Review: Cadoc and the Drowned Boys chooses palatability over the darker aspects of the story
There’s a lot to unpack in the story of St Cadoc. Credited as the man who brought Christianity to Wales, there’s no doubting the significance he has had on the country. So much so that Cadoc not being given the patronage of Wales continues to be a divisive subject amongst the Christian community. Introducing one of the world’s largest religions to Welsh society is a venerable feat, after all.
It’s at this argument that Cadoc and the Drowned Boys essentially begins. Three drama students tasked with telling the story of the oft-forgotten saint find that it’s far more complicated – and troubling – than they anticipated.
If those stories are to be believed, then Cadoc’s journey to establishing the church in Wales came at great cost. Those same stories are littered with references to misogyny, abuse and manslaughter. Cadoc wasn’t a nice man; and by the end of the play it becomes clear that, had the saint been alive today, he’d be at the centre of his own Me Too storm, with good reason.
There are overt parallels with his behaviour in the fifth century and the actions of men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Jimmy Savile today. Powerful, revered men who, under a polished veneer, abused that power for personal gain.
Vic Mills’ script doesn’t let you have that information easily, though. Contemporancient Theatre’s debut production will be touring many of the churches in South Wales named after Cadoc, and it certainly feels like palatability for that audience influences the narrative.
In fact, Cadoc isn’t even the primary concern of the play’s plodding first half; that time is instead given to establishing a love story between the three protagonists. The love triangle is designed to mirror the relationship between Madoc and his two very young disciples, Baruc and Gwalches, and the play does a solid job of expressing how loyal the disciples were to their master.
What it fails to explore properly is how Cadoc responded to this loyalty with physical and sexual acts. The subject isn’t ignored, but it’s clearly tiptoed around. In fact, pretty much all of the darker aspects of Cadoc’s story are given only brief attention, leaving the play feeling disappointingly safe.
This might have been okay, had that central relationship between the characters been done well. This is also underdeveloped, though, mainly because the characters themselves are archetypal and two-dimensional. And as they start to embody the personalities of the people they are exploring the characters lose even more of themselves, and it’s difficult to engage with any of them by the end.
The one major exception to this is the courtroom scene halfway through the play. The actors stage a mock-trial of Cadoc for his part in the deaths of Baruc and Gwalches, who famously drowned. It’s a lot of fun seeing the three actors weave in and out of different personalities as they question the validity of Cadoc’s faith, and they look like they’re enjoying it too.
The direction here is excellent – using the tiered set to establish quasi-hierarchical roles is cleverly done, and it’s by far the strongest sequence in the play. Unfortunately, the scene doesn’t last long and, bizarrely, the next few minutes is spent mocking it. Again, it’s as if Mills deliberately trivialises the contentious scene so as not to anger the church-going audience.
Of the three actors, Jemima Nicholas, is the only one who really gets the chance to shine. She is a strong presence throughout, matching a measured central performance with a beautiful singing voice. Her transformation from Rhi into Cadoc is believable, and it’s only in her that you credibly see the different identities battling one another across the whole show.
Other than in the courtroom scene, where they’re given the opportunity to do more, Matthew Curran and Gareth Price-Stephens are hampered by lazy writing and what feels like a lack of attention in the rehearsal room. More could definitely have been done to raise interest in the characters, but the lack of it is telling.
Unfortunately, that’s symptomatic of a play which also could have done more. There was a lot of potential in exploring the darker side of Welsh history; but rather than dig deeper into this, Contemporancient Theatre seems to choose palatability instead.
It’s therefore a play that will probably do well on its church tour, but it’s not a play that will leave you wanting to know more about this enigmatic saint.
Cadoc and the Drowned Boys will be performed throughout summer 2019 at the following venues:
Thursday July 11th 7.30 St Cadocs Juxta Church, Barry.
Friday July 12th 7.30 St Cadocs Church, Caerleon.
Friday July 19th St Cadocs Church, Raglan.
Saturday July 20th St Cadocs Church, Llangattock Lingoed, Abergavenny.
Wednesday 4th September St Catwgs Church, Gelligaer.
All performances are free of charge. Collections will be taken to support the work of the venues.