Interview | Llion Williams in Chwalfa

Chwalfa is Gareth Miles’ adaption of the novel by T. Rowland Hughes, and is a joint production between theatr Genedlaethol Cymru in partnership with Pontio and cwmni’r fran wen. The fictional village of Llithfaen in the novel is based on Bethesda, where in 1900-1903 Quarrymen of the Penrhyn Quarry went on strike, protesting unfair working conditions, rights and the principles of the workingmen, and is still the longest cultural dispute in the history of the United Kingdom.

It is of great significance that Chwalfa be shown at Pontio, as the Quarrymen of North Wales contributed from their small wages towards the construction of a University, in order to safeguard a better future for their children. Pontio is situated on the doorstep of that university, The University of Bangor.

Shortly before the opening of Chwalfa at Pontio, Sara Rhoslyn Moore talked to Llion Williams, lead actor in the production. (This interview has also been translated from Welsh to English).

How are you feeling about tonight’s performance; you were brought up in Bangor is it easier acting at ‘home’?

There is a saying isn’t there, a biblical one that ‘a prophet in his own country is never appreciated’ they say don’t they, and of course I am a ‘Bangor Lad’. It may well be true of actors also. I have only a few minutes before I find out! but you tend to be more nervous possibly when you open with a new drama in your city of birth, I wonder if you must make an even better show of it to the local people because you don’t get appreciated at home, but we’ll see, hopefully they won’t be throwing eggs at the stage by the end of the night.

Every night has long been sold out, including the additional night; are you feeling the pressure or is it motivation?

Well, a bit of both, when a play opens and later develops a good reputation and the show gradually sells out over the course of the show, that is a fantastic feeling you’re on top of the world then, but when all the tickets have been sold out before it has been seen, that is a tremendous amount of pressure, there is a huge expectation from the audience before it’s been seen, so if this fails we’re going to fail in style, big time.

Chwalfa is a complex production which has meant working crazy amount of hours to get it ready so yes, there is a lot of nervousness about this first night.

What does Chwalfa mean?

Chwalfa in this context means the dispersion of a tight knit community and it happens to an extreme extent in Bethesda, when the strike happened because so many workers had to go and find employment somewhere else, so it’s a dispersal of a community. ‘Chwalfa’; the sound of it in itself in Welsh with all those consonant’s means that its something very soul-destroying, ‘Chwalfa’ also means destruction end of something very important so basically it is quite a dark period in the history of Bethesda.

How much research did you have to do?

One book especially apart from re-reading the novel of course, I hadn’t read Chwalfa since I was at school, but this book is an excellent book solely on North Wales quarrymen written by Dr Merfyn Jones. I have been immersed in that a lot and it has been an inspiration, it’s very detailed, what was recorded in the newspapers at the time and there are a lot of just day to day things that are interesting in it not just the facts, but things that happened to one person and someone else’s response to what happened, it has been fantastic to just immerse myself in that.

Tell me about the character you play.

The character I play is Edward Ifans and the drama has been adapted from T. Rowland Hughes novel, Chwalfa. Edward Ifans is a sort of combination of two maybe three characters in the novel, there are so many characters, it’s on an epic scale, of course there are only twelve professional actors in this drama it was impossible to portray every character from the book. There are 50 or there about characters in the novel, but the actors double up to play more than one character but the central family, Edward Ifans’ family: they just play their own characters because their family is the crux of the drama.

I am the leader of the quarry committee. There was a quarrymen’s union founded but it was in it’s early days and so the quarrymen turned to some sort of a community. They had an infrastructure within the quarry to try and help them with fair working conditions. He is also a elder in the chapel, I don’t know if it would have been Capel Jerwsalem, but I think of Capel Jerwsalem, a Chapel that is like some sort of a Cathedral of a huge church, gothic like in Bethesda and of course it was as important if not more important to be a deacon of the chapel than it would have been to be the leader of the quarrymen. The chapels influence, a Christian and social influence I would call it, is very strong in it, dyneiddiaeth is very important to him, Christ who looks after the workingman.

He was also quite a radical character of that time, wasn’t he?

Yes, it was a time of course when the Labour Party was developing. It would be some years later before the first Labour member in the House of Commons and the Labour Party by now was very strong in the South Wales valleys. Liberalism was much stronger in the North and David Lloyd George of course, a huge Liberal at the time, was a member of parliament for Caernarfon and before long became the Prime Minister, and I would say that Edward Ifans was much more in the radical tradition of a Welsh Liberal. David Lloyd George was very supportive of the quarrymen but the local member of parliment wasn’t. There was some sort of split within the party but Edward Ifans belonged to a liberal tradition, and this is long before the days of Plaid Cymru of course.

How do you become your character, Edward Ifans?

All actors choose their own special technique of working, Theatr Genedlaethol at the moment are using a method called meizner.

I have always been an actor who likes to pick and choose elements that work for me out of many different techniques, such as the training I worked on during my time studying at Aberystwyth University under Emily Davies: Stanislavsky, which is known to some as the ‘method technique’. You go and immerse yourself in your character and live the character more or less for the duration you are working on it, but I wouldn’t say that I go to such an extreme as that; it can be very dangerous depending on your personality.

But there are elements of that training that have undoubtedly stayed with me that’s why, when I accepted this role, of course in the back of my mind is the character I play, and as a result, when I visited Bethesda a few times, and wander the streets of Bethesda where the quarry houses are, Gerlan and Carneddi and just feel the tone of that place, the journey that the quarrymen would have taken home from work in the late evening, that was part of getting under the skin of this character Edward Ifans, trying to spend as much time as I could where he lived, trying to feel his presence and the geography of the place, geology of the rocks surrounding me and so on. All of these support the emotional context of the play.

Tell me about the rehearsals at Caplel Jerwsalem, Bethesda.

We rehearsed in the vestry Caplel Jeriwsalem to once again develop the feeling of the community we were trying to portray. The drama ends with photos of some of the present characters of the Bethesda community, some of whom have been working with us . Around fifty or sixty mostly from Bethesda and surrounding areas. I’m not from Dyffryn Ogwen; I was born in Dyffryn Conwy and am now living in Llanrug which is a quarrying area as Llanberis is so close so the whole thing is not foreign to me. I have many friends in Bethesda, but I just felt it would do me some good to spend time there. I went to the community cafe there alone for my lunch every day, opposite Neuadd Ogwen, Caffi Coed y Brenin and met many characters there; it was an inspiration because I knew they were coming to see the drama, they say that the vast percentage of the 4,000 tickets that have been sold are to the people of Bethesda so there is a true feeling for the people of that community, the spirit of these quarrymen are going to be with us I believe.

Do you have any family connection to the Quarry?

Having looked in to my mothers side, there was an uncle or a great grandfather that used to work in the mines and quarries at Cwm Ystwyth, so I have been trying to draw on that spirit although it is a tenuous link! I have many friends from Bethesda, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Llanberis I feel a connection to these communities so I feel the spirit of the old guys surrounding me everywhere. These towns and villages are such cultural hubs even today and have contributed so much to Welsh culture. Bethesda with it’s rock scene from Maffia Mr Huws to the Super Furry Animals and the lovely and quirky 9Bach. There is some sort of tribute in a sort of a crazy way to that tradition in the play as well.

What are your thoughts on Lord Penrhyn?

I get the question! although I should emphasize that the novel and stage adaptation is about a fictional community of Llechfaen but we all know where the references lead to! I have met some of the old guard that still refuse to go to Penrhyn Castle because of the Great Strike, but Penrhyn Estate and the lineage of Lord Penrhyn have had an interest in the show, wanting to know what slant exactly the drama was taking, they are so much more aware by now of how they are viewed in the community, and the present owners of the quarry have taken an interest in the drama, and so the situation has changed quite a bit, and I can’t say much more than that.

You have vast experience in working in theatre; how does Pontio compare?

It’s an amazing experience for me because I was brought up here in Bangor, I feel very old because I saw Theatr Gwynedd being built and being taken down and have worked a lot there and of course Theatr Gwynedd was very close to the hearts of many Welsh actors, I have had great experiences performing there.

There is an exhibition at Pontio now as a tribute to Theatr Gwynedd. We were hoping the space would have been as good as Theatr Gwynedd and I think it definitely is, if not better.

The playing space itself, because this one (Chwalfa) is an epic story, the stage had to be thrust in to the audience space so some of the front rows are missing to accommodate these adjustments. There are three levels to the auditorium. This is quite a challenge for the actor because you must throw your voice more. When we started rehearsing we weren’t sure about the acoustics but it just takes time to direct it and I’m sure when the Theatre will be full tonight we will feel the acoustics change again, but it is a challenge with the acoustics, and the ‘gods’, the highest rows are very, very high here but I am looking forward to the challenge of performing to all levels. I have great respect for the cheap seats.. they are always where you find me! It’s a great theatre and thank goodness, as a Bangor lad, that we have it at last!

What will you take away from this play what will stay with you?

It’s been a privilege to portray a leader of such strong willed men. It has been wonderful working on some of the long speeches that Gareth Miles has adapted from the novel because there are many echoes in them of the Coal Miners Strike in the 80’s, echo’s of Martin Luther King Jnr, echoes in them of the major movers and shakers of social reform and hopefully this will give me a little more confidence as an actor, having had the opportunity to portray a character of flesh and blood a solid character like this. I don’t know what I’ll take away from this but it is great working with Theatr Genedlaethol again. Great working in the Welsh language again. I’ve had a good relationship with the director, Arwel Gruffudd. I love working with Dyfan Jones, the musical director; his contribution is very special as always. I have worked with him many times over the years. I just hope it will give me a little more depth of soul as a person and that I take strength from having occupied the body and spirit of Edward Ifans for a short period, and I’m sure other members of the cast feel it as well, the feeling of strength from filling the shoes of these special people who are a major part of the history of Wales.