Theatre review: West by Owen Thomas at The Welfare, Ystradgynlais
Sarah Morgan Jones
“Home is where you live and who you are, your home is bound up tight within your soul.”
No whistles and bells and grand budgets are needed. Just three wooden boxes, two fine actors and one beautiful script.
For this is the stuff great theatre is made of, rolling rhymes and a simple tale, a universal story of wandering dreams and bold steps, of asking ‘why not? Let’s do it’ – both in the story itself and between the team of pen and performers.
West written by Owen Thomas and performed by Gareth John Bale and Gwenllian Higginson, was originally staged for the North American Festival of Wales in 2019, before being stopped in its tracks by the pandemic.
Two lovers, chapel raised and well met at the tail end of the 1800s, turn their brave backs on their Welsh farmstead lives, repeated in pattern for generations before – “along as there had been a hill…as long as there had been sheep” – when the rent on their tenant farm becomes too much, and they set off first to Liverpool and then on to America.
The seed is sewn by a wandering stranger who stops by the farm and tells the young wife that the land they work stateside will be theirs entirely after just five years of toil.
The modern trans-Atlantic journey is what dictated the clever, simple staging, of three wooden boxes choreographically danced around the stage by Bale and Higginson to become the bed, the boat, the brow of a hill, the chapel pulpit, the memory of a death bed…and the props demarking the brief encounters with other characters live within Bale’s pockets or around Higginson’s shoulders, mere moments in time.
We meet Bale’s character first at the end of the couple’s lives together, before looking back on their dance of love and life as they join the many who take up the one-way ticket to the West, to build a better life.
Their courtship is lyrically unrolled, foreshadowing the epic adventure to come, “He would turn his head across a head-bound ocean to catch my eye, before throwing it back like some red-handed poacher, while I sent ripples across the surface of the chapel…”
As they fall in love, so do we, the lucky-small audience, welcomed and wooed by these earnest young things, and the words gifted to them by the fine pen of Owen Thomas: it is enchanting.
I could feel my fellow viewers sigh and relax as we are won over within minutes by the charm and delight of the two, their optimism enough on its own to fill the sails of their journey, to blow away their fears and doubts.
This duet is a dance to the tune of Thomas’ words, his poetic painting of a simpler, starker life, in which crossing borders and fleeing to a better life was a given, an opportunity taken up by many, a one-way ticket to hope and sometimes hardship.
The many who emigrated at that time “upped and left, and except in the chaos of whirling dreams” never saw home again.
This is, of course, a story of now as much as then, with the exception that now, those who flee are not welcomed and given land on which to grow and succeed, whichever shore they wash up on, but are too often vilified and rejected, treated as invaders and criminals, their lives seen as worthless and secondary to those citizens of the land they arrive in.
Some mini-dervishes are repeated and recall earlier times: the start and the end at the same point; Bale’s boyhood remembrance of the death of his grandmother reflected in the heart-breaking news he must impart to his own children; the dark mirroring of Higginson’s first dalliance with her future husband, sourly reproduced by a harassing figure when they first arrive in New York.
This circular, waltzing story-telling is something the team of Thomas and Bale do so well, starting at the end and scrolling backwards, conducted through the score of a life so that moments, seemingly insignificant at the time, become turning points, landmarks.
Their previous collaborations, with gems such as Grav and Carwyn among them, although larger productions, equally encapsulate this capacity for intimacy and tenderness, and build a feeling that the combination of their skills is a huge strength.
To see such up-close story telling in an up-close theatre far away from the cities and mainstream is utterly apt and quite a privilege.
Wales has a great wealth of this type of dramatic finesse, at once a looking glass examining the detail of tiny lives, and yet painting a far bigger perspective of where those lives fit within a world-wide context.
This type of theatre, small-and-portably-formed, reaching the smaller venues, of such intrinsic quality that it would shine from a hole in the ground, is evidence of this wealth, and should not face obstacles in being seen far and wide, yet up-close and personal.
This production is produced by Bale and Thomas themselves, with support from RCT Theatres. It has seen the light in one- or two-night runs, not just in the US now, but in Welsh theatres such as the Torch and Pontardawe Arts Centre, and mid-pandemic, on Hastings Pier.
On the road to post pandemic theatrical recovery, in the interests of bringing small and beautiful wonders to audiences who are feeling the pinch, and of theatres who, like The Welfare in Ystradgynlais, will open their doors on a pay-what-you-feel-basis, quite simply: more of this is needed.
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