The power of this new production of Fel Anifail is felt long before the play even begins. Designer Rebecca Wood has transformed Sherman Theatre’s studio space into something akin to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, superbly capturing the ambience of the play about to unfold. With Sam Jones’ score simmering in the background, the few minutes before the beginning of the play are enough to immerse the audience into Meic Povey’s almost-dystopian portrayal of rural Welsh life. Defi and Mair are the only two people living in this self-imposed dystopian existence. They are a married couple stuck in time – unable to move on from the tragedy that haunts their farmhouse, but unable to leave their home either. Instead they choose to suffer, willing Death to arrive and take them away.
There’s the sense that this conversation between the two characters has taken place hundreds of times before, that we are eavesdropping on what has become the ordinary. Povey’s script manages to establish that sense of familiarity and monotony between the characters without alienating the audience. Information is drip-fed at just the right pace, each revelation given time to linger and the tension never letting up as a result.
Of course, what Fel Anifail benefits from are two exceptional performances. Wyn Bowen Harries stumbles around the stage with stick in hand, his words coming out like angry stutters, a broken and stubborn old man weighed down by guilt and sadness. Across from him sits Morfudd Hughes as Mair, in one of the performances of the year. In the face of Defi lashing out like a wounded lion, Mair remains supremely calm. There’s a fury in Hughes’ performance that is wholly engrossing. It doesn’t really come through her vocal performance, which is deliberately calm and graceful. Instead, we see it in the way she peels potatoes and scrapes the skin off chicken bones.
It’s the physicality of both actors’ performances that make this such a wonderful play, and credit goes to director Jac Ifan Moore for bringing that out of his cast. There is very little movement on stage, but what little movement there is means everything. Moore makes sure there are no wasted steps, no wasted breaths. It’s economy at its finest. There’s a lot to admire about Moore’s handling of the whole production. As well as the performances, he demonstrates a keen eye for visual design and atmosphere. With that brilliant creative team behind him, Moore has put himself on the map as a director to watch out for.
It’s plays like Fel Anifail that reinforce just how important writers like Meic Povey are to the Welsh theatre zeitgeist. Welsh-language theatre has itself sometimes been accused of being stuck in time, but this production from Sherman Theatre proves that wrong. And with companies like Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru reaching out to a new generation of Welsh-language playwrights, we look forward to more of it.