Burned by Othniel Smith

Performance

Chapter, Cardiff, Wed 23 March 2005, £3 on the door

Cast

Mair Meredith ( A school teacher) – Lynn Hunter

Ruth Niyonzima (A nurse) – Karin Diamond

Donald Llewellyn (An accountant) – Brian Hibbard

Alun Meredith ( A doctor, Mair’s brother) – Jeremi Cockram

Director

Hugh Thomas

Review

The On The Edge theatre season in Chapter’s Media Centre has proved to be a fascinating series of events – some underrated classics, some new work still needing development and now a real cracker from a writer whose work we don’t see enough on stage.

And Othniel Smith’s previously-unperformed play also offers a rare genre: the domestic political comedy, as a family in bereavement take us from black humour to chilling realpolitik. It’s not farce, a la Dario Fo, but a calculated manipulation of an audience from getting us laughing at witty one-liners to searching our consciences and weighing moral issues: quite a journey.

In the archetypal situation of a run-down South Wales valley town four people gather: the daughter, a single primary-school teacher, the son, a doctor doing aid work in Palestine, a family friend, a local politician and accountant, and the nurse who had attended the dying mother.

It starts amusingly with all those familiar tensions, the revelation that the old dear had taken to drink after a lifetime of abstinence, the family friend is a randy old goat, and so on. There are tensions: why is the doctor son late for the funeral, why is the friend so suspicious of the nurse, what’s the development deal he’s involved with ?

Then things lurch into really tough areas and we are confronted not just tales of African genocide and Middle-East suicide-bombing but into abstract dilemmas: is morality relative, where does personal responsibility begin and end, what is individual integrity, what’s the divide between the personal and the political, who should feel guilt ?

And how refreshing to have a play that not only is full of ideas but, unlike most of the little political drama we do get, offers the audience an open debate with the only possible conclusion that no-one is innocent, we are all complicit, we hide beneath a veneer of respectability or the cloak of political rectitude.

The script-in-hand format of the On The Edge productions is actually ideally suited to a play of ideas like Burned. There is no real action and one suspects that a full production would not have the intensity of this taut argument carried out in a small intimate space with the audience inches from the performers.

What makes it work well, and without which it could seem horribly worthy or wordy, is an experienced company under the direction of Hugh Thomas: Lynn Hunter, Brian Hibbard, Karin Diamond and Jeremi Cockram are all actors who would give weight to any production.

That we can engage with the dilemmas, tease out the issues of identity, ethnicity, ideology and power, sympathise with and despise the central character, the disillusioned socialist, is due to the immediacy of the performances.

It is, inevitably, very tv-influenced as we can imagine the close-up shots, the pans and zooms that make the speeches more digestable – except, of course, any tv version would involve cutting and simplification.

Does this deserve a full-scale stage production ? Perhaps – but this rehearsed reading, small-scale, stimulating, provocative, accomplished, was just fine.

David Adams (Western Mail)

 

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