elnile’s gorgeous set, which looks like a minimalist Renaissance painting, to Cécile Trémolières’ lush costumes, which play with both austerity and freedom through fabric. The temporal distortion at the story’s heart bleeds through to everything on the stage, which anachronistically mixes period clothing with modern props, framed by an animated backdrop of dandelion seeds swirling like grains of sand in an hourglass.
The operatic quartet at its heart are equally impressive. Anna Dennis viscerally captures Violet’s growing sense of self and power (her name even seems to anticipate ‘violent ends’) while Richard Burkhard and Frances Gregory (as Violet’s husband and maid, respectively) convey their characters’ descent into despair. At the start of each scene, Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks’ keeper goes to the clock tower, changing it to show the days left and the hours lost. The tower is built to mimic a guillotine; along with a branch and a bell, it is one of three ‘swords’ of Damocles which hang ominously above the characters, as if to fall at any moment.
Thematically and visually, then, it’s close to perfection – but, for some reason, I didn’t quite connect with it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never seen a ‘contemporary opera’ before, despite how exceptional the singers are, how authentic Coult’s score is or how vivid it sounds in the hands of the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Andrew Gourlay. If you’re immersed in the worlds of opera or experimental theatre, you couldn’t ask for better – but, like the twenty-first century laptop on the sixteenth-century table, I felt emotionally ‘displaced’ by the show, unable to ever fully tune into its frequency.
My reservations are encapsulated in its ending: an unsettling animated sequence which is sure to divide audiences. It’s certainly divided me: on the one hand, I can appreciate how it underscores the themes of time doubling in on itself, of repetition and stagnancy. On the other, it shatters the strange magic of the first eighty minutes, and any sense of ‘hope’ along with it.
Violet premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in Snape Maltings, Suffolk, earlier this month and it’s easy to see why it’s had such an impact on audiences. I was caught up in its artistry and intrigue, and it’s made me want to explore the world of opera, modern and otherwise, all the more. Dynamic and affecting, what Violet conveys most effectively is that the end of the world might not come in a planet-shattering catastrophe, but in a creeping sense of hopelessness and dread: not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with the ringing of a bell.
The beauty of The Merthyr Stigmatist lies in its contemporary gospel message. “Why shouldn’t God send a miracle to Merthyr Tydfil?” is the strapline. One would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer at this play’s ending. Writer Lisa Parry carries something into her production which feels like its been formed in the fire of direct experience. She uses Catholic theology and Jesus’ paradoxology to give it added form and meaning. It is a narrative which challenges the narrative – the narrative that seeks to define us; made by those in power which can silence us, if we let it; that Parry attempts to rewrite in this excellent two-woman show.
Bethan McLean makes an impressive professional debut as schoolgirl Carys, who claims to have the stigmata: Christ’s wounds from the cross. Challenging her at every turn is her science teacher, Sian, enigmatically played by Bethan Mary-James. The two riff off one another to great effect, Parry’s deft dialogue translating into a fascinating piece of ambiguous characterisation in their hands. The result is a one-hour piece which refuses to take sides. One is never entirely sure whether the fervent beliefs of Carys are a sign of mental ill health or the readily dismissive Sian is not masking some kind of deep trauma. What is clear is the passion that comes through in their exchange, as they wrestle with a sense of identity and purpose. Both McLean and Mary-James bring a bitter sense of the reality that their respective characters are facing. As a result, though the stigmata may present as a possible actual event in the narrative, its symbolic position at its centre is what’s most important here.
This is where The Merthyr Stigmatist really shows itself to be a story for our time. For it challenges the assumptions made by the establishment, told to us in our overriding cultural narrative, that in order to make something of ourselves we must leave our small, local, tight-knit communities behind; we must swap them for a university education in towns and cities where regeneration and chic, café-culture living represent a professionalism which indicates success; and if, for some reason, we don’t quite get on and have to return to our native home, we must become some kind of saviour to the next generation, repeating the same mantra to them, and thus becoming part of the false and disempowering system that does anything but allow young people like Carys to be proud of where they come from if only those in power would just stop and listen – really listen – to what they have to say*.
The Merthyr Stigmatist succeeds in deconstructing this established narrative, subverting the notion of salvific agency in the process. In the end, it is Carys who saves Sian, not the other way around. Yet neither is Carys left completely unchanged by her encounter with Sian. This is where I sense the theological dimension of Parry’s play coming to the fore, as the themes of interdependence (the power of community) and empowerment (self-confidence and self-belief) break through. The result is not only the championing of a repressed voice of the Valleys but also a tapping into an emerging zeitgeist with regards Welsh identity. In this way, Parry uses the local to also touch upon a national concern, namely how Wales sees itself, in the context of the UK and the world. It is a conversation already happening to which, I think, this play can certainly contribute. As such, those in power would do well to listen – really listen – to what it has to say. For it is speaking a truth that, sadly, remains unheard.