On Bear Ridge, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs: ‘Masterful production on language, memory and selfhood’

On Bear Ridge by the NTW and Royal Court Theatre Photo by Mark Douet
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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.

Bodies – Royal Court

Bruntwood prize-winner Vivienne Franzmann updates the ‘barren woman’ trope for the 21st century with this new work exploring the hidden costs of surrogacy

Justine Mitchell (Clem)
Justine Mitchell (Clem)© Bronwen Sharp

It can appear lazy for a writer to pin the madness of any female character, in film or on stage, on the character’s inability to conceive, so it’s testament to the skill of playwright Vivienne Franzmann (Clean Break, Royal Court), that this age-old trope of the barren woman is successfully given a gripping twist in bodies.

The play opens with Clem (Justine Mitchelle) chatting about kale chips with her articulate pre-teen daughter (played by a precocious Hannah Rae) in Gabriella Slade’s simple Scandinavian style living room set (IKEA, methinks), with sliding glass doors that act as both scene dividers and a physical representation of the compartmentalisation of Clem’s mind.

But as banter between mother and daughter transcends into metaphor, we soon discover the daughter is in fact a projection of Clem’s hopes and fears for her unborn child, who is growing in the womb of a woman in India, and made possible by the eggs of a woman from Russia, both thousands of miles away.

Clem’s husband Josh was played on the night by Jonathan McGuinness, who had heroically stepped in to replace Brian Ferguson only the day before. Despite performing with script in hand, he conveyed an endearing chemistry with Mitchell that brought a much-needed lightness to the action.

While their relationship is rock solid, Clem’s relationship with her dad, David, who has motor neurone disease, is falling apart. She can barely understand his effortful speech and he seems to prefer the company of his new carer Oni (played with great comic timing by Lorna Brown) to that of his own daughter.

The scenes between the father and Clem are intricately woven and Jude Christian‘s direction builds tension with subtle layers, until you suddenly realise you’ve been chewing your nails off all along. These moments speak to the sometimes complicated need for love between parent and child, and the chasms that can come when neither understands the other’s choices.

As the layers of lies Clem has told herself to morally justify this transaction are peeled back, we see increasingly more of the surrogate, Lakshmi (played with fragility and fierceness in turns by Salma Hoque) a young woman whose story is not as rosy as the surrogate agency might have led Clem and Josh to believe.

An engrossing allegory for the modern age, where we consume things at the click of a button, this new work forces a consideration of what happens when we want something so badly that we try to pretend there are no consequences.

bodies runs at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, until 12 August.

This first appeared on whatsonstage.co.uk