The other week, I was asked if I wanted to go and see a play about Blodeuwedd. Of course, I said yes - especially when I saw that it was an adaptation of Saunders Lewis' 'Woman of Flowers'. I decided to retain just that information alone though, having quite enough of a back catalogue of political dissention about the infamous playwright with which to colour my view without adding more to it, thus making sure that I knew nothing more about either Sion Eirian, or Theatr Pena, beforehand; keeping my bias as much to a minimum as possible.
The show was almost completely unbooked two days beforehand but when we rocked up to Theatr Mwldan it was pleasing to see a decent sized turnout for a Thursday, during snow forecasts, in the middle of Wales. Even if most seemed to be school pupils who were coming for their set texts. The waiting stage offered high promises, with a striking strip of scarlet flower petals lining the apron and pooling stage left. Two screens were the backdrop, with a gap inbetween. So far, so good.
My companion is not a theatre goer, or even a 'culture' orientated person; and also didn't properly know the story, despite ostensibly being Welsh. Thus we were total opposites in approach as we took our seats. I was intrigued to see how this combination would play out in opinion at close of curtain.
The single act opened with Arianrhod (Betsan Llwyd). It immediately retained the strikingness but was oddly stultified, she was a little like a clockwork doll. This became typical of almost all the performances (and, in fact, was mild with the Queen by comparison, whose eyes and voice were melodious), which led me to wonder if maybe it was deliberate? The characters were as if being moved around on a chess board, devoid of their own agency, barking out long and complex speeches (some of which were briefly poetic) with a uniform lack of expression.
The only tangible display of non-selfish feeling came about via sympathy for the flower girl, offered by Rhagnell (Olwen Rees), who was perhaps akin to us, the audience, in her position; expressing compassion for the trapped souls caught in this epic struggle. This was the closest we got to emotion, found particularly in a tender moment between charge and nurse.
Ironically, the least wooden performances came from Gwydion and Blodeuwedd. Gwydion (Eiry Thomas) was coiled with mischief, self contained, yes, but in a way that crackled. The character was also curiously androgynous - which worked perfectly. The resulting portrayal was strong and struck a balance between trickster and sage that so many find difficult to attain with this particular magician. Being gender fluid made sense, once I got used to it (which happened quickly enough) and the delivery was enigmatically original. I still felt like the emanation was being reined in too much though, limited by something unseen.
Blodeuwedd (Sara Gregory), the woman of flowers herself, was also not stuck by the same heaviness as the others, being light as pollen, highly sexualised in her presence and constantly flowing around the place like blown leaves. Whilst it was easy enough to grasp that she was Nature in all Her ardent fluidity, the constant pulling at garments and writhing around had the opposite effect to creating an aura of passion, instead creating one of disturbed childishness. Perhaps that was the directors (Erica Eirion and Ceri James)' point? Nonetheless, it became rapidy irrititating, a long cry from being erotic, especially against the static nature of the remaining cast.
The only time the protaganist's presence matured from being a fractious child (which the Mabinogi version arguably is), was when she met and metaphorically coupled with Gronw Pebr (Rhys Meredith). At that point, the performative standard leaped up to match the set with such a distinctive dance between the two new lovers that I immediately wondered if they had trained with Caroline Lamb. Afterwards, I realised that Lamb had in fact choreographed the sequence - and it stood out head and shoulders above everything else. If the rest of the Act had been at that standard, this would have been a sell out.
Sadly though, this scene and all the sound, music (Peter Knight), lighting and stage effects (Kay Hine) were aeons above the narrative, general acting, direction etcetera. The projections served to hold interest with rich professional dexterity but were woefully uncapitlized on, whilst the costumes (Holly McCarthy) sat somewhere in the middle, being desperately unsubtle (rebel leather for Gwydion, restrictive and stiff for Arianrhod, transparent and insipid for Blodeuwedd, and so on and so forth) but nonetheless effective and beautifully made.
Kudos needs to be given to all the actors for memory, for the passages were mostly long, repetitive and heavy. It felt oddly clumsy, immature, in need of an edit - not easy material. This matched Oliver Morgan-Thomas's Llew, which does sort of fit with his creation being not 'whole' in his own right. Despite mostly being centre stage he was frustratingly outshone by the women around him. Again, perhaps this was deliberate because the female angle was being pushed so very much to the fore, attended to with comments about 'women not ending well in these tales' - which is fair enough, they don't. The men, animals and land don't fare very well either though. This adaptation's strident shout that the women wanted sex and no commitment, whilst the men wanted relationships and home, was adolescently profound and wore thin almost before the words were uttered. There was a great point in there somewhere that I felt was continuously missed by the use of too heavy a hand.
My take on this whole story is that both Llew and Blod are vassals in a game of power between the magical brother and sister - and that approach did come across clearly, interwoven with various other interpretations from the last century. Lewis's allegories were also evident and equally applicable today, with the political sorcerors controlling mankind for their own egotistical ends. The idealism, ditto, with the result always somehow managing to escape oppression (girl of earth becomes owl and flies off to join the sea goddess). In these times of Brexit, identity, belonging and #metoo it was all very zeitgeistian and slick. So much, so predictable.
It just... all felt... somehow, lacking. I deliberately delayed writing this up to see what final responses surfaced - but I still feel dictated to, rather than engaged with. Overall, I would thus have preferred more show, less tell. There were too many voices trying to create their own stamp without any of them really becoming polyphonic. This resulted in a production which appeared amateurish but supported by a good budget and first rate technicians. It could have been so much more.
What of my companion and our division in experience though, was that resolved? Well, they thoroughly enjoyed the performance, having fully benefited from the lack of emotional content and repetitious simplicity. For them; the production worked a trest. The story had been conveyed and reflexivity provoked; which is surely the point, yes? This alone made it worth attending. For me though, let's just say that if there had been an interval, you would now only be reading half a review - but the tour hasn't finished, so why not catch one of the final shows and make up your own mind? Here is a taster of what it could be like...