In the village of Caerleon on the outskirts of Newport, there sits two hollow monuments to flagship failures of twenty odd years of governments both Welsh and Westminster. The university campus, closed down in 2016 by its new owner, the University of South Wales, after a proud century-long history of higher education provision, stands empty on the hill like a graveyard. It had once provided generations with access to higher education all across south east Wales and even the west of England, offering non-traditional pathways out of restrictive situations toward successful careers. It was a place that invested unashamedly in the future health and wealth of our society. Not anymore. Political short-sightedness and neo-liberal crudity have cut these opportunities off. The campus is now a mausoleum, built by USW and Welsh Government, to the corrupted thinking around what higher education is, and who it is for.
Opposite the campus lies the eerie Georgian spread of St Cadoc’s Hospital, a building which in recent decades has receded its capacity as the public conversation about mental health provision has advanced. By all accounts an arterial warren of ghostly hallways that echo a time when public mental health might not have been talked about quite so much, or even understood, but there were institutions that were working on it. St Cadoc’s is ashamedly underfunded and underused.
These glaring symbols of a society that is losing its ability to either invest in its future or look after the vulnerable members of its present, are just two of the themes that raise their heads and then go underexplored in Paul Whittaker’s interesting but somewhat undercooked new play, Gods & Kings. Robert Bowman’s low-key turn in this one man show displays the actor’s considerable onstage warmth and charisma, but this is ultimately a play that prods and pokes at the audience without ever landing that knockout punch.
It must be said that Gods & Kings is obviously an intensely personal piece of work for Whittaker, who has talked about his own struggles with bipolar disorder. This is an autobiographical work, and Bowman’s Paul is an engaging guide for its seventy minutes. Bowman, of course, has had great success with his one man adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, another story of one man’s descent as society rolls on. Although God & Kings is a different beast, it maintains the art of Bowman isolated and disintegrating on stage before us. Diary of a Madman however has a playful, ingenious staging to it, something that Gods & Kings lacks. Deryn Tudor’s stage design is stagnant in its evocation of an Olympian dreamworld and eventually only serves to remove the action from the bedsits of Newport, as well as from the therapy sessions of St Cadoc’s and the seminar rooms of Caerleon campus.
Whittaker’s story is an important one, and perhaps even more important now than it ever was. The script has an excellent ear for humour, and often indulges in flashes of lyricism, but again the motifs of estrangement from reality, and the classical allusions do not quite land. For all of its strengths – this is not an unengaging hour in the theatre – Gods & Kings treads too lightly. Bowman is not perilous enough, the script is not daring enough, and the staging too tentative. Somewhere in here is a powerful and personal work, but this is torn between ideas of what it wants to be. Is it a Fisher King-style romance looking at the tragedy of the outcast? Is it a gripping Brechtian monologue? Is the audience being invited in to Paul’s universe, as dangerous as that may be? Is this the work of a writer and director wishing to call out political injustices in a current climate that seems to be spinning out of control? There is simply not enough made of the profound questions raised in relation to the constructed fantasy, and not enough dynamism to the staging of the “reality” of Paul’s story. There is an underlying feeling that what Gods & Kings needs is more unbridled rage, and that it is currently some way below the surface. But it is there. It is a play bristling with the potential of the relevance of its story, but one that ultimately does not make itself heard.