Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.
Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow, ‘Rhys Ifans’.
Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.
Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.
Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.
John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.
We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.
Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.
All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.
John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.
In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)
Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.
‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.
It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.
Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.
(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)
But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.
*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?