Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.
After last year’s transformative rendering of Saunders Lewis’s 1948 play in the high sheep folds on a wind-blasted spur above Trawsfynydd at Tomen-y-Mur it was always going to be a challenge – if not a trifle anticlimactic – to see the work in a more conventional setting. The director of both productions, Arwel Gruffydd seemed to accept as much in the programme notes, when he said (and I translate, loosely) ‘In truth, without a sheep, or a nuclear power station, a single raven or an intensity of sunlight to seize the audience’s attention, the excitement and charm of the master’s play might, possibly, get more of a fair hearing.’ Fair hearing, possibly, but it was going to be a tough call to replicate the sheer magic of setting and the audience experience of being up there on a sun-drenched day.
So, without the interrupting exultations of skylarks, and the sheer bewitchingness of the scenery (not to mention the fact that Tomen-y-Mur is an actual location, Mur-y-Castell, in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi) the stage-set version did allow a fairer hearing, allowing us to hear the words more clearly, than through headphones, on a mountainside.
This was certainly a boon for the various school parties, studying Saunders, who bulked up the audience and gave us the pleasurable sensation of attending capacity audiences for a Welsh language production at the Sherman. But not all the words were pellucidly enunciated, as a few of them flew away into the wings: however, in the main, this was a clear and crisp rendering, both in staging and actors’ delivery. Unfortunately, there were a couple of lines which drew quite the wrong response from the audience, eliciting laughter at quite the wrong moment, thus giving a pantomime edge to this tragedy.
But let’s dish out the plaudits. Rhian Blythe as Blodeuwedd was commanding and captivating, at times coquettish and wickedly alluring, but yet, in truth a writhing mess of desires and complications, as one would expect from a woman whose DNA is simply botanical; a manufactured woman who never feels entirely comfortable in her all too human skin. With her Hollywood starlet auburn hair, and mesmerizing stage presence, Blythe underlined the fact that here is an actor of great range and authority, playing brilliantly a woman made of lust and lies just as surely as she is made of flowers.
What a crying shame it was that she had no decent foil. Her soon-to-be-lover Gronw Pebr, played by Rhys Bidder, should have come in from the woods after bouts of wild hunting, positively febrile and thirsting with lust, and that the sort of thirsty lust that takes a whole year of lovemaking to slake. But despite her astonishing vivacity and allure, and the fact that he tells her he is totally smitten by her, the performance suggested that all Pebr has actually brought in with him from the forest is a kind of wooden-ness. So the relationship between them had all the explosive chemistry of adding low fat milk to water. How magnificent it might have been had there been a Richard Burton to match this Elizabeth Taylor. For Blythe was quite simply old-school-startling in her power and effect, veritably Taylorish, both Hollywood siren and star.
The lamentable lack of sexual frisson between Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebr made us all the more aware of the relationship dynamics between her and her cuckolded husband, Llew Llaw Gyffes. Played by Carwyn Jones, this Gwynedd king was both thoroughly duped and totally devoted, taken in whilst still giving his all to his deflowered (in so many senses) bride. So, despite, or even working counter to the text, this was the most intriguing relationship in the production.
But for me there was one other duet that was unexpectedly foregrounded, and really worked – that between Blodeuwedd and her maid Rhagnell. Non Haf’s unswervingly devoted servant played effectively against Blodeuwedd’s moral chill, that splinter of ice the flower maiden seemingly carries in her wizard-created heart. One of the audience members later suggested to me that there was enough in that relationship, both latent and proclaimed, to spin off as an entirely separate play: simple testament to what these two gifted actors unpacked from their lines.
Theatr Genedlaethol’s challenges are many, and one of them is keeping the middle ground, keeping the traditionalist theatre-going audience happy while also adventuring into new spaces and exploring radical ways of telling a story. Blodeuwedd, and the rest of this year’s fare will move away from the site-specific to the proscenium arch. A little magic probably has to be lost, or go awry, along the way. But that’s what it takes when you try to keep everyone happy.