The curtain opens to show Rhys Ifans as John Daniel, dressed in butcher’s apron and body warmer, in slumber on the floorboards of a decrepit building, spitting out half-remembered staccato syllables of a strange language, smiling and wild. The language, referred to simply as The Old Language, is dying out, along with the community that spoke them – and John Daniel’s memories are fading with them.
This dreamlike new play co-produced by the National Theatre Wales and the Royal Court, London, by playwright and TV producer Ed Thomas, was first staged at the Sherman Theatre in Wales. It explores themes of loss of community, identity and language and would make a rather a nice companion piece to the current production of Translations at the National.
We are not in Friel’s Ireland of 1833 however but at a more recent time in some high, remote area in Wales. The four walls of the butcher’s shop set by designer Cal Dyfan slowly lift away to reveal more of the high misty mountain terrain, the sound of planes flying ominously overhead. A new asphalt road has created an easy path to the city, which all but steadfast John Daniel and Noni his partner have followed, leaving their once-busy butcher’s shop to rack and ruin.
Thomas’s script pulls together ideas about existence and belonging, memory. loss and selfhood in a fresh new way, with characters, vanishing set and haunting sound by Mike Beer, which weaves choral Welsh song with old gramophone music to insinuate that nothing is real here – not even the characters themselves.
Thomas and Vicky Featherstone have co-directed this piece with a perfect sense of when to flip between humour and poignancy, sometimes pulling at multiple threads at once, to the point where we don’t know whether laughing is disrespectful or kind. They never let the story fizzle out, but keep amping up the tension again and again.
Ifans is masterful as John Daniel, never missing an opportunity for comedy, he can make just one word ripe and bursting with meaning and he carries the pace along with grandiose, roaring speeches arms outstretched, with wheedling, searching fingers that poke and point through his fingerless gloves.
Rakie Ayola as Noni offers self-contained stillness in counterpoint to his ranting speeches. When a conflicted captain (Jason Hughes) comes to their home through the snowstorm her frosty speech to him is all the more chilling for her minimal gestures and fierce expression.
At a time when the Welsh language is being eroded and, more globally, when sounding or looking different from the norm is perceived as a threat, this production couldn’t be more timely or resonant.