In contrast to NTW, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru goes from strength to strength. Rhinoceros is the latest in a series of shows and commissions to offer fresh, bold and imaginative theatre. In fact, Manon Steffan Ros’s adaptation of the classic text by Eugène Ionesco is the first Welsh-language production that feels not just national but international in scope. This, in spite of the fact that pop cultural references populate the dialogue.
I say this as a Welsh learner who had to sit and listen to the play without audio description or captions. A problem with the Sibrwd app meant that I was forced to engage with it on its own terms. It is testament to not only the actors but the whole creative team that I became immersed very quickly in this increasingly-apocalyptic world. Set in an unknown location in Wales, friends Bérenger (Rhodri Meilir) and Sian (Bethan Ellis Owen) are enjoying tea outside the local grocer’s shop when a rhinoceros runs in front of them across town. The small but effective skill of the actors to shake the furniture to create the vibrations of its movement is but one of several parts that make this a spellbinding watch. Everything from the placement and use of props to the physical manifestation of the creature within each of the characters makes Rhinoceros a captivating commentary on social conformity.
Bethan Ellis Owen perfectly embodies the absurdity that underscores the whole production. For in her transformation, we witness the destructive, dramatic and the ridiculous. Her hysterical movement and exaggerated speech causes laughter among the audience even as it contains a nervous quality that points to a more serious tone. For Meilir presents an increasingly distraught and tortured soul as he fights desperately against the change, from person to creature, that friends and colleagues succumb to. This is no linear tale however: horror is always punctuated with the comic; fairy dust is often laced with fatalism; and the funereal contains a certain cultural irony. It is a melting pot of genres and emotions, expertly crafted and directed by Steffan Donnelly and his team.
What ratchets up the drama and emotion of Rhinoceros is the absence of an interval. It allows the momentum to build to an epic proportion, making its conclusion all-the-more powerful and demanding. It is, at its best, a warning: do not allow the light to be infected by the dark. And this speaks not only to its distinctly Welsh culture but to a Western world in danger of doing just that.
Based on the best-selling novel Pigeon by author Alys Conran, this stage adaptation by Bethan Marlow sees Welsh and English subtly woven together, with every performance using integrated captioning in such a creative way as to lead me to undertake an experimental review in its honour:
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.