by Saunders Lewis
Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru
at Tomen y Mur
They must have chosen just the right burnt offerings to proffer to the Celtic gods. This open air, (this very open air), production of Saunders Lewis’ dramatic retelling of the second part of Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion was blessed, nay drenched in sunshine.And as site-specific productions go, what a site!
The action happened around a Roman fort set on a dramatic tumulus high in the hills overlooking Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station. It was a sort of open-air set to begin with, complete with the wind-blasted remains of a farmhouse and a weathered topiary of rowans and blackthorns.There were eruptions of meadow pipits from the long grass and bleating sheep.The fact that this was also Mur-y-Castell, the legendary palace in Ardudwy described in the actual Mabinogion just made the setting even more extraordinary.
From the moment we gathered in the old social club of the nuclear power station, decorated with Union Jack pennants, with sponge cakes for sale and wartime radio playing the excitement was palpable.Equipped with headphones we listened to the play’s director, Arwel Gruffudd recite and weave the complicated web of stories that is the Fourth Branch.
We heard about the woman made of flowers – the eponymous Blodeuwedd – and about wizards such as Math, the King of Gwynedd and Gwydion, the greatest storyteller in the world.Buses then took us high into the hills, still listening to commentary about the place and its significance.For the play itself the audience perambulated around three seating areas, one for each of the al fresco scenes, with drawing rooms and decanters, Chesterfields and cigarette boxes arranged around the sheep folds.Soldiers drove their wartime vehicles along the high, empty roads. The shadow of war, in this case the Second World War, could wrestle with even the astonishing sunshine.
It is thus very tempting to say that the place was the star of the production, were it not for the début professional stage performance of young actor Morfydd Clark (her previous credits were in Saved and Rose Bernd, as student shows at the Drama Centre in London.) As Blodeuwedd she was spellbinding, or as the playwright Meic Povey put it as we chatted between acts, completely mesmerising.We both found ourselves looking for the names of young Hollywood starlets of the 1940s with whom to compare her.It’s a big role, and Blodeuwedd is a complicated creation and has a lot to say, yet Clark inhabited the role as if she’d woven her own mantle, or in this case her mustard coloured dress.
If we marked actors out of ten simply for their stage presence (even in the absence of a stage, such as in this show) then Owain Llŷr Williams, as the servant, would win hands down, with his eleven out of ten.Even though his job was, in the main, to simply lead the audience from place to place, his stiff-backed, no-nonsense presence asserted itself right from the off.Our first glimpse of him was in itself a most arresting image: frock coated, bald-headed, he was standing on a rock as our buses slalomed ever so slowly, driver’s foot on the clutch, through the sitka plantations and on out into open country.He was both sentinel and guide, of this world and another.
Non Haf, playing the doomed handmaiden Rhagnell, exuded simple faith and trust in her duplicitous mistress Blodeuwedd, even after she tried to strangle her to keep her extramarital affair secret, while Glyn Pritchard as the magical, if Machiavellian Gwydion had sufficient authority to make you believe he could make a dead man walk.The scene where Llew Llaw Gyffes is murdered on the edge of a stream, played out on the edge of a mountain stream was particularly tense and thrilling and when we left Gwydion to the job of bringing the murdered man back to life it seemed almost a matter-of-fact act.
Some of the actors had very little previous stage experience but the confidence expressed in choosing them paid off.Youthful vim and vigour brings its own fresh energy.It’s not an easy play-in-verse to declaim.Oddly, I met one of Saunders Lewis’s former pupils in a bookshop today and he gave me the dramatist’s own assessment of the play: it was overly poetical, hen beth barddonllyd, as Saunders opined in that mosquito-whine voice of his.
So, at the end of the play Blodeuwedd, having committed the heinous crime of helping murder her husband, faces her punishment.She is banished to the forest.Here, because the other birds hate owls, she is turned into one.
This part of the story, anticipated, flickered in my mind as the play edged towards its conclusion.Seeing as we were, by now, seated in a field in the Gwynedd hills, it was hard to imagine what coup de theatre the company could possibly pull off to enable that amazing transformation.And yet they did it, breathtakingly and heart-stoppingly well.In being banished Blodeuwedd slowly walked up a raised tump in the field.At play’s end she hurled herself off the ridge, her scream echoing wildly, and then a barn owl flew out at us, the spellbound audience.It was a transcendent moment of pure theatre, a fitting ending – both delicate and powerful at one at the same time – to the sheer, simple magic of it all.