Karin Koehler casts a critical eye over Anweledig – Aled Jones Williams’ drama about a woman’s intense battle with depression.
In the early years of the Victorian period, a significant point in the development of psychological discourse and treatment methods, poetic innovators developed the dramatic monologue. Dramatic monologues, typically written for private reading rather than public performance, became privileged sites for exploring the feelings and perceptions of distinct, individualised speakers—speakers whose mental processes tended to deviate from the accepted norm. The final instalment of Aled Jones Williams’s excellent play Anweledig confirms the monologue form’s continuing power as a medium for confronting the complex subject of mental illness.
The audience experiences the story from the perspective and through the voice of a single speaker, Glenda, whose depression diagnosis, suicide attempt, and hospitalisation in Denbigh are followed by a difficult recovery. The other characters, Glenda’s husband Huw and her friend Beryl, appear only as they are perceived by the central character, throwing into sharp relief the misunderstandings and helplessness underlying their responses to an illness that cannot be seen but which can nonetheless kill. Anweledig is a nuanced piece of writing: it provides poignant insight into how depression feels, reveals the gulf that opens between the person who suffers and the world around them, and refuses to depict recovery as a straightforward process. Some decades have passed since the historic moment depicted by the play – Denbigh Asylum closed in 2002 – and the public conversation about depression has changed significantly since the twentieth century, yet Anweledig is extremely resonant in 2019.
As it draws us into Glenda’s inner world, Anweledig is raw, disturbing, and darkly funny. Jones Williams’s complex script is brought to life by Sara Lloyd’s sensitive direction and Ffion Dafis’s outstanding performance as Glenda. Dafis modulates effortlessly between soft lyricism, intense pain, and savage humour, sometimes within the space of a single line. The choreography, lighting, audio-visual effects, and set are carefully designed to complement the play’s richly poetic language, and they contribute to the play’s mesmerising, atmospheric impact.
Glenda repeatedly reminds the audience that illness seems neater, easier to categorise, than recovery, which is messy and unpredictable. Fittingly, during the first half of the play, the minimal set reflects Glenda’s increasing withdrawal. After the superbly staged moment of Glenda’s suicide attempt, we accompany her to Denbigh and, later, on her difficult homeward journey; the stage becomes more crowded, even chaotic, but Glenda’s movement becomes gradually less restricted. The fitful complexity of recovery is also suggested, more disturbingly, by constant visual reminders of death and suicide—the white orchids that surround the stage and the ropes, invariably tied into nooses, with which Glenda interacts in varying, surprising contexts. These objects defy audience expectations and conventional symbolism, as we come to recognise their centrality in the process of mending. They illustrate what Glenda hints to Beryl during one of their conversations: that the darkest, lowest moments in the struggle with depression cannot simply be locked away, left behind, or silenced on the path to recovery.
Anweledig ends on a hopeful note, but it refuses sentimentality and simple answers. It suggests that recovery can be as difficult to understanding as depression itself, both for the sufferer and for the people who care for them. The play offers a profound meditation on mental illness, which remains, too often, invisible, misunderstood, or unspoken. To watch this play is an intense, harrowing, and deeply rewarding experience. It should be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Anweledig is on tour around Wales until the end of March. More details here.