Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Rape of the Fair Country’, which is at Clwyd Theatr Cymru until Saturday 9th March.
Watching ‘Rape of the Fair Country’ is a bit like doing the London marathon. Everybody seems to be running, it’s longer than you think, it gets much tougher towards the end and you’re exhausted when it’s all over. Thank God for the remarkable landmarks to be seen along the way.
I’ve never run a marathon (few flabby theatre reviewers have) but I have now seen Tim Baker’s production twice. In the intervening decade and a half, I sense it’s grown in intensity and become shapelier. It’s powerfully authentic and the undeniable strength is the way the distilled details of the tragic fortunes of one working family are played out again the broad epic of industrial change and social disaster in the early 19th Century. There has been a revolution in France. Will there be one in the fair country of Wales? As the play ends, the repeated hope is that The Chartists are coming, but much too late for the Mortymers of Blaenafon.
Wrexham’s Alexander Cordell was an excellent lyrical writer – as evocative as Dylan Thomas and working on a grander scale – and Manon Eames does a remarkable job of getting the stage adaptation down to three hours. She uses all 16 actors to deliver Cordell’s poetic narrative and intimate dialogue and presents us with over 30 clear-cut characters, portrayed without a hint of confusion.
The core is the Mortymer family. We see the story through the eyes of Iestyn (played by Sion Ifan) who is 8 years old when we meet him and about to be sent to work in forge and pit by a father that loves him deeply but has to feed his family – a dilemma beautifully handled by Simon Nehan. Hedydd Dylan also stands out (in a Theatr Clywd ‘Who’s Who’ of a cast) as the rebellious raven-haired daughter who (sin of sins) falls for an Englishman.
Around them the whole community is seen at work – and very occasionally at play. The annual preacher-led canal boat ride to Newport, where they are peed on by local lads from an over bridge, is a gem of a scene which tickled my memory from last time. “Receive it with dignity”, exclaims the pastor (Christian Patterson) as he covers his teacup with his bible.
But the dirty and soul breaking work dominates the stage as the cast bodily and sweatily drag trolleys up inclines and open furnace doors to reveal a smouldering chasm of boiling metal in hues strikingly reminiscent of de Loutherbourg’s painting of Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge, around that time.
Death is never far away in the endless, grinding destitution. The vice grip of the Ironmasters is unshakable and the punishment for strikebreaking is brutal. Witnessing proud families feuding in the face of such appalling circumstances is pitiful and the humour, when it comes, is ironic. The only escape – allegorical and actual – is to the top of the mountain where stars appear above the swirling smoke and babies can be made.
This production is a big heavy number – plays about monumental events tend to be monumental – but don’t let that put you off. ‘Rape of the Fair Country’ was, and is, a Clwyd Theatr Cymru classic. It probably helps to be Welsh to watch it. It’s probably essential to be Welsh to act in it. But the utterly tragic thing is that it’s a universal story that’s been repeated and repeated and repeated throughout the centuries, all over the conquered world. If ever there was an argument against industrialisation – here it is. There should be weeping in Coalbrookdale.
Visit www.clwyd-theatr-cymru.co.uk for more bookings & information about Clwyd Theatr Cymru.