The theme of Ed Thomas’ On Bear Ridge is catastrophe. On the micro and macro level. Both the wider world and the character’s lives are bleak and desolate places.
It’s a raw, often challenging watch, but one that has much to unpick.
Although it is his first new play in 15 years (having most recently been best known for Hinterland), this could be a continuation of his earlier works. His theatrical style is unmistakable in the lyrical absurdity of the text, and yes, the bleak apocalyptic outlook. Which admittedly feels more like naturalist realism, and less like slight absurdism, than it would have 15 years ago.
There’s beauty – poetry even – in the bleakness, and one could listen to Thomas’ writing as an audio drama and be equally moved and engaged. It is, however, a stunningly put together production as a package.
In an unusual move, he co-directs the piece with Vicky Featherstone and the visuals – from the opening tableau, to the ever-evolving set, to the striking lighting effects – add layers to Thomas’ writing.
Featherstone feels like she has at once got under the skin of the text in the way she directs the actors, eliciting the unexpected, as well as bringing out the honestly raw in their performances.
But equally, she has thought of this play on the macro level – and where that situates it in the world. While the audience may never understand the alluded to wars outside Bear Ridge, there’s no doubt that Featherstone has a visual, and narrative image in mind for the ‘City by the Sea’ and the world beyond the mountain.
Usually, it might seem ill-advised for a writer to have a hand in directing – being too close to the material, and lacking objectivity, but in Featherstone/Thomas’ case it seems to work in their world-building.
It has no doubt helped unlock Thomas’ writing for the actors. The visuals, however, are the star of the show, and Featherstone weaves a visual landscape to rival Thomas’ literary one.
This owes a lot to Cai Dyfan’s design, which manages to be at once remote, desolate, and claustrophobic. The rural expanse and tiny shop will either feel familiar to those who live in the countryside, or strike fear into the hearts of the city-dwellers.
And as it evolves, the set tells the story as the performances, as bits disappear, and open, and the landscape beyond creeps in, and with it the fear from the outside world, and from within, seems to be communicated visually.
By virtue of stage time, and a presence that is hard to ignore, Rhys Ifans is at the centre of the performance.
And while it is, without doubt, a commanding, complex one, there is a difficulty with audiences expect something from an actor. The audience came to and expects to laugh at Ifans. And rightly so. He’s a funny – and at times unpredictable – actor.
And in the first half of the play there were moments that felt distinctly unfunny, that weren’t laughed at out of discomfort – we had not reached that element of Thomas’ play yet- but more an audience who expected to and did laugh at Ifans’ performance.
Which is not to detract from the very funny, and very cleverly heartbreakingly funny performance he delivers. He’s a masterclass with the illusion of a loose cannon, and it’s elegantly executed.
But for all the bigger elements of his performance, he’s better with the wry, dry delivery that Thomas’ lines afford him in quieter moments, because it allows him to show what he can really do.
Rakie Ayola feels like she has too little to do in the production, and in Thomas’ script, compared to the men. But she communicates more in the corner of a scene or with a gesture, than an entire speech, at times. And it’s a quiet, but an assured performance that demonstrates her skill as an actor.
Alongside Ifans and Ayola are Sion Daniel Young and Jason Hughes. Hughes is the ‘outsider’ interloping into Bear Ridge. This feels a little cliché at first – the stranger at the door with a gun – but there’s more to the story than appears at first.
In many ways the most interesting of the four, Hughes gives an imposing performance that leaves many questions fascinatingly unanswered.
Sion Daniel Young meanwhile has a subtler, challenging role which he delivers with quiet excellence. While Ifans comes down from a big performance to deliver heart-breaking rawness, Young offers the opposite – quietly building to meet Ifans at that point, and it is the rawness and honesty that Young brings in that moment, that is the centre of, and emotional core of the piece.
Every performance has an underlying grief that is raw, and often tired, in a way that feels honest during any of the poetry, absurdity and theatrics, and it’s this performance of grief that gives On Bear Ridge its real power.
The questions the play is seeking to deal with are without a doubt as big as they are vague. It asks questions of identity, politics, community, war and peace that are deliberately too large to be answered. It’s abstract and big, but also incredibly specific.
The lost language – lost to war, lost to politics and lost to grief – is every language and culture, but also very specifically Welsh. Meanwhile, Bear Ridge itself is anywhere, everywhere, but also very specifically rooted in Welsh identity.
It can, of course, be both, but it will be an interesting comparison to see how differently the play works in London – it will naturally have different resonance there.
It’s a challenging watch in many ways – intellectually and emotionally. The Beckett comparisons are obvious – the absurdity, the waiting, the world that’s not quite of our own. And it’s one that Thomas elegantly curates for the most part.
The script does wander slightly, and becomes at times a little too lost in its own poetry. But it is reined in and refined by Featherstone’s sharp direction, and a set of performances that ground it with the emotion it deserves.