Edinburgh Fringe 2011
National Theatre Wales and Told by an Idiot present “The Dark Philosophers”, a celebration of the work by writer Gwyn Thomas. Adapted by Carl Grose and the company, this masterpiece wittily regales us with an insight into the Welsh writer and his stories. Greed, lust, incest, and pure desperation are just some of the traits that possess the many characters who emerge, and their twisted relationships hold you in a spell of pure intrigue.
Against an ingenious set of old wardrobes that loom crazily upwards, the players cavort from swinging doorway to precarious ridge shouting out neighbourhood gossip, singing local legend and whispering titillating obscenities. It’s an energetic, otherworldly beginning that demands your immediate full attention. The masked author leaps between the players interrupting their dialogue and massaging the varied plots. He tells us this town is built like many industrial towns, “there are one hundred houses in the street, and any one house is identical to the other ninety-nine”. The occupants are poor, downtrodden and live hand to mouth, the pub plays a major role in many of their miserable lives and a back street fondle after too many jars is par for the course. This is the life that Thomson grew up around and is the inspiration behind his writing.
It’s an amalgamation of short tales sandwiched between Thomas’s disappointing Oxford experiences and his eventual celebrity. Through his writing he depicts the farmer who has sexually assaulted his daughters and fathered their children, yet also has a penchant for goats. The tenant, who out of desperation, steals from the local land owner and meets and untimely death and his wife’s thwarted attempt to kill the landlord that ends in her succumbing to his lust. And lads: so thin they could fall through the cracks of the pavements.
What makes this performance exceptional is that the company appear to use so little yet make so much. The set is simple, yet the actors movement on it makes it change from house to precipitous crags. Their intricately choreographed fight scenes resound percussively. Three cast members wrap around each other and, armed with a coat and wig, create a believable character, a carefully placed dartboard immediately takes you to the local pub. There are explosions, excavating and human. An old upright piano proficiently played by several characters adds mood and atmosphere as well as accompanying snippets of Welsh chorus. To add to all of that, it’s a rollercoaster ride and an absolute scream.
These masters of comedy show that with a little bit of imagination it’s amazing what you can do with hobnail boots, wraparound aprons, flat caps and a decent winter coat. Impressive touches such as the long gone sound of the ticking mantle clock in the parlour, and soundtrack to a comic being read are just truly clever. I’m trying not to give away any spoilers here but there is a truly gifted interlude with a well known chat show host that is a delight, and it gels the writer to his work by allowing us to see who he really was.
There is no discernible vulnerability in this slick performance. The whole cast are remarkably versatile and slip in and out of the various characters with alarming alacrity that this is pure unadulterated joy to behold. The overwhelming humorous approach to their own ingenuity is delicious e.g. using goats to change scenery or Thomas’s goading of the cast to add to their dialogue. It’s truly a bewitching and capricious piece of work. Book a ticket – you’ve only got yourself to blame if you miss it!