Jafar Iqbal reviews the second instalment in National Theatre Wales’ Storm Cycle, Storm 2: Things Fall Apart, a collaboration with Mike Brookes and Mike Pearson.
It’s been almost a century since Cardiff was torn apart by racially motivated riots. Four days of bloody violence was punctuated by tragic deaths and, arguably, racial segregation that still lingers ninety-eight years later. This second instalment of National Theatre Wales’ Storm Cycle isn’t told with the allegorical narrative we see so often in Welsh theatre – it’s a verbatim piece taking place in the very heart of the city, not far from the ‘storm centre’ all those years ago. It’s much smaller in scale to Storm 1 and a departure from the grandiose spectacle audiences have come to expect from long-running collaborators Pearson/Brookes.
Storm 2 is the product of a year’s research, and the level of detail on display is impressive. Ninety minutes worth of script is formed purely from newspaper reports of the time, pieced together to form what is a largely coherent account of the riots. As the cast members read from their scripts, Pearson and Brookes cover tables with photographs of key incidents and the men involved. As educational resources go, it’s superb.
Herein lies the problem, though: Things Come Apart shouldn’t just be an educational resource. In sticking staunchly to the facts, the play loses some of its theatricality and, in turn, its entertainment value. Dozens of names and places are mentioned over the course of the show and, while remembering them isn’t imperative, it’s a lot to take in. It also means that a momentary distraction can leave you out of the loop, inconvenient for a show that moves so frenetically.
With the weight of a dense script on their shoulders, the three performers do a fine job. Given the amount of text, there’s no harm in reading it off the page. Aisling Groves-McKeown, in particular, displays great energy. Even when the focus isn’t on her, she looks far more engaged and responsive than her two colleagues. John Rowley gives the solid performance we come to expect from the veteran actor, while Ali Goolyad grows into his role after initially poor pronunciation gives him a shaky start.
But no matter how strongly performed or clearly audible the show is, its still difficult to keep the audience’s attention for a full ninety minutes. Mike Pearson/Brookes are clearly channelling the structure they employed in 2015’s Iliad, but that had the added benefit of captioning. Having the words on a screen here would certainly have improved concentration levels. In not doing so, the play becomes tiresome by the end.
Storm 2 explores a very important moment in Welsh history, and the creative team deserves plaudits for bringing it into the public consciousness, and for tackling it with the detail and integrity that it deserves. Unfortunately, what should be an exciting piece of site-specific theatre feels more like a museum exhibition.
(Image credit: Mark Douet)
Jafar Iqbal is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.