Finborough Theatre, London – until 21 December 2019
The Finborough Theatre has an enviable track record of ‘rediscovering’ forgotten plays and their latest production is no exception. Not performed since 1945, Emlyn Williams’ The Wind of Heaven has themes that resonate during periods of crisis, hopelessness and mourning. The play begins in the summer of 1856, a few months after the Crimean War had ended and the British troops have just returned home. In the village of Blestin in Wales, this forgotten piece of the world has had its own share of tragedy.
Quietly grieving for her own husband, Dilys (Rhiannon Neads) lives on her own estate, keeping to herself – her only company Menna (Kristy Philipps) her niece, Bet (Louise Breckon-Richards) her servant and Gwyn (Bruno Ben Tovim) Bet’s 13-year-old son. The arrival of the officious Pitter (David Whitworth) with enquiries into someone local has certain people on edge. But it is the presence of Ambrose Ellis (Jamie Wilkes) who provides the biggest surprise of the evening, setting in a motion a chain of events that depending on one’s point of view are either ‘miraculous’ or ‘disturbing’…
In terms of casting, it is spot on, with the principal characters living within the skin of their respective roles. Neads’ Dily is convincing as the rational, no-nonsense widow who in her own mind makes a distinction between true respectability and the ‘civility’ practised by the ‘church-going’ mother of Menna’s fiancé.
Within the world of the play, the village of Blestin has chosen not to use its church as place of worship. While in this day and age this is not so strange, in the 19th and early 20th century, when religious revivalism was present in the UK and many corners of the globe, this would have been not only unusual but downright alarming. And it is precisely the way ‘Blestin’ resonates with the world today, where its frisson between the notions of rationalism and ‘faith’ come into play. To paraphrase Joan Osborne’s song ‘One Of Us’, if you were faced with with incontrovertible proof of the metaphysical world, would you really want to see it?
Whitworth is perfect as the erudite Pitter, whose tact and manners smooths over many an awkward situation and sees in Dilys (at least initially…) a similar voice of reason. As his employer, Wilkes’ Ellis is refreshingly self-aware and candid about his ‘gauchness’. Seeing how he and Dilys are initially, their character arcs – with Eliis’ in particular – are the crux of the play. Complementing this ensemble is Breckon-Richards’ self-deprecating Bet, who wants to keep a lid on her past, while Seiriol Tomos who plays ‘town spokesman’ Evan Howell brings natural levity to the proceedings, alleviating the tension at judicious points.
Those who are observant will undoubtedly notice the deliberate overtures to a well-known biblical story, especially the time of euphoria before the inevitable downward spiral. But it’s a well-known fact that we as humans are distrustful of anything that appears simple or too good to be true. If the ‘mountain top’ experiences by some of the characters are less easy to relate too, ‘versimilitude’ returns in the shape of Mrs Lake (Melissa Woodbridge). A personification of Ellis’ former life, as the ‘devil’s advocate’ she reminds Eliis of how other people will view his present choices and the dividends that are within his grasp should he reconsider. A cross between Gethsemane and Christ’s hour of temptation, Ambrose’s darkest hour brings into focus how the cares and worries of this world can erode even our moments of epiphany and that nothing erodes positivity than people who don’t understand where you’re coming from.
As a parable on finding personal fulfilment in the service of others, The Wind of Heaven has a lot to say about altruism and the value placed by society on the acquisition of wealth to find meaning. But beyond the unfair ‘slings and arrows’ of life, a selfless existence not only grants a measure of perspective, the empathy it awakens serves as areminder of thise less fortunate than ourselves.
© Michael Davis 2019
The Wind of Heaven runs at Finborough Theatre until 21st December.
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