Category Archives: On The Edge (Autumn 2004 season)

A Blue Heron in the Womb by Ian Rowlands

Performance

Chapter, Cardiff , Mon 8 Nov 2004 £3 on the door

Cast

Man – Sean Carlsen

Sister – Kathryn Dimery

Woman – Karin Diamond

Mother – Anwen Williams

Father – Gareth Potter

Director

Michael Kelligan

Review

We haven’t heard much from Ian Rowlands, not so long ago heralded as one of Wales’s finest playwrights and a possible director for a national Welsh-language theatre company, so it’s good to be reminded that he is indeed one of the most erudite, provocative and literate craftsmen in contemporary Welsh drama.

His work isn’t easy, operating on many different levels, but it’s always stimulatingly aggressive and engaging – Blue Heron in the Womb, the last of his more familiar works (it was premiered in Glasgow six years ago and I recall it in a not-altogether successful staging at Mold the following year), has that recognisable signature theme of a guilt that’s mixed up with language and sex expressed in dialogue whose passion and poetry harks back to an earlier age of lyricism and wordplay.

Rowlands has been be accused of verbosity and most of his twenty or so plays (Marriage of Convenience is held to be his classic, but Pacific, Love in Plastic and Glissando on an Empty Harp are also well worth revisiting) are often better read than seen, but it’s an unfair charge – as this admirably simple production from Michael Kelligan as the final event in his season’s fascinating series of play-readings proves.

Here the gradually-evolving narrative – the gathering of a family to scatter the ashes of a dead child, with twin sisters revealing their tortured and tortuous relationships with the same absent lover – is as clear as it can be, although it isn’t exactly straightforward. The action swings back and forth in time and place with themes woven around Rowlands’s concern with nationhood – the play ends with the birth of another child and the consequent reversion of all the characters to Welsh, and we are reminded that it was written immediately after the vote for devolution.

Such allegorical content may or may not enhance the quality of the audience’s experience. Do we need to know the original Dylan Thomas use of the heron as a symbol of death ? Do we need to be aware of the way other writers have linked men’s dominance over women to imperial oppression ? Do we have to be aware of the recurring metaphors of the family, absent fathers, aborted children, mourning and so in the albeit limited canon of contemporary Welsh drama ?

Do we, indeed, need to know that much of this is based on the playwright’s own life ? Not really, but the degree to which it seems like an extended confessional is even more noticeable now than when it was first staged, even though the final speech used in this production is not the very personalised original one.

But too much concern with seeking out meanings can spoil our enjoyment of any play and it’s to the credit of this ad-hoc company that it worked, in the intimate environment of Chapter’s second space, so effectively as a startling piece of theatre.

Blue Heron the Womb is my favourite Rowlands play and I have to say that although this production was script-in-hand it more or less did the work justice and there were some excellent and committed performances, of an intensity and mastery that is quite unexpected in such events as these, from Sean Carlsen, Kath Dimery, Karin Diamond, Anwen Williams and Gareth Potter.

The rather peculiar genre of the “rehearsed reading” was actually exploited well, with some full-on performances and just minimal choreography that caught the balance between a full production and a lower-key staging that allows us more time to absorb the words. Considering the play starts with the stage direction “A man hovers six feet above Wales” and includes one attempted suicide leap from a mountain and one suicide by drowning, that’s no mean feat.

David Adams (Western Mail)

 

My Piece of Happiness by Lewis Davis

Performance

Chapter, Cardiff, Wed 27 Oct 2004, £3 on the door

Cast

George – Iwan Tudor

Sean – Luther Phillips

Sarah – Lizzie Rogan

Mrs Grigell – Bethan Morgan

Mrs Evans – Gerri Smith

Angel – Cler Stephens

Test/Collins – Michael Kelligan

Orderly/Man – Alastair Sill

Director

Bethan Morgan

 

More Lives Than One by Mark Jenkins

Performance

Chapter, Cardiff , Tues 5 Oct 2004, £3 on the door

Cast

Robert Marrable

Michael Kelligan

Claire Desmond

Clare Isaac

Roisin Clancy- Davis

Duncan Bett

Tony Leader

Director

Michael Kelligan

Review

The evening was billed as a celebration – excerpts from the plays of Mark Jenkins and the launch of his new collection – but one suspects the enthusiastic audience gathered at Chapter was there to celebrate more than a new publication.For this was the first opportunity to congratulate the playwright on his Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award and, perhaps, to celebrate the arrival of a Welsh-based writer with established credentials – though it’s taken Jenkins twenty years to “arrive”, with half-a-dozen professional productions to his name.

The award was for Rosebud, his fascinating and uncannily credible portrayal of Orson Welles, and the performance here finished with the author himself reading part of the monologue, reminding us, too, that he’s probably best known for another one-man drama, Playing Burton, currently in LA and due to get another Welsh outing at the Millennium Centre in December.

But this event concentrated on less-known works and, as with other performances in this series of rehearsed readings, held out the prospect of a rare overview of the oeuvre of this neglected Welsh success – and maybe a hint as to why and how an ex-communist academic became a much-lauded playwright who is still snubbed in Wales.

Mr Owen’s Millennium, Norah’s Bloke, Birthmarks and Downtown Paradise (the four plays in Parthian’s More Lives Than One collection) do not, in fact, tell us much about the enigmatic Mr Jenkins, except that he can be passionate about what he sees as real socialism, cynical about politic theorists, aware of his London-Irish-Welsh upbringing, fascinated by larger-than-life characters. But of the real Mark Jenkins we discover little and he remains one of those playwrights whose creations have their own dramatic life and are not agents of their author’s own agendas… or so we are led to believe.

Excerpts, of course, do not give much indication of the complete plays, especially when the performances are of such varied quality as here, but what they do offer is a taste of Jenkins’s skills in sketching out characters, his manipulation of them to make debate, his erudition and also his empathy.

For Jenkins does tend to write about real-lifer individuals – Norah’s Bloke, his latest play, is the only one that is about a social situation and while the scenes we had here were well-done and effective, it’s not his best play as a whole, perhaps because it is autobiographical and lacks the toughness of the others.

It does show him as a more mature artist, though, less concerned with rewriting history or trying to get under the skin of famous people – Robert Owen, Marx and Engels, Strinberg, Burton and Welles, all of whom have had a Jenkins makeover to their benefit or detriment.

So why isn’t he revered in his home country ? His tribute to the pioneer of cooperativism and socialism, Mr Owen’s Millennium, is the only Welsh-based play (though his study of Richard Burton obviously has Welsh connotations), but perhaps it’s too uncritically adulatory – more obviously the work of someone deeply disillusioned by theory and approving of practical socialism.

No such generosity to Marx and Engels (in Birthmarks) or to a Black Power activist and his besotted solicitor (in Downtown Paradise) – people Jenkins seems to dislike for what he would see as their lack of human concern, with the implication that all hard-line idealists are not only insensitive but corrupt.

Jenkins in these political biographies writes in a kind of David Hare mould but on a minimalist scale: he criticises dogmatism through the study of individuals rather than the bigger picture. One suspects he is also fascinated by big names and is not too humble or afraid to presume to rewrite their lives from the selective perspective that gives him enormous control over their arguments.

It’s that uncomfortable, unfashionably revisionist analysis of heroic icons of ideology and culture that must make many approach Mark Jenkins with caution – but it’s also what makes his work often irresistibly fascinating, even when presented in frustratingly bite-sized portions.

 David Adams