Review: Branwen: Dadeni
I am ashamed to say I have not seen a Welsh language theatre piece in the 3 and-a-bit years I have lived here, but I am so glad Branwen: Dadeni was my first.
Growing tired of live broadcasts of London theatre performances, I craved something different. Lacklustre contemporary retellings of Shakespeare seemed simply droll and monotonous, compared to Branwen: Dadeni.
Based on the second branch of the Mabinogi, the musical follows the story of Branwen ferch Llŷr (Branwen daughter of Llŷr). Starting from Branwen’s marriage to Matholwch, King of Ireland, through the endless tragedy facing the characters, we were all enthralled.
The audience joined in outrage of Branwen’s treatment. We were appalled by Matholwch’s betrayal, Gwern’s death and prompt resurrection.
I felt compelled to listen to each character’s story mostly due to Seriol Davies’ genius musical score, and, though I was reading the English subtitles, his lyricism and musicality still shone through.
The voices of Tomos Eames (Bendigeidfran) Caitlin Drake (Efnisien) and Mared Williams (Branwen) create a beautiful, yet destructive sibling dynamic. Each of their different singing voices result in a fractured family who are still joined by one goal: to rule over Cedryn.
The desperation of Branwen persuading her brother to further Cedryn’s power came through in song.
Their voices effortlessly accelerated the audience’s sympathy for the complex relationships between each person on stage. No voice faltered or was drowned by another. The harmonies were perfect along with the building of each song, certainly outdoing most modern musicals.
I most enjoyed the quick, staccato sections of the music, which really highlighted how perfect the cast’s diction was and the Welsh sounded stunning.
Foiling the family dynamic, Rithvik Andugula enters the fray as Matholwch. His heart-throb take on the character gave some cheeky relief from the weighted narrative. His more modern voice in the first act clashed fantastically with the more classical voices of the siblings.
In the second act, his voice joins the family’s traditional tones, resulting in some enthralling ensemble pieces.
And Gillian Elisa as Ena! Her solo in the second act received the biggest applause of the night and it was well deserved. Her voice was strong, as was her relationship to Matholwch as his self-serving advisor. I yearned to know more about her, but this did not take away the character’s might and presence in the performance.
Ioan Hefin’s (Picelle) deep, resounding voice fit his role as ominous spirit guide. Though I didn’t quite understand his narrative role, it certainly maintained the aesthetic of the show.
The most spellbinding singing came from the eerie Octet chorus. The harmonies were impeccable and faultless and brought an unsettling sense of foreboding to the plot.
The Pair y Dadeni (cauldron of rebirth) was created out of the Octet in the second act by use of physical theatre, aided by a soundscape crescendo – the blood lost reflected by that of their red garb.
The staging, though only made of concrete steps and a littered floor, was incredibly versatile – starting as a war room to eventually becoming Branwen’s prison. I was worried the brutish, industrial nature of the stage would take away from the cast’s presence, but I was sorely mistaken.
They held themselves beautifully, transfixing us just like the characters of myths. A notable use of this staging was when Efnisien was maiming the horses, juxtaposed by Matholwch and Branwen draped in red light. It displayed the conflicting needs and desires of the sisters.
In the second act, Branwen’s prison was barren, with her meek dress matching that of her surroundings. This stylized prison cell invokes anger at Matholwch’s broken promises; Branwen deserves much more than this end.
Later on, though she is out of her prison, the staging remains the same. An implication of still being trapped by her duties to her country and homeland.
Coming from a background of watching Shakespeare, Branwen: Dadeni offered me a needed respite. It challenges the norms of modern musicals and places an important landmark in theatre history.
I felt honoured to be among the first to see this performance, and it has sparked my interest in seeing more Welsh language productions.
The Wales Millennium Centre is a fantastic creative facility which I hope continues this amazing work.
Branwen: Dadeni will play at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 15-17 November and Pontio, Bangor 22-25 November. More information here.
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