On New Year’s Eve last year, I was sitting in a pub in Narberth having a quiet pint with Meredydd Barker, who I’ve known since we worked together on Buzz – a play he’d written for Sgript Cymru in 2004. We were there to watch the Reds – Liverpool – taking on Manchester City in the last Premier League match of 2016.
As kick off approached, we decided to get the customary ‘What are you up to?’, ‘You working on anything?’ questions out of the way. I told him I was looking forward to starting with Theatr Genedlaethol on Macbeth. He told me he was working on a play for Theatr na nÓg about the lives of Jennie Lee and her husband Aneurin Bevan.
Before I could say anything, he asked ‘Diddordeb da ti?’ – ‘You interested?’. ‘Yes’ I said. I didn’t even have to think about my answer. Having played another Welsh hero, Ray Gravell, I knew that it would be a challenge, but it was a challenge I would love to take on. We said nothing more about it and watched….and celebrated…as the Reds went on to record a 1-0 victory.
Months went by and I’d heard nothing more about the play. Then, when Theatr na nÓg tweeted that they were excited to announce a co-production with Aneurin Leisure called ‘Nye & Jennie’, I immediately called my agent to ask if they could get me seen for it.
I must confess that I knew little about him – despite walking past the statue of Nye at the top of Queen Street countless times and knowing the pivotal role he played in the establishment of the NHS. I certainly didn’t know anything about his relationship with Jennie Lee. To think that this was the man Wales voted as the greatest ever Welshman in a 2004 poll, a man who took on Churchill at the height of the Second World War, I felt I owed it to him and to myself to find out more.
For the audition, I wanted to make sure I could hold my own in a conversation about Nye’s politics, some of the decisions he took and his private life. I also wanted to give an idea of how he held himself and spoke, as he had a distinctive way of getting his message across.
I was nervous and excited at the audition – more than I normally would be. It was with Med and the director, Geinor Styles, who I’ve enjoyed working with in the past, so I had no real reason to worry. Except, I knew this was a great opportunity. It was the type of part that doesn’t come around often. A part I wanted to play and, without wanting to sound arrogant, a part I thought I could play. I tried to relax, trust my research and the decisions I’d made about Nye.
The audition went well and after an anxious few weeks I was invited for a recall and then came the call offering me the part. Now the real work would begin. Having played rugby legend, Ray Gravell in a one man show, I was familiar with the process of trying to capture the essence of someone so recognisable and so admired. It’s not about doing an impersonation of someone – putting across enough of their mannerisms and spirit can be even more powerful than what could otherwise come across as a superficial attempt to ‘be’ them.
Through reading biographies and essays and watching video clips, I began to form a rounded idea of Nye. Nye was a charismatic and larger than life man in his political life. He was an incredible orator. Known for his attention to detail, his speeches appeared off the cuff, but every moment was meticulously researched and rehearsed to have the desired effect. He would use his Welsh accent to lull his listeners and would often use the tactic of following a joke with a sucker punch – the core of his argument. He was the master of the memorable phrase. Every pause was carefully considered, every emphasis, deliberate. This was sport for Nye. He was happy to take on all comers and he was good at it. Instead of focusing on the weaker points of an opponent’s argument, Nye would target its strength. Then he’d dismantle it.
In his determination to convince people he wasn’t just another establishment figure, a self-destructive side to him would often come out. He could be childish, selfish, manipulative and egotistical. To fully understand Nye, it was important not to shy away from these less admirable qualities.
Nye’s life spanned some truly momentous events in history, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two, and the advent of the Hydrogen Bomb. Med’s writing brings all these events together and yet tells a very human story of two people pitting themselves against the political establishment for the noblest of ideals.
The strength of the play is that it draws us in to the lives of these two prominent politicians but lets us enjoy the intimacy of the relationship they shared. It allows the audience to see a private side to Nye and his deep and abiding love for an equally strong woman. Their relationship was very modern for the time. Jennie refused to take his name when they married, they enjoyed an open marriage and would argue long into the night. This prompted Nye’s famous line – ‘we are like brother and sister; with a tendency towards incest’.
The play is written from Jennie’s perspective and is based on her book My Life with Nye. Getting to know Nye, particularly through Jennie Lee’s eyes was a key part of understanding what made him tick and how a marriage between two such strong and ambitious people could have endured through the adversity they encountered in their personal and political lives.
It was fantastic to work alongside Louise Collins, playing Jennie. It was the first time that we had worked together and we trusted each other immediately. Louise was very thorough with her research and came to rehearsals with carefully considered ideas of how she would like to play Jennie. We both wanted to leave no stone unturned in our effort to get under the skin of such interesting and important people. We wanted to do them justice and show the different facets of their characters.
We were fortunate to have the guidance of Geinor Styles, who had been a part of the process from the start and knew the importance of getting the balance right between politics and the private life of Nye and Jennie. We also worked with the incredible Emma Stephens Johnson on dialect. Louise had to decide how Scottish she wanted Jennie to be. After all, Jennie grew up in Fife, but had softened her accent while living in London.
I had another decision to make with regards to Nye’s stammer. This was something he had managed to control with elocution lessons and from endless walks up the mountain, but when he was ill or under pressure, it could sometimes reappear.
We were put through our paces by the brilliant choreographer, Maggie Rawlinson, who helped with movement as well as putting together a Tango and Waltz for us. Her insight was invaluable.
Theatr na nÒg feels like a big family and that helped us too. We were also given a wonderful welcome by everyone at the Met in Abertillery. I was aware that everyone felt that this was a special production and we a wanted it to be a success.
Playing Nye in Abertillery – and performing the World Premiere on the anniversary of his 120th birthday – was an honour. I knew from my research and from spending time in and around the Met Theatre that Nye is still well thought of. I realised it was a huge responsibility and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. On that opening night – 15th November – Jennie’s words towards the end of the play hit home: ‘In all the great battles of his life, Nye came home to you. He never left you. He never will.’
I know that we are immensely proud of Nye and his achievements in Wales…and no more so than in Blaenau Gwent. I hope that during that week, I did them and him proud.
As I write that I can hear Jennie say ‘oh spare me and everyone else the cloying romanticism’. Her story is as compelling and important as Nye’s. I hope we get the chance to tell it again.