Convergences, Of the spirit! What Century, love? I, Too; you remember - Brescia? This sunlight reminds Of the brocade. I dined Long. And now the music Of darkness in your eyes Sounds. But Brescia, And the spreading foliage Of smoke! With Yeats' birds Grown hoarse. Artificer Of the years, is this Your answer? The long dream Unwound; we followed Through time to the tryst With ourselves. But wheels roll Between and the shadow Of the plane falls. The Victim remains Nameless on the tall Steps. Master, I Do not wish, I do not wish To continue.
by R. S. Thomas from H'm (1972)
The pavane, pavan, paven, pavin, pavian, pavine, or pavyn (It. pavana, padovana; Ger. Paduana) is a slow processional dance common in Europe during the 16th century (Renaissance).
Also the poem might refer to the pavane, a sedate and dignified couple dance, similar to the 15th-century basse danse. The music which accompanied it appears originally to have been fast or moderately fast but, like many other dances, became slower over time.
Brescia is a city and comune in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy. It is situated at the foot of the Alps, a few kilometres from the lakes Garda and Iseo. With a population of more than 200,000, it is the second largest city in the region and the fourth of northwest Italy. The urban area of Brescia extends beyond the administrative city limits and has a population of 672,822, while over 1.5 million people live in its metropolitan area. The city is the administrative capital of the Province of Brescia, one of the largest in Italy, with over 1,200,000 inhabitants.
In the scatterings of the year the clothes will not take flight, twigs and leaves do not stir and the moor fades out of sight.
A tree-creeper scurries against gravity, two jays are flowers of the air, the geese snake water thirstily, magpies are always asking 'Where?'
A heron flies overhead with calm and rhythmic pulsing of the wings, towards the west it charms my senses with its rare passing.
It seems now like a prophecy: what will happen when streams have gone? Diggers will treat the mountain ruthlessly, fumes and dust consume the songs.
by Mike Jenkins from Red Landscapes
Additional information:Mike Jenkins (born 1953) is a Welsh poet, story writer and novelist writing in English. He taught English at Radyr Comprehensive School in Cardiff for nearly a decade and Penydre High School, Gurnos, Merthyr Tydfil, for some two decades before that. At the end of the 2008–2009 academic year Jenkins took voluntary redundancy. He now writes full-time, capitalising on experiences gleaned from former pupils. He continues to live in Merthyr Tydfil, and has done so for over 30 years. He is also the father of Plaid Cymru politician Bethan Jenkins and journalist Ciaran Jenkins.
Friends recommended the new Polish film at the Academy in Oxford Street. So we joined the ever melancholy queue of cinemas. A wind blew faint suggestions of rain towards us, and an accordion. Later, uneasy, in the velvet dark we peered through the cut-out oblong window at the spotlit drama of our nightmares: images of Auschwitz almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up. Certainly we could imagine the stench.
Resenting it, we forgot the barbed wire was but a prop, and could not scratch the eye: those striped victims merely actors like us. We saw the Camp orchestra assembled, we heard the solemn gaiety of Bach, scored by the loud arrival of an engine, its impotent cry, and its guttural trucks. We watched, as we munched milk chocolate, trustful children, no older than our own, strolling into the chambers without fuss, whilst smoke, black and curly, oozed from chimneys.
by Dannie Abse from A Small Desperation (1968)
Interesting fact: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.
Stopped the car, asked a man the way To some place; he rested on it Smiling, an impression of charm As of ripe fields; talking to us He held a reflection of sky In his brushed eyes. We lost interest In the way, seeing him old And content, feeling the sun's warmth In his voice, watching the swallows Above him – thirty years back To this summer. Knowing him gone, We wander the same flower-bordered road, Seeing the harvest ripped from the land, Deafened by the planes' orchestra; Unable to direct the lost travellers Or convince them this is a good place to be.
“One minute we had customers, the next minute
there was no-one.”
In a lost village, blurred by redrawn borders,
hidden under a crumb on the map, Bear Ridge Stores still stands.
After a hundred years, the family butchers and grocers – a place for
odds and ends, contraband goods, and the last petrol pump for 30
miles – is now silent. But owners John Daniel and Noni are going
nowhere. They are defiantly drinking the remaining whiskey and
remembering good times, when everyone was on the same side and the
old language shone. Outside in the dark, a figure is making their way
One of Wales’ most celebrated writers, Ed Thomas (co-creator of Hinterland) makes a momentous return to the stage with this semi-autobiographical story about the places we leave behind, the indelible marks they make on us, and the unreliable memories we hold onto.
Writer Ed Thomas
Co-directors Vicky Featherstone & Ed
Designer Cai Dyfan
Composer John Hardy
Sound Designer Mike Beer
Noni: Rakie Ayola
The Captain: Jason Hughes
John Daniel: Rhys Ifans
Ifan William: Sion Daniel Young
World Premiere in Sherman Theatre‘s Main House
National Theatre Wales and Royal Court Theatre
Performed in English (though there are a few Welsh words present e.g. bara brith).
Contains strong language, scenes of an adult
nature, loud noises & gun shots
Running time: Approx. 95 minutes (no interval)
I saw it on 25 September 2019 at 7.30pm.
I usually give quite
detailed, near exhaustive, accounts of a narrative but I feel due to
how new this play is it would be a disservice to do so. I will just
give a general outline for those who want it. A lot of the impact is
in the dialogue and performance of this play, so much so it could
easily be adapted for radio, so it may seem relatively uneventful.
It’s an allegorical narrative regarding the playwright’s memories of
his community and concerns about the challenges the Welsh language
and culture face both from the past and going forward when there are
so many foreign influences, most notably that of England. I probably
have forgotten certain elements or omit them intentionally in the
following paragraphs so there are some things for you to experience
A man, John Daniel, awakens in the remnants of his burnt out butcher’s shop after an aerial carpet bombing raid. He laments he is all alone now in the dark as snow falls about him. He begins to recount the birth of his son with his wife Noni and how proud he was. (I’ve forgotten the son’s name ironically but he does have one).
We then see him and his wife waving their butcher’s cleavers as planes fly overhead. They condemn that they don’t know if they’re on their side or against them during an ongoing war. A war that apparently ended decades ago yet still seems to affect them currently. They then spend a while discussing how their community at Bear Ridge has dwindled as they relive the memories of their past both in terms of recalling their customers, food and events. Their young slaughterman Ifan William comes from out of the trapdoor and goes into the fridge and returns to the underground slaughterhouse after some brief chatter. The couple continue their discussion once he has left reciting their mantra of foodstuffs happily to each other relishing the memories.
As the couple are
dancing to a repeating song on the radio a captain, who was involved
in the ongoing war, walks into their shop and holds them at gunpoint
not sure if they are friend or foe. Once reassured he chats with them
and says the song reminded him of his mother and youth. He recounts a
number of things, including how his commanding officer gave him the
order to clear the mountain before then shooting herself to his
shock. Eventually he gains the couple’s confidence. They discuss
memories and ‘the old language’ which only John Daniel now knows how
to speak but laments he is forgetting. He only remembers it because
he remembers speaking it to others but they’re all in the past so all
he has are his memories with which to keep the language alive. His
son spoke it fluently, Noni learned some but he is ultimately alone
now in knowing it which throws him into despair.
Suddenly the captain is on edge when Ifan William comes from out of the trap door again. He demands to know why they didn’t tell him of this third person. ‘You never asked’ John Daniel replies drily. Ifan William recounts his childhood growing up and going to university with the now dead son of the couple. The son went to university and was very progressive, philosophical and wanted to keep the ‘old language’ alive. However the son and Ifan William (who the son taught Welsh) were beaten by others one day in the street accusing them of being Germans and other nationalities though they were not as these aggressors didn’t recognise the old language of their own country and assumed the worst (the identity of the characters in the play as native Welsh people is never explicitly stated but some words and phrases dotted throughout the dialogue suggest this along with the distinctly Welsh naming styles of the characters). The son died in the war and had so much potential the characters who knew him lament. Ifan William admits he truly loved their son and their son loved him (to the degree it’s implied to have been romantic in nature but this too is never made explicit). John Daniel silently embraces Ifan William for their mutual loss.
The captain, after offering Ifan William a swig from his canteen, again recounts his memories. How he was ordered to clear the mountain by a commanding officer who then killed herself immediately afterwards in front of him having fulfilled her duty. The couple refuse to leave, despite being the only people left, as this is where they belong as does Ifan William. The captain tells them he is on the same side as them. Noni, agitated by such a broad declaration, asks if he really is or not and compares it to a river where there are two sides – the side they are on and the other side. People who want to swim over can try but the current is strong and deep many drown in the effort (as if referring to the Severn river which acts as both the physical and metaphysical division between the Welsh and English identities). She asks the captain again if he really is on their side or not. He insists he is. Now they’re all assured Noni offers to make tea and the captain excuses himself asking to go to the bathroom. John Daniel says it’s around the corner, behind the rocks, outside the building (actually it may have been in the building but the actor exits the stage via the rear). The captain leaves silently.
Ifan William enters
carrying a tray piled high with a china tea service. The couple and
Ifan William sit down to drink. A single gun shot rings out
(presumably the captain coming to the same conclusion his commander
did and committing suicide). Nothing is said. No one reacts. They sit
in silence drinking their tea and then, once everyone is content, a
plane flies overhead and it suddenly cuts to black and it seems a
bomb was finally dropped on Bear Ridge to clear it.
Arguably this loops back to the start of the play though you could also read the beginning as John Daniel lamenting his isolation as the only person who knows the old language… which he truly is if the play loops back to that opening scene as his wife (who was a learner), his son (who was fluent) and Ifan William (who was, I think, semi-fluent) are all now gone leaving him truly alone both in his memories, knowledge and physically.
I won’t go into great
detail. They’re all dressed in the manner one would expect of people
left with little to sustain themselves during an ongoing conflict
with few if any supplies available over a long time.
John Daniel is dressed
in a worn jumper and the white, but now grubby and worn, coat of a
butcher with an orange gilet over it. Around his ankles are scraps of
cloth over his worn boots. A shaggy beard and overall dishevelled
state indicate he has little time to pretend like he is at all at
peace with life to attend to such things. Not just due to the
situation they find themselves in but it seems like he’s always been
a bit like this and the gilet is, as explained during a piece of
dialogue, a birthday resent from his wife and the only clean thing on
him. Life weighs heavy on his shoulders.
Noni wears an apron and
cardigan with a tattered skirt and hobnail boots. Even in these bad
times it’s evident she tries her best to maintain normality by taking
care of herself appearance wise unlike her husband.
Ifan William is young and his clothes are relatively clean with little sign of wear. They are also of a much more modern, casual sportswear, design compared to those of John Daniel and Noni who, in comparison, could be from a hundred years ago or yesterday in their style of dress (except for the gilet which seems to act like a life vest keeping John Daniel afloat in modern times). The only dirt on the young man’s clothing is the dried, caked, blood from the job he does on his butcher’s apron. His beard and hair are relatively well trimmed in comparison to his wild, mountain man, looking employer John Daniel.
The captain has outerwear of a military design. I would say it reflects the clothing of a First World War office in the trenches but I believe it is meant to evoke a timeless militaristic style really. He wears heavy boots, a serviceman’s belt of pouches and a holster with his service revolver. A large, thick, scarf is wrapped around his neck obscuring any signs of a uniform and he wears a full length woollen, olive drab coloured, trench coat so little else is visible on his person beneath it.
Throughout the play the floor is covered in a light layer of fake snow as though the interior and exterior of the butcher’s shop is gutted.
There are three walls
to represent the interior of the shop. On the left wall is a cupboard
where Noni keeps the trinkets she has collected and which spill out
at the start of the play. On the right is a fridge door which when
opened lets the actor walk through as if entering a room sized
fridge. Again this too is featured at the start of the play but
neither plays any purpose besides establishing the characters of Noni
and Ifan William.
The rear wall is in
fact technically two pieces which sit either side of a green door
frame and door. These are the shop front, gutted by a previous bomb
explosion it can be assumed, and a broken window. The door itself is
intact with a ‘sorry we are closed’ sign on it and a set of lace
curtain netting across it. These are all removed about half way
through the run time once everyone is, presumably, stood outside.
A pile of broken school
desks and furniture sits left of centre representing all the
furniture they’ve had to break up for firewood during the ongoing
harsh weather conditions on the mountain without any outside aid
arriving. Hidden within this pile are two milk crates used for seats
at certain points of the play. Ifan William later uses a tin box as a
stool too which I think he brings up from the trapdoor.
Beyond the ‘shop’ are
black, dead, trees and high piles of rock to represent the mountain
range. A path leads behind the rocks which is where the captain goes,
off stage, at the end of the play.
The backdrop is a
curved white sheet lit in a manner to give the illusion of a heavy
misty skyline beyond which nothing can be seen. It becomes brightly
lit when planes fly over to silhouette the characters against it.
Overall I feel it’s very effective though I question if you could actually reduce the staging to be even more minimalist to be honest as so much of the play is in fact grounded in it’s dialogue rather than actions. Throughout the only ‘actions’ that occur are the couple wave their tools at the planes flying overhead once or twice cursing at them, an overfilled cupboard spilling, the couple dance, the captain firing his gun in frustration, Ifan William going in and out of the trapdoor, in and out of the fridge and later kicking up some dust, John Daniel when lamenting the loss of the old language scrabbling about creating a dust storm in frustration and the tea service being brought on at the end of the play. In fact you could even embellish it if you wanted to be honest without detracting from the core dynamics of the play.
The allegorical play begins with an incredibly strong echo of Dylan Thomas’ lyrical dialogue style most notably heard in Under Milk Wood when John Daniel and Noni begin reciting a list of customers and the foodstuffs they sold and enjoyed in the past as if relishing and being nourished by the language and memories they share.
Throughout John Daniels
has a phrase he often uses ‘no, you’re alright’ when he wants to
assure others or dismiss something troubling. You could reflect he
says this because he himself is not alright though I’ve often heard
fellow Welshmen, admittedly of an older generation, use the phrase in
the same tone Rhys Ifans uses where it is more akin to ‘I don’t
approve but I accept the situation at hand’. There is a lot of the
dour Welsh humour present in the play and I wonder if non-Welsh
people will ‘get it’. Only when it’s performed in England will we
know. I’m sure they will but sometimes it does seem people unfamiliar
with that Welsh style of humour feel it can be harsh hence the
stereotype some hang onto of us being isolationist when in reality we
are very warm towards visitors.
Noni is a difficult
character to categorise. She collects trinkets, she laments her sons
death and she loves her husband who it seems is notably older than
her. The only real information we get about her past, her memories,
tends to be through John Daniels recounting the birth of his son and
his first encounter with Noni where they both knew they were meant to
be together. She fits the Welsh archetype of a valleys girl, that is
to say bubbly, chatty, but not afraid of confronting people she
doesn’t agree with, however it feels she has the least substance
presented to the audience. She seems secondary to the male characters
and even her dead son whose ghost echoes throughout the memories of
the others. While it can be said that there’s an element of this
enforcing traditional stereotypes of women place being in the shadow
of the men in their lives it’s not as simple as that in Wales. We
have been a soft matriarchy throughout history so a woman being quiet
and ‘knowing her place’ is quite alien to us and only crept into our
culture through the influences of the English. So there’s an
underlying question regarding her character where arguably she is the
most conformist of the ‘native’ characters but we don’t have a chance
to explore that aspect of her characterisation during the plays run
time and it has to be portrayed via the actress’ mannerisms more so
than the dialogue.
Ifan William has two
scenes, one at the start is somewhat light hearted and merely acts as
a set up for the sudden shift in tone towards the end. The actor has
some great material to work with as he confesses his feeling to John
Daniel and Noni about their son. It could feel a bit laboured by a
less skilled actor so to see the shift of the character from somewhat
lackadaisical to heart-rendingly broken by his memories really
delivers a contrast to John Daniel and Noni. The older characters
recount happy times in the past and bemoan their current
circumstances while here the younger man finds trauma in the past
but, having survived an assault by bigots, seems to thrive in the
current circumstances having found his place in the world. So through
him we have elements of discussion regarding the ‘truth’ of cultural
heritage and the effects of rose tinted memories on passing it to the
next generation. While John Daniel speaks of a united community under
one language Ifan William presents the harsh reality of conflicting
cultures and of prejudice which isn’t acknowledged by the older
The captain, in
contrast to the other characters, is notably different sounding not
just in accent but diction and phrasing. He is an outsider but I feel
the role is being played far too safely so as not to feel jarring
when contrasted with the other characters tonally. If anything I
would actually like the play to be a bit more bold in this to truly
challenge the audience in the later part when he is asked if he is
‘on our side’ or not so they question if he is sincere or playing
along for survival. The actor performs the role well but I feel maybe
there needs to be some work on the role. Whether it’s to make him
more of an outsider conflicting with the other characters or truly
get across his desire to be on their side by gradually emulating
As it is I assume the
intention is for the audience to decide for themselves his motives
and values by the end of the play’s events. Does he shoot himself
just to repeat history as his commanding officer did; did he do it
because, despite his words, he truly couldn’t be on their side
despite his intentions as he lacked the language and other cultural
aspects to do so; was it because he didn’t seek to become like them.
Could it even be the case we should interpret his behaviour as PTSD
where he keeps reliving the moment he saw his commanding officer
shoot herself, after giving him his orders, thus leaving him to
wander in a liminal state somewhere between constantly reliving that
memory as a soldier and incapable of reacclimatising to civil society
(as is the case for many servicemen who suffer trauma during their
I think my overall
question about him is, PTSD possibility aside, whether he was a
soldier carrying out his duty, but faltered when the opposition was
given a face, or a refugee like figure trying to escape the war and
‘join’ the others in their world view of not being defined by the
conflict. He feels vaguely defined and I’m not completely certain
that was intentional to the degree it appears. Although, in fairness,
we never learn his name and it is certain he was meant to be
culturally ‘othered’ to the shared culture and history of the other
three characters as an outsider.
The staging is good but
perhaps needs some refining as I noted when discussing it earlier. At
times when a sense of claustrophobia is required it feels there is a
bit too much space inside the shop’s interior and yet when they’re
meant to be stood outside it feels far too claustrophobic ironically.
I’m not sure if that’s because the Sherman’s stage wasn’t quite right
for their planned layout but maybe on smaller stages the rubble on
the sides (which I omitted from the stage plan though it remains
throughout the performance) could be removed to give them more space
in the later parts of the play. I only say this as there is a moment
later in the play when John Daniels is meant to walk away from the
others to ‘speak the old language to the moon’ but unfortunately he
is barely 3 metres away on the stage. In fact Rhys gave a cheeky look
to the audience at this point as if acknowledging it. Perhaps for
that moment he can go onto the ‘mountain path’ the captain later uses
leading backstage instead as that would be more effective? It’s an
minor issue to be honest.
The performances are excellent but certainly I feel there might be a need to work on the pacing of dialogue or where to emphasis certain lines as sometimes there were moments of speaking over each other with little narrative purpose for it. Also while the characters are distinct I feel there needs to be more confidence in the delivery by the captain as he doesn’t seem as affected nor distinct from the others as he needs to be. As much as none of us wants to see overacting I do feel for John Daniel and Noni to fit the Welsh archetypes they are referencing they may need to be slightly more embellished with John Daniel having a slightly more intense manner with some pregnant pauses possibly.
I understand why the
performance choices were made however part of me feels, when the play
moves onto the Royal Court Theatre, it’s been done early to ‘tone
down’ the Welshness to be more accessible and that feels
counter-intuitive considering what the message of this play seems to
be. I’ve seen that done in translation of various works to localise
things but it never feels like a good idea in the long run. In effect
it seems to have caused a Welsh playwright, writing about Welsh
cultural matters obliquely, to ‘other’ his message in his own work as
if self censoring which speaks volumes about how entrenched the
cultural persecution of the Welsh culture and language is in our
mindset as a nation.
Part of me feels the
refusal to actually name Wales or Welsh in any form is possibly part
of the narrative in the sense it is self censorship as the ‘Welsh
Not’ was in the classroom for a time in the early twentieth century.
However it also in effect makes the play more universal while still
retaining the irrefutable inclusion of Welsh things such as the
characters’ naming (except the captain who is only known by his
military rank title and never his personal name), a reference to bara
brith and other elements which seem all too obvious in context to a
Welsh audience but might not to a different culture if there was a
foreign production of the play. (e.g. how Welsh seems part of the
‘Elder Speech language’ in the Polish fantasy literature series The
Witcher and it’s adaptions going as far as the card card in it being
Wales has a number of Welsh playwrights who, when doing work for television, are lauded and award winning yet to set a play in Wales seems to ghettoise it unlike if you set it in England. Perhaps that’s just me recalling my issues with Niall Griffith’s novel ‘Sheepshagger’ which felt like it could have been set in England’s west country or elsewhere rurally without losing anything as it’s so devoid of inherent ‘Welshness’ unlike this play.
I fear, in later productions, this play might have the Welsh elements edited out of it to localise it and thus lose its inherent message. As I said with my review of Gary Owen’s adaption of The Cherry Orchard, which localised Chekov’s play to 1980s Wales, there is a risk of losing part of a message or altering it in adaption which I dearly hope doesn’t occur here as discussion of the trials Wales has faced in maintaining its culture seem to be muted whenever presented to a wider audience. Certainly in my experience few people from other countries know much about us without it being tinged by English imperialism to the point they assume we are part of England and not a separate entity.
There is great
potential here but as I’ve seen it so early in it’s run I feel
everyone is still finding their stride in their performances and no
doubt, should you go see it, they’ll have worked out those nuances so
what is already a thoroughly enjoyable, evocative, play about
identity will become a modern classic. Already it is getting high
praise and, despite the critical tone of this review at times, I
thoroughly recommend seeing it!
The heels of the foetus knead the stone's roundness out of shape, downtreading flesh, distorting the ellipses of the sphere.
It is unexpectedly salty to touch, its texture warmer, rougher, weightier in my hand than I had thought.
Boisterous in its bone cradle, a stone-breaker, thief in its mother's orchard, it is apple-round.
Here the navel knots it from its chalk down; there the pressure as the embryo kicks against ribcage and hip.
The cicatrice of a flower is printed on one of its curved surfaces. I carry it as I walk Glamorgan beaches,
a warm, strange thing to worry with my fingers. The fossil locked in its belly stirs, a tender fresh upheaval of the stone.
by Gillian Clarke from Letter from a Far Country (Gwasg Gomer, 1982)
Additional information: Since I am from the Glamorgan area I can recommend our shoreline with it’s cliffs formed of a combination of liassiclimestone, shale and carboniferoussandstone/limestone as referenced by the Gillian Clarke in her poem.
However it’s very likely Gillian was referring to another beach along the Glamorgan coastline. Possibly, due to the reference to a fossilised foetus in the poem, it was St Donats Beach she was referring to as that is famed for having a number of fossils. If you do visit to look at the fossils please don’t take them.