When the world as we know it comes to an end, what remains? Karin Koehler reviews the stage adaptation of Manon Stefan Ros’s award-winning YA novel Llyfr Glas Nebo.
As it imagines the aftermath of nuclear fallout in a Gwynedd mountain village, Manon Steffan Ros’s novel Llyfr Glas Nebo treads a delicate balance. The book documents how a mother and her two children struggle to retain their humanity, after humanity appears to have been eradicated. In doing so, it often comes uncomfortably close to fetishizing the post-apocalyptic world it presents. Without constant immersion in virtual worlds, the few relationships that remain become more meaningful. Without the easy possibility of buying a chocolate bar in the corner shop, or having goods delivered to one’s home at a click, the superfluity of consumer society becomes starkly apparent. Without the constant scrutiny of others, and exposure to the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ images of social media, characters achieve a clearer sense of priorities.
It is one of the sources of the novel’s fascination that it holds readers suspended between dystopia and utopia, between the impression that ‘Y Terfyn’ (an expression that might be simply translated as The End, but which also suggests the notion of a frontier) is an unspeakable tragedy and a competing sense that much of what has been destroyed was never worth saving. Steffan Ros also provided the script for this dynamic and powerful Frân Wen production. Instead of simply retelling the novel’s story in a different medium, though, this script grasps the opportunity to reflect on, and re-interrogate, the extremely popular text (winner of the Prose Medal in the 2018 National Eisteddfod).
The form of Steffan Ros’s novel – composed as Rowenna and Sion’s respective diary entries, written in their distinct voices and linguistic registers into a blue notebook – presents challenges for adaptation. This production offers effective solutions, modulating between dialogue, monologues, and pre-recorded voice-overs to capture Siôn and Rowenna’s distinct perspectives on the present, conflicting memories of the past, and individual ways of conceiving a seemingly impossible future. Ceri James’s lighting carefully complements these devices, signalling when we are alone with a character’s inner voice and when we return to our position as witnesses to the drama that unfolds in their interactions (including the tense interactions about the very need to remember and write their stories). The play also retains the novel’s rich allusiveness, stressing that, in the absence of other people, Siôn’s outlook has been shaped by written words: those of the Bible, but also of texts by writers including Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Kate Roberts, and T.H. Parry-Williams.
What stands out in this theatrical reimagining of Siôn and Rowenna’s story is the fact of how intensely peopled their depopulated world remains. The production – inventively directed by Elgan Rhys and beautifully choreographed by Matt Ghough – finds poignant ways to show that these characters remain haunted by those who have disappeared, and to convey that they are both sustained and tortured by the shadowy memories of other people. The loss of human connections – or, in Siôn’s case, the very possibility of such connection, evoked by the dress that has survived the girl who used to wear it – is at the centre of the play, and the audience leaves with the feeling that no fantasy of post-apocalyptic utopia could compensate for such loss. A moment in which Rowenna recalls the kindness of her employer and friend Gaynor, owner of the Nebo hair salon, gains additional impact on the stage. While Rowenna remembers that some people only experienced the warmth and comfort of another person’s touch during appointments with Gaynor, we see Gaynor’s ghostly presence touching Rowenna’s own hair. Scenes like this one bring into stark relief the loneliness and pain of the surviving characters, who are everything to each other but must confront the impossible question of whether that is enough.
Tara Bethan’s performance as Rowenna conveys the vulnerability that lies beneath this character’s apparent hardness, while the excellent Eben James carefully moves between different versions of Siôn: from the withdrawn, quiet child that experiences the nuclear catastrophe to the young man who is not only capable of surviving in a world void of modern conveniences, but who can barely remember another way. The play’s emotional impact is due in no small part to its main actors, who deliver the most dramatic scenes with nuance, embodying raw emotion without drifting into melodrama. But it would be unjust to downplay the contribution of the three other actors – Llŷr Edwards, Leah Gaffey, and Cêt Haf – who not only portray the multiple characters that people Sion and Rowenna’s memories with versatility and depth, but also operate the puppets used to represent Rowenna’s daughter Dwynwen and her children’s two-faced pet rabbit Gwdig.
The presence of these puppets on the stage is jarring and, in the context of the play, this is exactly right. Combined with music by R. Seiliog and with Edie Morris’s evocative film design, they contribute to the eerie atmosphere of the production. On the most basic level, the puppets establish an explicit visual distinction between those who had a life before ‘Y Terfyn’ and those who have entered a paradoxical existence after ‘The End’. Since they cannot move through the performance space without the assistance of one or more actors, we perceive these characters to occupy a different existential plane to Rowenna and Sion, an uncanny half-life – or, perhaps, half-death. As we look at Gwdig and Dwynwen, the girl born of Rowenna’s intermittent relationship with Gwion, we cannot ignore the effects of radioactive contamination. This raises questions extending beyond the end of the play (and novel): unlike Gwdig and Sion, Rowenna and Sion survive, but any future they have must play out in a poisoned environment and poisoned bodies.
One aspect of Ros’s play jars in a slightly more unfortunate way: the way in which the Englishness of the Thorpes, the retirees who live next door to Sion and Rowenna, is played for uncomplicated laughs. There is nothing wrong, of course, with addressing and exploring (or satirizing) the cultural, political, economic, and linguistic tensions that the very presence of these wealthy, non-Welsh speaking pensioners in a place like Nebo implies. Llyfr Glas Nebo is, after all, as much a story about linguistic and cultural survival as about physical and emotional endurance. In fact, when Rowenna decides to save all the Welsh language books from the local library, it is Mr Thorpe who offers a particularly striking formulation of the need to preserve a culture under threat (“I suppose instinct makes you save that which you’re most in danger of losing.”). The caricatural fashion in which these characters are initially treated, before a more nuanced portrayal emerges, feels like a misstep, partly because it addresses a problem without probing it in enough depth. But this is a minor qualm about a tonal inconsistency in a production that otherwise delivers its emotional punches with precision and force.
For more information about the adaptation of Steffan Ros’s Llyfr Glas Nebo on tour visit the Fran Wen website.
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Karin Koehler is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.