FringeReview UK 2019
Co-directed by Ed Thomas and Vicky Featherstone and designed by Cal Dyfan, the score’s composed by John Hardy Music, the production lit by Elliott Griggs with sound design by Mike Beer. Till November 23rd.
A stripped–out butcher’s store, lovingly rendered. Only there’s snow falling through the roof on a man asleep or dead. For a while after he gets up and starts shouting you’re still pondering that one. A (probable) Welsh mountain shorn of everyone on it but a stubborn couple and their slaughterman who won’t be displaced as warplanes split the sky and soon the mountain.
It’s a post-apocalyptic future: gangs murder any academics left at a seaside university; soldiers might not be on the same side. It’s a side-splitting elegy with moments of devastation.
Ed Thomas’ On Bear Ridge, a co-production with National Theatre Wales arrives at the Royal Court after its run at the Sherman Theatre. It might feel like Lucy Kirkwood’s debut Tinderbox edited by Beckett, but the anarchy’s less playful, more deeply melancholic. Thomas’ challenge is to maintain slow-burn stoicism and loss without letting humour guy it. In other productions, this could topple, especially at the pace allowed for words to hang like frozen breath. Laughter punctuates the evening. Co-directors Ed Thomas and Vicky Featherstone enhance that timing but let loss seep in – with minefields.
Rhys Ifans’ butcher John Daniel twitches, roars and stills himself to loss. Anyone who saw him in the National’s Exit the King will recall the screwball nobility he brings with a resonant delivery to match. Ifans’ flailing dynamism is evident too, though contained here. Rakie Ayola’s Noni is more taciturn, underscoring or undercutting, a perfect fit born of years of dissonant close harmony. It’s Sion Daniel Young’s Ifan William with his eager popping-up (through a trapdoor) who sets off their loss; as each recalls love for the couple’s dead son, circumstances peel back. Slowly, in a single 85-minute span.
It’s only when Jason Hughes’ gun-toting Captain blows in that all this can be retold, exposed, moved towards acknowledging and defying the future. Mostly though it allows John Daniel and Noni to register what’s also lost.
Captain too suffers from PTSD; the only date-specific pointer we get is Captain’s relating how he wakes from being knocked out (much like John Daniel, then) to see his grandfather’s ‘blue Wolseley from the 1950s with a walnut dashboard’ upside down wheels spinning: with him, his mother and brother all dead inside it. A car scrapped over 30 years ago. This is just before his wounded corporal shoots herself, relaying an order. Hughes’ edginess relaxes into a truce of confidences before military nerves snap to again with diminishing agency.
The possibility they’re all ghosts is deliciously enhanced when Nono declares ‘I love you’ and John Daniel intones ‘ditto’ like Patrick Swayze left out in the rain. Thomas suggests they’re on this side of the divide but with no food in the place but tinned peaches you feel it’s a close-run thing.
The single-set feel is another character designed by Cal Dyfan, the distressed shack-like naturalism sporting stage right a spillable cupboard and opposite a Tardis fridge Ifan William can disappear through. As each panel detaches and vaults into the flies more of the peeping mountain’s exposed: a plaster-grey mountainside, sparser of plants than snow sprinkled on it, all under a pearl opalescent light thrubbing chill – lit in a hallucinated calm by Elliott Griggs. The score by John Hardy Music wraps itself around, with a sound design by Mike Beer evoking stillness so sonic jets split silences more effectively.
The core loss is ‘the old language’ the dead son its exemplar. John Daniel continually invokes mental corridors as if mislaying a lumber room: ‘I speak it in the connected rooms because…. The language of the story is different to the one I’m speaking now. And the memory is in that language because the people in the memory speak it too… If I forgot who they were, I’d lose the old language, it’s only by remembering the past that I can still speak it now.’
Even that edited speech spotlights Thomas’ method. Jokes pushed aside like old upturned Wolseleys, it’s a fragile, tragic vision inlaid with the loss of vision. Thomas scumbles repetitions and beats till the language scratches into a palimpsest – like the vanishing walls of the butcher’s shop.
The climax builds from when the jittery Captain encounters Ifan William and sets in train the final narratives reveals and exhortations, paced compellingly and with the trigger nerves of a country itself in shellshock.
By featuring a non-specific Wales, Thomas specifically asks hard questions of cultural disappearance – past and future. How its few great exemplars can be snuffed out in Palmyra or by Edward I’s long tyranny of half-built castles stamping on language and land. In that sense, we’re all John Daniels and Nonos in the making. Absorbing and horribly timely.