Theatre review: Carwyn by Owen Thomas, The Torch Theatre
Sarah Morgan Jones
“The only one born south of the Teifi – doomed to play rugby – thrilling glimpses of this terrifying mass of flesh…how we longed to see this spectacle up hotbreath close…to see the source of these coarse and forceful voices – we were always different you and I. A fish out of water at first landing”
As the embodiment of Carwyn James first rises from his sequestered end in the ensuite of his Amsterdam hotel room in 1983, he sets the scene for the audience. Lighting the first of many stage cigarettes, besuited, and elegant, he speaks to his dead self in the bathroom, and lays out the game plan. “A chance to summarise – we were always good at that.”
So begins this remarkable example of elliptical storytelling and reflection, the story of Carwyn James: rugby genius, linguist, bibliophile, intellectual, aspiring politician, erstwhile spy, plagued by psoriasis, mental angst and denial, a man wrestling with his sexuality, set apart from his peers. “Two Welsh caps but never a Lion, never to step into that formidable ring, until the chance came to be the lion tamer…”
Released from the same stable as that which created Grav, and just as accessible to those, like me, who knew the name but not much about the man, Carwyn is a play that really must be seen.
The pen of Owen Thomas is evident and exquisite, poetic and opulent, as he unravels the complex life of a man who at the age of just 53, was, perhaps, just on the verge of coming to terms with himself when he died alone in that hotel room.
Whisking through his early memories, prompted by the sound of an ambulance in the unknowing Amsterdam streets below, Thomas brings Carwyn to life with a monologue which is Dylanesque in its beauty.
From the “rough-and-tumble rugby field” of his childhood in the mining village of Cefneithin – “that long stretch of houses and shops, wending its way down to the mine…its halfway-down-chapel inspecting passing-morning-afternoon miners” – to the image of the boy looking out at the rugby field from his bedroom window, alone and knowing he is different, this tender depiction of Carwyn’s early environment sets the eloquent tone of the man, and brings the audience into his team.
Drawing from the biography Into the Wind by Alun Gibbard, Thomas’s words rise from the page with understated finesse in the form of Simon Nehan who inhabits Carwyn’s uncomfortable skin as if it were his own.
Pacing out the elements of a life, Nehan revisits moments of glory and those of exclusion, explores the freedom which isolation and anonymity bring to a man with an ‘unacceptable secret’, and contrasts them with the very public exposed moments of victory, when he is surrounded by many, backed by thousands and yet utterly alone.
As Carwyn reflects on his life to this point, a crossroads at which he hesitates and wonders, he yearns for companionship and love, for acceptance and freedom, and for the different aspects of his life to be mutually inclusive.
Produced by The Torch Theatre Company, and directed by Gareth John Bale, who starred as that other, perhaps more familiar Welsh rugby legend, the play packs the cut-short lifetime into the span of a match, holding the audience as much its thrall.
Although confined to the four walls of an hotel room, the canny direction – enabled by the deceptively versatile set designed by Tegan Reg James and the skilfully subtle lighting of Ceri James – takes Carwyn and his audience to Wales and Italy and New Zealand, to the locker room, on tour and on the pitch, to the shadows of schoolboy memories and the mundane moments that would be his last.
Tantalising nuggets of dalliances with espionage, anonymity in Italy, and the whisperings of rejection from the boardrooms of rugby union power, born from the distaste for his closeted secret, reveal this learned, articulate man through a variety of lenses, none of which happily harmonise to give him the clarity he desires.
With imaginative but judicious use of projection integrated cleverly within the set, rugby moments of legend had some in the audience remembering with approval: a slight sigh or an ‘aah yes’, a hummed feeling of ‘we were there!’ and this, along with well-placed undercurrents of original music and a few timely drops of the Gwahoddiad and Myfanwy, drew us into his world still further.
Boldness and vulnerability
There are few events more challenging to a solo actor than standing in front of a room full of people telling a story that is a true exploration and interpretation of a real life.
Being the conduit of what the people out there think they know, and what the biographer reveals, the playwright interprets, and the actor himself discovers during the rehearsal process is a considerable responsibility.
Single-handedly carrying upwards of eight thousand words in his head, locking them in to be repeated at will, hanging those words on a physical routine with no one else to take cues from… requires stamina, endurance, and courage. It also takes skill to turn the audience into a confidante, an active listener invited into an intimate space.
Simon Nehan accomplishes this by inhabiting a character we can believe in, distinctive diction and mannerisms, a balance of boldness and vulnerability.
One fellow audience member, with wet and proud eyes, told me afterwards that when he was a boy, Carwyn – who was friends with his father – would come and visit. When I asked if Nehan had captured him well, he said: “Oh yes, very well…although Carwyn would sweep back his hair, like this…” and he demonstrated with a flourish.
He had us: those that remembered and knew him, loved and appreciated him more. Those like me, who were being introduced for the first time, admired him exactly as he was, and felt that his life – contented perhaps, but not happy – ended far too soon.
“there’s only a short period of time for us to make our mark…a slither of light between two unimaginable pools of darkness and when that day of destiny comes, you must seize it…people shouldn’t fear death…they should fear that they did not live their best life…”
Following its debut run at The Torch, Carwyn will be touring Wales from Monday 28 February, visiting
The Lyric, Carmarthen – 28 February
Riverfront, Newport -1 March
Pontardawe Arts Centre – 2 March
Aberystwyth Arts Centre – 3 & 4 March
Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon – 5 March
Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan – 7 March
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff – 8 & 9 March
Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea – 10 March
Galeri, Caernarfon – 12 March
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