Gary Raymond found little to write home about in National Theatre Wales’s On Bear Ridge, but it cannot be denied the buzz around it in some quarters is telling of a wider political movement.
Theatre holds the power to bring society up on its toes. The nature of it as a live, collective experience means the right play can both feed off and into an existing vibe. The audience can feel up on that stage in a way they can’t feel in the screen, or on the page. Perhaps the examples of theatre stoking political fervour in England are too far back in history to inspire goose bumps, but the Irish remain acutely aware of the connection of their literary giants to revolutionary action. If some of the writers were painfully reflective – Yeats asked openly, ‘Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?’ about the influence of his play Kathleen ni Houlihan in 1902 – others roused the rabble to devastating effect. Between Yeats’ play and the Easter Rising of 1916, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin became enmeshed in the struggle for Irish freedom from the yolk of English rule, to the extent where not only was the theatre staging aggressively political plays about independence, but the ranks of the rebels that fateful week included Abbey associates and staff, from lead actors to usherettes. Several of the Uprising’s leaders were writers, including playwright Thomas McDonagh, under whose command served several Abbey workers and affiliates. It could be said that neither cinema nor the printed page can boast such a kinetic relationship with boots-on-the-ground revolutionary zeal.
So, I suppose it hasn’t been all that surprising that Ed Thomas’s return to writing for stage after a fifteen year hiatus has sparked such passionate reactions in some quarters. On Bear Ridge, starring Rhys Ifans and Jason Hughes, is a big statement from National Theatre Wales that goes some way to answering the critics who says it neither does enough for or about the country in its name, but it is also a political play about an oppression of Welsh identity. Thomas’s play is resolutely Welsh, and comes at a time when the notion of Welsh independence from the United Kingdom has its highest stock in several generations. Even people hitherto Unionists are entertaining the idea as they turn in disgust from the latest degradation of Westminster. On Bear Ridge might not be inciting the Welsh to riot in the streets or take up arms, but it has certainly tapped into something that is larger than its own flaky plot.
On Bear Ridge is not a great play. It probably isn’t even a very good one. It is vague, peppered with clichés and plot holes, and, as a text, undercooked in momentum as much as it is boiled to tastelessness in poetics. It is a well-directed, well-acted disappointment. But politically, it’s playing to the crowd, at least to certain parts of the Welsh theatre-going audience. The great horror in Thomas’s play is not the crumbling of a community, or even the brutal murder of a young man, it is the evaporation of “the old language”. Welsh nationalism is enjoying a golden period at the moment, and the Independence movement is buoyed by it, and here there is a sense that movement now has a play that speaks in those fervid codes. On Bear Ridge is a rare feast for a politically sensitive theatre-going audience in south Wales at the moment, who, as a collective, have waited a long time to see a real play, a confident one, with star power on and off the stage, one that is joining in the conversations happening outside the theatre.
Regardless of how successful On Bear Ridge is as a piece of art, it feels like a premier league production that would – and will – stand its ground in London. With all due respect to those involved in the slew of well-received one-person shows NTW have put out in the last eighteen months, nobody – nobody – wants to see another monologue from National Theatre Wales, or, for that matter, another digital installation projected onto a sheep’s arse on a Snowdonian hillside. Those things are great when they augment the central power of heavyweights, banner-waving, delivering weighty work. A national theatre should not be focussing its creative powers on work that we can see from any number of excellent small companies who enjoy a fraction of the public subsidy. NTW should be hitting higher than that, bigger, and with On Bear Ridge they prove they can. The people experiencing On Bear Ridge this week will have been experiencing a buzz National Theatre Wales have not created in a long time.
And so what if On Bear Ridge isn’t great? It’s not terrible. And how many stage works of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the ones that fed and fuelled the Easter Rising, have proven to be great enduring works? No; what they did, was they helped give Ireland a voice: a confident, booming, angry voice. The artists articulated the passions of the people. Many of those enthusiastic for On Bear Ridge are seeing their politics encapsulated in art.
In 2020, National Theatre Wales will appoint a new Artistic Director. Whether that person is Welsh or not is neither here nor there. They don’t have to be a flag-waving YES CYMRUist. All’s the better if they’re floating above any political fad. But what that person will have to understand is what Wales’s English language national theatre has found in On Bear Ridge is that there is a hunger for big bold new writing for the stage. It is imperative now that On Bear Ridge not be remembered as a flawed play that some people loved and got Rhys Ifans onto a Cardiff stage. That would be a very sad legacy. The legacy you might expect from a regional theatre, not a National one. No, the future for NTW must be to produce four or five On Bear Ridges every year. Some will be worse, some will be better, but what will be certain is the buzz felt now will spread, and that confident voice will improve its vocabulary, and it will grow in distinction, and it will serve Wales, express its identity, help sculpt its politics, along whatever journey the country is to take over the next few decades. A political movement needs its artists, and those artists need their stage.
You can read Caragh Medlicott’s review of On Bear Ridge here.
(Image credit: Mark Douet)