Caragh Medlicott reviews the hotly anticipated return to the stage for writer Ed Thomas, whose On Bear Ridge marks the centre piece for National Theatre Wales’s 2019 programme.
On Bear Ridge wrestles with the language of the past; the multi-sensory and indefinable manifestation of personal history. Our present is littered with relics, both physical and not – trinkets, graves, words, memories. This play is something of a homecoming for writer Ed Thomas – that is, at least in medium. The 15 years since Thomas’ last play have been marked with TV credits such as Gwaith/Cartref and, more recently, Y Gwyll/Hinterland. Now, with co-director Vicky Featherstone by his side, Thomas breathes life into a story of family, place and self. It is a curious examination of the way our identity becomes a palimpsest for faded memories. With an acclaimed cast including Rakie Ayola and Rhys Ifans, On Bear Ridge is certainly full of questions. The answers, for the most part, remain ineffable.
Set beside the fictional Bear Ridge mountain, Noni (Ayola) and John Daniel’s (Ifans) wind-beaten butcher’s shop sways in the powdery snow. With a craggy and desolate landscape encasing them, they warm themselves with tales of times past; stories which are recounted with both vigour and longing. Though On Bear Ridge never leaves this location, the stories told stretch through both time and place. On such an isolated precipice, the outside world is blurry. What’s clear is that a culmination of events has left villages deserted and overhead is the intermittent roar of military jets. Noni and John Daniel – kept company by family friend and one-time shop slaughterer Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) – are living with the ghosts of life before. The stage design provided by Cai Dyfan sees bare meat hooks eerily hanging above heads, while Elliot Griggs’s lighting strikes the stage with flashes of cold illumination; the momentary images appearing as fleeting as distant memories.
Despite its bleak setup, Thomas imbues his script with a golden thread of humour. It’s a good thing, too. Though there are some notable turns of phrase, the dialogue can verge on the edge of wearied without the comedy to brighten it. The arrival of The Captain (Jason Hughes) is inevitable. Noni and John Daniel are interesting characters, made all the more so by the strengths of their acting; Ayola, especially, has the unique ability to give even the most flippant of lines a zap of humanity. Still, their dynamic alone would have collapsed under the weight of a lacking plot. The Captain serves as a taut string of tension in a play that would otherwise be loose – this is one role he serves, another is being something of a straight man to John Daniel’s comic quips.
Of all the stories offered up by On Bear Ridge, a single theme reigns: that is, the difference between nothing and absence. By definition, absence points to an expectation – the shape of something that ought to be there, but isn’t. In these terms, On Bear Ridge can be read as a play about grief. Not just in the traditional sense, but a mourning for eras past on – a tainting nostalgia that suffocates the present. Perhaps it’s a result of the turbulent world we never quite get to see, or unhealed emotional wounds, but John Daniel spends his time obsessively clutching to his life before. It results in neurosis about physical objects, he projects his identity onto bits of clothing such as trousers. To him, these material things can bridge the gap between his intangible memories and his present identity. Noni, in contrast, is something of a buffer to John Daniel’s most chaotic spirals; their loving, yet grief-wracked relationship, is both moving and believable in its easy familiarity.
Though this is far from being a Brexit play, its near-future setting is certainly born of a landscape of acrimonious political turmoil and European division. The Captain’s intrusion is a perfect vehicle for exposition. It provides a good reason for stories to be regaled, as well as offering a much-needed connection to the hidden outside world. Throughout the play there are numerous mentions of the “old language” (and its inevitable demise). Yet, it is never explicitly stated that this is a reference to what must obviously be Welsh. The reason for keeping this fact vague isn’t entirely clear. The connection between language and ancestors is a distinct one, and here Thomas exploits that link to comment on both the dangers of being territorial with identity, and equally the ways we are shaped by forgotten histories. It’s an interesting relationship, but one that loses its point slightly when wrapped in layers of plot.
The most pressing anxiety of On Bear Ridge is the transience of identity. Our lived experiences make us who we are, yet this is a fact which doesn’t sit easy with our memories being proverbial sieves. Though every character is able to find solace in nostalgia, it is also accompanied by a deep and inevitable sadness. For John Daniel, the continual longing for the past requires sacrificing investment in the present day. Thomas points to the strength of roots once set down and the sentimentality that attaches itself to the places we call home. On Bear Ridge takes pains to suggest how much of human nature falls back on a desire to find comfort in familiarity, something which manifests itself in rituals repeated without substance – from playing make-believe in the shop, to putting invisible sugar in tea.
The pressure of returning to the stage after a break of well over a decade must be a big one. With delightful moments of warm comedy and real flashes of grief, there is certainly an emotional journey to be taken via this play. This as it may be, On Bear Ridge could equally benefit from a tightening of the screws – some less indulgence in writing and greater steering of the plot could have produced something markedly brilliant. Perhaps it’s this potential for more which leaves a small sense of unfulfillment; its abrupt ending misses the chance to leave a lasting resonance. With On Bear Ridge, Thomas has created a theatrical definition for the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ (a frequent choice for websites bestowing word-of-the-week slots). Its hard-to-translate meaning refers to a homesickness for the past, and On Bear Ridge potently captures that feeling – the question which remains is whether it does enough to truly narrativize this concept.
On Bear Ridge is on at the Sherman in Cardiff until October 5th, and then at the Royal Court in London from October 24th. More information can be found here.
(Image credits: Mark Douet)
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Caragh Medlicott is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.