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