Finborough Theatre, London – until 21 December 2019
Years ago I worked with a patriotic Welshman who referred to his homeland as “God’s own country”. Playwright Emlyn Williams clearly thought the same as she based her allegorical play in a Welsh mountain village, Blestin; a place that by virtue of nominative determinism seems guaranteed a second coming.
The play originally opened in April 1945 and you don’t have to be Kenneth Tynan to realise The Wind of Heaven’s about post-war anxiety and social rebuilding – specifically, the moral reconstruction of the nation following the existential threat it had faced. Its Crimean War period setting – 1856, acts as a suitable proxy. There’s wounded soldiers housed in local hospitals suffering from tuberculosis and cholera, a town stripped of its children, and a local matriarch, Dilys, who’s flirted with atheism since her husband died.
Enter Ambrose Ellis, a former local boy turned obnoxious city slicker and circus entrepreneur, who’s returned to search for local freaks. Naturally, he’s materialistic, opportunistic and Godless – the antithesis of community spirit and civic virtue. A chance encounter leads to the uncovering of a biblical prophecy and Gwyn, the town’s only remaining child, whom scripture suggests may be a Welsh Jesus.
From the, er, comfort of 2019 it’d be easy to sneer at The Wind of Heaven’s sentimental moralising, so let’s do that. The Finborough’s great strength, when blowing the dust off forgotten plays, is that it refuses to update them for modern audiences – they’re time capsules and all the more interesting for it. But the corollary of this approach is that occasionally the cultural assumptions embedded in these old texts may strike the modern eye as regressive.
Williams’ play finds great virtue in the idea that modernism is corrupting, the pastoral is soul cleansing, and that good old Christian values like subservience, abstinence, humility and charity must be observed if society is to heal itself following a period of great upheaval (and moral threat). If that strikes you as reactionary, you’re not alone, and consequently it’s difficult to see the play’s wind as anything other than a brain-fart.
Still, if you don’t mind the preachiness or the admonishment, The Wind of Heaven boasts a suitably earnest cast and fine staging; the Finborough’s tiny space once again miraculously reconfigured with the sparing use of period props and canny lighting. In a complicated world the story offers some time worn comforts; it’s the dramaturgical equivalent of that thing you old Dad used to say. Just try to forget what he did after that.