Review of Dandelion: Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan
October 5, 2013
Reviewer: Adam Somerset
A piece of theatre rarely comes without expectations. Actors and directors bring their track records with them. Publicists and promoters strive to build awareness. Favourable reviews are highlighted. The unfavourable are ignored. Word of mouth spreads and social media fizz.
These all apply to Welsh Fargo Stage Company’s ambitious tour from Cardiff to Pwllheli and Caernarfon. One of Wales’ most experienced publicists is on board. The cast is distinguished. An early viewer, and reviewer, has been so affected as to shed tears. “Dandelion” has for this member of its audience indeed been the frozen axe that cracks the sea within us. No greater response is possible.
But this particular build-up of anticipation has a difference. One member of the company has launched more than one riposte to reviewers of the production. These forums, with New Welsh Review in the lead, are public documents. The employment of a meagre and thinly expressive language is one aspect, of surprise, but the greater aspect is the particular interpretation of what it is to be a writer, a maker of theatre, and a member of a company. Trollope gave good advice in the very first paragraph of his autobiography “I will set down naught in malice; nor will I give to myself, or others, honour which I do not believe to have been fairly won.”
A production on tour is the common creation of a range of artists, not an item of private property. Public statements should at this time be mediated through the company. Besides any work, if has any weight at all, will invite comment. Those who choose to comment are those who make theatre, the audience. But they are not just members of the audience but fellow citizens. Civic space is bounded by civility.
Welsh Fargo Stage has had a generous rehearsal time, and it shows. The acting has that ease which is the result of deep experience and intense application. The direction is unobtrusive, which means that the director is getting it right. The music from young composer Samuel Barnes fits beautifully. Of all the collaborative elements that combine to make theatre, however, one is jarringly out of place and failing to match in artistry.
It is there in the publicity in the form of a couple of code words. “Challenging” is a piece of publicist shorthand. “Dandelion” is not challenging. The word “poetic” is a coded term. It means that a display of authorial opinion will take precedence over applying an ear for dialogue. This Me Me approach fails to understand that writing to work needs an interval between subjectivity and object.
Thus a patient with dementia does not exhibit the symptoms in the way that Laurence Allan dramatised them acutely. Instead she comes out “it’s what you forget you that kill you, kills you.” A parent speaks of children who don’t visit as “busy with their careers”. This is not spoken language, and nor is it generally valid anyhow. It is a rare child in middle age who is not racked, and their own life made miserable, in witness of a parent’s suffering and decline. It feels like a plot point, partly to evade the dramatisation of a parent-child encounter and partly to underscore a rather uninteresting stance of cheerless misanthropy.
The review from the audience member in Gwynedd of “Dandelion”, apart from “I don’t like being sworn at or insulted much”, includes: “ does the thinking for you, and what it thinks isn’t all that profound…as theatre it is a bit dull, and the attempts to keep it from being dull are a bit programmatic and obvious…Mary with her long and rapturous monologues about beauty and flowers, seems part of a different play.” The description of Jehovah’s Witnesses he views as tendentious and misleading.
What he does not mention is that “Dandelion” is bereft of stage action. It has no rise or fall, no form or rhythm. Scenes end for no reason. It comes to a conclusion, but conclusion is not climax. The props of books and television are there not to generate action but as a launch-pad for authorial opinion. So “the Secret Garden” is prompt for the line “We all have a secret garden inside our heads , don’t we?” The authorial CV speaks of a master class with Arnold Wesker. Wesker summarised the craft of theatre as comprising six elements; all six are absent. In place of stage action a number of substitute elements are on show, all of which are all too familiar.
Topical labels and brand names are invoked. Tesco, Asda, George Osborne, Prince William, Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, and television personalities all feature. Monologue has to be resorted to because interaction has not been crafted in. Thus a direct audience address of a declaration of love is made, lacking in any conviction because it has not been shown.
Statements about the self are made and people make generalised comments about others. Thus “I have always had to defend myself, always had to justify myself” and “ Perhaps you take pleasure in other people’s pain.” People throw out rhetorical questions. “What do you do if you believe in something and it is taken away from you?” “When you love someone don’t you have to love them for their own beliefs?” Metaphors proliferate as in memories “stapled to a pillow.” The thematic treatment is the wrong way round. Instead of emerging out of the action they are belted into as lines of speech. Of books a couplet runs “They give us hope. They light the way.” “To death.” A late speech in praise of television lacks any psychological grounding.
The principal reason for there being no action is that the persons on stage are comprised of attributes ,and thin back-stories, but are primarily authorial postures. They are not social humans in action and reaction to one another. The first scene does not do exposition. Indeed the patients in the Hospice are neither obviously ill nor in need of medication. In its place is a bookcase, present to generate comments on books, like “1984” and quotations from Whitman. The lack of interaction extends to a lack of sympathy. The writing rightly bursts the notion of a serene demise eased by morphine. When a patient talks of the severe side-effect of constipation the others let it pass by without reaction or comment. These are not characters.
The tangled legal, medical, ethical and religious nexus that decrees that every last day of life must be clung on to, irrespective of suffering, is a subject of colossal seriousness. Theatre tackled it a generation back by Brian Clark “Whose Life is it Anyway?” The theme does not exist here. One person wisely wishes to avoid an end via prolonged dehydration. A person who is supposed to be imbued with a gritty realism uses a banal language of “not giving up” and “holding on.” His last argument is that maybe a treatment to reverse late-stage terminal cancer will suddenly emerge, a statement of utter ludicrousness.
The sincerity behind “Dandelion” is manifest, if that were sufficient in itself, and its execution is exemplary. Acting once again is revealed as a profession of heroism.