Jay Gent reviews Carwyn, a Torch Theatre company production from Owen Thomas and Gareth J Bale.
After the challenges of the last two years’ lockdowns and restrictions, Milford Haven’s Torch Theatre have made a triumphant return to live theatre with their latest original production Carwyn. This is a glorious reunion for writer Owen Thomas and now director Gareth J Bale, whose award-winning one-man play Grav conquered the Edinburgh Fringe, earned an S4C adaption and played as far afield as New York and Washington.
As with the earlier Torch success, Carwyn concerns itself with the life and times of a much-storied Welsh rugby hero taken from us far too soon, but this is where the similarities end. Whereas the tale of Ray Gravell was a celebration of a salt-of-the-Earth sportsman, national hero and celebrity known and loved by all, the life of Carwyn James is much more circumspect. A man who revolutionised rugby as both a player and team-leading strategist, but remained something of an enigma to even those who knew him best – perhaps even to himself – as this play suggests in its tight and economical run time, taking place entirely in the Amsterdam hotel room where James died of a heart attack in 1983, aged fifty-three.
There is something of David Bowie’s Blackstar in Carwyn – a twilight reflection on life and mortality, a memento mori; just as Bowie crooned “I know something’s very wrong” on that valedictory album, we open to James hacking a rheumy cough in his lonely room, cursing in Wenglish as he struggles to get to grips with a Teasmade. From such quotidian beginnings Carwyn’s story talks us through his life arc with truth and dignity, building up a portrait in flesh of a man unappreciated and misunderstood in his own time. Personified here by actor Simon Nehan, he uncannily captures James’ stature and his well-spoken diction echoes Carwyn’s rich speech patterns.
Playwright Owen Thomas does the enigmatic Carwyn justice with a verbose, eloquent script replete with lyrical internal rhymes and wordplay that reflects a man clearly too complex and erudite for the locker room mentality of rugby culture half a century hence. By his own admission, Carwyn is a “man of duality… The cerebral outsider with the common touch”, not only a master tactician arranging his players on the pitch like a chess champion, but also a politically active aesthete enamoured with the works of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Shakespeare. His intellectual leanings and thoughtfulness inevitably saw him on the receiving end of homophobic slurs, for as we know this small island has always retained a suspicion of those who wear their learning on their sleeves. It’s a stark, and fascinating, contrast to Grav, and I suspect in years to come these two Owen Thomas creations will become enduring companion pieces for Welsh cultural historians.
One thing both plays share is the economical yet creative set design and subtle, stylish lighting that’s a hallmark of the Torch Theatre Company’s small yet mighty technical crew. Cleverly blocked and choreographed projected footage of ITV newsreeld of Carwyn and the British Lions’ past successes complements’ Carwyn’s commentaries as he paces in his oh-so-eighties hotel room limbo, inventively elevating the production from a fixed-camera monologue a la Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Kudos to Tegan Reg James for the scenic design and long-time Torch Theatre lighting designer Ceri James for making big things happen in a small space.
This reviewer went into Carwyn with no prior knowledge of Carwyn James’ life or legacy, but came away as the house lights rose feeling affected by this poignant portrait of a man who was of his time but not of his time – perhaps like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, a ship looking for a harbour.
Carwyn is showing at the Torch Theatre, Milford Haven until 26th Feb – more information and tickets can be found here.