This is the second work by Theatr Genedlaethol I have seen this year at Pontio. The first was Chwalfa which was quite traditional, whereas Merch yr Eog is highly experimental.
At its heart is a collaboration with Theatr Piba from Brittany, producing a play in three languages: Welsh, Breton and French. I am a Welsh learner with a basic grasp of French and while I gained some assistance from Sibrwd (the translation ap) this was patchy and sometimes I couldn’t hear it over the actors’ voices, which were impeccable.
The challenges were enormous for directors Sara Lloyd and Thomas Cloarec and writers Owen Martell and Aziliz Bourgès collaborating with the creative team speaking different languages and bringing together of two theatre companies with distinct working methods.
Salmon Man played by Steeve Brudey
The tale centres around Mair, played with immense honesty by Lleuwen Steffan, who has moved from Wales to Brittany, but feels the pull of hiraeth/home, highlighted by the death of her uncle, which prompts questions over the future of the family farm. A fairly standard narrative form is punctuated by absurd dream sequences populated by actors wearing animal heads (bulls, calves, hare and rat). Some of the movement in these interludes was delightful, in particular the calves, played flirtatiously by Loeiza Beauvir and Mai Lincoln, reminding me of Ab Fab’s Patsy and Edina, and I would have loved to see more of this. Likewise, the scene in the health spa in Brittany contained some brilliantly observed physicality depicting the older generation at the spa.
Mair played by Lleuwen Steffan
There is a strong sense of space in the production, between actors on stage, between theatre companies and between countries. A sense of people getting to know one another and coming closer through time. Lleuwen Steffan, as Mair, who speaks all three languages, functions as the glue that connects people, artists and countries. She captures beautifully a sense of soul-searching youth navigating between the desire for adventure and the pull of home. There is a delicate stillness punctuated by abrupt movement, which reflects old traditions punctured by new energy of youth. I stayed for the Q&A after the show, with the whole company on stage and I encourage the company to repeat this where possible as it was fascinating to hear about the creative process.
The show is based on a play called The Salmon’s Daughter by Welsh Owen Martell and Breton Aziliz Bourgès. Designs by Nadège Renard with video projections from Louise Rhoades-Brown, an electronic music score from Steve Shehan and lighting by Ceri James. The writing team produced a wonderful symbiotic mix of Welsh literary, character-driven style counterpointed by the absurdist dream interventions. The design, a rotating rock, revealing a lush red interior space was simple and effective; it could perhaps have been used more effectively. The lighting, combined with the projection created an atmospheric space, complemented by the soundscore.
Merch yr Eog is at the beginning of its tour, and there are some glitches to be ironed out, but it is well worth a visit – how often do you get to hear Breton spoken on stage or off? This is a language that nearly died, like Welsh, but is now being revived and facing similar challenges to its authenticity as Welsh has, such as how the language changes as the younger generation adopt it. What is truly wonderful about this production is the desire to reach across borders, across sea, across languages and cultures to make connections with others, to try to understand differences and identify commonalities. This is particularly poignant in the wake of the Brexit vote.
Touring until November 24
Photograph: Kirsten Mcternan