Category Archives: On The Edge (Autumn 2004 season)

The Merthyr Trilogy by Alan Osborne

Performance

Chapter, Cardiff, Tues 28 Sept 2004, £3 on the door

Cast

Alan Osborne

Teresa Hennesey

Director

Alan Osborne

Review

Alan Osborne is a remarkable man: a respected painter, composer, librettist, teacher and playwright – and, like so many Welsh polymaths, owes it to his roots as a boy growing up in a Merthyr terraced house as part of a poverty-stricken but intellectually lively family and set of friends.

Those origins inform everything the man does, notably his seminal Merthyr Trilogy – three plays set in his home town, written as Thatcherism was hitting home in the industrial heart of Britain, and staged by the now-defunct Made in Wales company to critical acclaim between 1983 and 87.

What does it say that a selection from the trilogy now appears as part of a celebration of “neglected plays” ? The words come tumbling out as angry, disjointed, passionate, idiomatic, lyrical and fresh as ever – in fact, in retrospect, the plays seem even more contemporary, with their rejection of narrative, their concern with taboo subjects like incest, abuse, drugs and gay rape, the nihilism, their use of a speech that was both recognisably real Merthyr and surreal, the inhabiting of a world that is both grittily realistic and fantastical.

In fact, of course, the process of using extracts from the three plays emphasises the strangeness. We get a taste of the absurdism and violence and drug-induced nightmare of Redemption Song, we catch a glimpse of the awfulness and humanity of Vee and the dysfunctional family and friends around her on the ugliest council estate in Britain in In Sunshine and in Shadow, we sample the tensions and affections between the two ex-boxers, their manager and the café owner on the day of Johnny Owen’s funeral in Bull, Rock and Nut.

What we don’t get is the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, of bondage and bonding, of social disintegration, of Osborne’s Merthyr world, and frankly it’s not helped by the author’s decision to direct the extracts himself.

This series of theatrical events (and the project really demands a title), which started with Patrick Jones’s The War is Over and continues next week with selections from Mark Jenkins’s plays, is fascinating – but it can be frustrating.

The Merthyr Trilogy evening would have made little sense, I suspect, if we didn’t know the plays and if Osborne hadn’t entertained us with a twenty-minute autobiographical prelude where he offered us example of what he calls his “voices”.

He, the playwright, doesn’t have a voice, he insists, but simply hears other people’s voices and passes them on to us, the audience.

This, of course, is disingenuous, as faux-naif as saying that as a painter all he does is assemble representations of nature, but it does remind us that one of his strengths is his ability to listen and reproduce not just the speech of his native Merthyr but the fragmentary, apparently incoherent conversations that express the lived experience of urban South Wales.

That collection of “voices” we got in the first half, before the far-from-satisfying dramatic offerings, made the (paltry) price of admission worthwhile: with enormous affection, good humour and humility, Osborne gave us a gallery of local characters from his boyhood, from the lady who brought round secondhand clothes for the impoverished family to the sarcastic teacher, from the local tough to fumbling lovers, with the odd joke thrown in.

But, yes – why are these plays neglected ? They are classics and not only paved the way for other playwrights but are soaring achievements of the imagination, the compassion, the convictions and the intelligence of this son of Merthyr.

David Adams (Western Mail)

 

The War is Dead Long Live the War by Patrick Jones

Performance

Chapter, Cardiff, Wed 1 Sep 2004 £3 on the door

Cast

Paul Amos

Chris Lennard

Director

Karl Francis

Review

Patrick Jones caused quite a stir with his first play, Everything Must Go, a few years ago – an angry, lyrical, passionate lament for the lost values of traditional socialism that got a big, powerful opera-style production from Phil Clark at the Sherman Theatre.

The contrast between that loud, visually-exciting and energetic show and the latest play production to come from this poet couldn’t be starker. The opener for an ambitious series of small-scale readings of new Welsh drama (Alan Osborne’s shamefully neglected Merthyr Trilogy, work from Edinburgh award-winner Mark Jenkins, Lewis Davies and Ian Rowlands are to follow), this was a trimmed-down minimalist two-hander staged in Chapter’s smaller studio rather than the main-stage spectacular that was Everything Must Go.

Directed by film and tv veteran Karl Francis, The War is Dead Long Live the War, however, comes across as no less angry or lyrical or passionate a denouncement of society, although this time the subject is not so much the loss of ideology but the timeless horrors of war and the way that war persuades us to hate others.

Set, we soon guess, in a kind of limbo between life and death during the Iraq occupation, two soldiers debate – or rather present opposing views of – the effects of armed conflict. One is a gungo-ho boyo, racist, sexist, Sun-reading, stereotypical squaddie from today, the other an erudite, despairing poet shot for desertion at the end of the Great War.

The deal is simple and familiar: the dead poet is stuck in limbo until he can persuade another soldier to take his place – and to do that he has to persuade his modern-day counterpart to admit that war is wrong and simply makes people turn to hate.

It’s a tough task and, frankly, we aren’t really convinced that Jones’s modern soldier, fed on a diet of reality tv, quiz shows and Playstation and trained to call murder “collateral damage”, is really ripe for conversion by his Wilfred Owenish predecessor.

That lack of credibility is but one problem with this play – the characterisation can seem crude and patronising, the polarity of the attitudes as revealed in the contrasting cultural references and language is too pat, there is no real dramatic tension and we learn nothing new.

This spare production from Karl Francis, with Paul Amos and Chris Lennard as the black-and-white antagonists, does make us concentrate on the words (something that can get diminished in larger-scale productions), always the strong point of Jones’s limited stage output, but it sounds to me too trimmed, too crudely oppositional.

I like Jones’s writing (his book Fuse I find an impressive collection) and I have no problems with theatre that operates between lyricism and realism, or one that is blatantly polemical, but this struck me as simply not complex enough, not subtle enough, not theatrical enough – not that it couldn’t be, just that in this form at least the theme needs more space for the arguments to be more interesting.

Still, it’s an ongoing project, this The War is Dead Long Live the War production, and the work deserves to be developed: there’s too little committed poetic theatre to let this be dismissed as unfinished business.

David Adams