Royal Court Theatre, London until 23 November 2019
Some plays and productions cast a very special kind of spell. Theatre is all about suspension of disbelief, of the creation for a small amount of time, of a particularly hermetic, special kind of world. And within that particularity, if they get it right, is a universality, a paradox that never ceases to amaze.
Ed Thomas gets it right with On Bear Ridge, a wonderfully atmospheric, apocalyptic comic-tragedy, etched with Beckettian and Dylan Thomas tones, presented by the National Theatre Wales in conjunction with the Royal Court.
Poetic and deadpan funny, Thomas has written that On Bear Ridge is in part a ‘western’ inflecked homage/elegy to his parents who ran a butchers shop in the mountainous area of Wales.
It also strikes me, too, as something akin to a fairy story. Whilst the setting could not be more bleak, it ends on a note of hope in the shape of tea in a china cup – a touch of mundanity that speaks volumes.
And whilst the content is one of despair, loss, and destruction, such is Thomas’ skill that he contains danger and dangerous moments within a framework that emphasises resilience and survival
Set on a fictional Welsh hillside, John Daniel (played with galvanic charisma by Rhys Ivans) and his wife Noni (Rakie Ayola, equally quietly wonderful) are first seen in a shell of a room, once a thriving butcher’s shop but now run-down, almost derelict.
They appear muffled in scarves, John Daniel in pyjama bottoms. The world outside, we hear, is dead. The village has died. The feeling is one of utter desolation especially from John Daniel as he wanders the corridor of his mind, trying to recall moments from the past, happier times and especially trying to keep alive ‘the old language.’
Whilst you could read On Bear Ridge as a literal lament for the colonising of Wales and the Welsh by the English, it also speaks even more acutely and widely of old ways overtaken by change – of the loss of heritage and ways of being that could be applied to any number of countries and situations.
It speaks directly perhaps to many elsewhere in the British Isles and the feelings that may have given rise to Brexit – the sense of disorientation many have felt, not just in Wales, of livelihoods being stripped away, of communities broken up.
Memory, identity and never-ending war are its dominant themes. Half way through, John Daniel and Noni are interrupted by the entrance of the Captain (Jason Hughes), as lost and battle worn as John Daniel and Noni in their remote farm shop.
Like John Daniel and Noni, the Captain has a terrible tale to tell of the violence he has seen and experienced – in war generally and in his own family. Both the Captain and John Daniel have lost relatives in horrific circumstances, in the Captain’s case, accidentally, but nonetheless horrifically – in John Daniel and Noni’s they lost their son in circumstances again recognisable to today’s atmosphere of xenophobia and intolerance.
All of which is couched in Vicky Featherstone and Thomas’ production with a delightfully absurdist touch – with walls that disappear; with a giant fridge that their slaughterman, Ifan William gaily walks into and out of; and at one moment a slow dance between husband and wife to Kurt Weill’s Alabama Moon.
© Mark Douet, a moment’s relief from the present in a memory of times pas, Rhys Ifans as butcher, John Daniel and Rakie Ayola as his wife, Noni.
Above all, what comes through most strongly in a tale of battling against the challenges life throws at us, is the power of love. John Daniel and Noni express it for each other; and Ifan expresses it for their son Twm Siencyn, whom he loved, who was found wandering the streets, mumbling in the `old language’ and murdered by thugs for being `different’, and an apparent foreigner.
It may not be to all tastes but for those willing to be embraced by its strange, discomforting atmosphere, Thomas’s On Bear Ridge offers the rare sight of an actor in his prime. Rhys Ifans is simply mesmeric, delivering words with a passion and lyricism rarely heard these days, that is deeply moving.
© Mark Douet, Sion Daniel Young as Ifan William, young assistant to the butcher couple, John Daniel and Noni
Rakie Ayola too makes a fine, sturdy contrast, whilst Jason Hughes’ as the stricken Captain and Sion Daniel Young as the young slaughterman add to the intensity of what in a mere 90 minutes creates a theatrical metaphor of unforgettable power and impact.
On Bear Ridge.
A new play by Ed Thomas
Noni: Rakie Ayola
The Captain: Jason Hughes
John Daniel: Rhys Ifans
Ifan William: Sion Daniel Young
Co-Directors: Vicky Featherstone & Ed Thomas
Designer: Cai Dyfan
Composers: John Hardy Music
Lighting Designer: Elliot Griggs
Sound Designer: Mike Beer
Casting Director: Amy Ball
Casting Associate for NTW: Mawgaine Tarrant-Cornish
Costume Supervisor: Amy Barrett
Emerging Director: Izzy Rabey
Chaperone: Debbie Dawes
On Bear Ridge was commissioned by the National Theatre of Wales and first performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Fri, Sept 20, 2019.
First perf at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, Oct 24, 2019. Runs to Nov 23, 2019.