Chapter, Cardiff , Mon 8 Nov 2004 £3 on the door
Man – Sean Carlsen
Sister – Kathryn Dimery
Woman – Karin Diamond
Mother – Anwen Williams
Father – Gareth Potter
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)