Following sell out performances in 2016, and great success at the Wales Theatre Awards 2017 (winning Best Actor for Llion Williams and Best Director for Peter Doran) Belonging returned to the Torch Theatre this month. The play is a Co-production between Re-live Theatre, who provide an award-winning programme of life story theatre in Wales, and the Torch Theatre, whose Artistic Director jumps back into the directors seat. Written by Karin Diamond, who has been nominated for Best Playwright at Wales Theatre Awards, Belonging charts the lives of two families as they cope with the different stages of Dementia.
Diamond’s portrayal of the illness, through multiple viewpoints is spectacularly moving and engaging. We see Dementia through the eyes of the sufferers themselves, the family members who live with them and the health and social care workers who support them. Diamond’s extensive research and experience, her passion for promoting real stories is evident in this incredibly powerful production, which is a credit to everyone involved.
The play is 90 minutes long, with no interval, which helps to preserve the momentum of the story. Director, Peter Doran, ensures the balance is just right, allowing the action to flow and the characters to interact naturally, involving the audience from the very beginning. As the characters first stand and look out at the audience, held in a snapshot, they appear to be consumed by their memories. Memories which they then come to share. The play is fast paced, and we soon become deeply connected with these relatable characters in a very real situation.
Cler Stephens and Llion Williams
The set (Carl Davies) is very effective. The light and warm interior of a home is aesthetically pleasing, complete with kitchen table and chairs, various ornaments tucked into alcoves, and a staircase that leads to nowhere. This staircase is used for the actors to enter and exit the stage and later as a cliff top. The corners of the set appear fragmented, like the minds and memories of the dementia’s suffers. Ceri James’ Lighting glows through the many windows, later revealing a Welsh landscape, old photographs and the projection of patient names in a doctor’s waiting room.
Sheila, (Gillian Elisa) is the mother and grandmother who is in the early stages of dementia. As we see her hunt for her bag, asking the audience ‘do you ever go into a room and forget why you went in there?’ we laugh. Her situation is one we can all relate to. When she comes downstairs, half-dressed, to go out for dinner with her son, there is something amusing in this too, although we know what is coming. The doctor’s visits, the medication, the tension and fall out within the family unit as they struggle to cope. There is something all the more poignant, knowing that this is real life, that there are people sat in the audience who have experienced this first hand. Gillian Elisa is commendable in her portrayal of Sheila. From her early days of confusion, to later outbursts of emotion as she struggles to deal with her condition. The letter she writes to her children, which she reads aloud, although it is unfinished, is heartbreaking. Yet it is tinged with humour as she jokes that they’d be awful carers and her requests for a glass of wine in the care home in the evenings.
Karin Diamond is Sheila’s daughter Rhian, and later one of the carer’s at Morys’ care home. In both of these roles, Diamond’s powerful writing is brought to life. As Rhian she is passionate, caring and determined. Much like her mother. She pushes her brother Gareth (played with great observation by Sion Pritchard) who at first is sceptical, to join her in supporting their mother as her illness progresses. Together, they represent the voice of the family.
As care worker Sian, Diamond represents the struggles the profession face in modern society. The aggression and upset of patients families, the frustration and the lack of time and support they have to do the best job. In a poignant moment, as Sian confesses her feelings, an audience member sympathises with her. It appeared, not an intrusion, but a welcome part of the play. Proof of the involving and effective nature of Re-Live’s work.
Mags’ husband Morys is in the later stages of Cardio Vascular Dementia. As she struggles to care for him, she remembers the earlier years of their lives together. In warm and heartfelt scenes we see their relationship blossom as they get married and move into their first home. Morys’ passion for his first language and Mags’ difficulty understanding it, will be all the more poignant in later scenes, when he speaks only in Welsh. As his Welsh-speaking carer kindly translates, Mags’ begins to feel like she is losing him forever. Llion Williams is outstanding as Morys. He portrays early days of married life with Mags, running his own business and encouraging her through life with love and understanding. Later, he is barely recognisable, shuffling across the stage, stooped over and grasping desperately for his wife’s hand. The sea he used to love is now an aspect of fear for him, as he stands, petrified, at the base of the cliff his voice over describes the ‘mist rolling in’ and the way the dementia takes hold of him. The physical change between the two versions of the character is incredible. Williams is well worthy of his Best actor Award.
In similar scenes, Sheila talks of going to bed at night with no idea how she got there, and no recollection of the day events. These insightful scenes add something to the story, we see the sense of loneliness and isolation that Dementia causes.
As the two stories unfold, they almost seem to collide. In one moment of beautiful staging, the characters seem to mirror each other. As Sheila stands at the bottom of the stairs, confused, Morys stands at the top, mumbling to himself. For a moment they appear to see each other, as if recognising both their past and future, before darkness falls. Later, we see Sheila’s son Gareth in despair at the top of the staircase, while centre stage, Mags’ (played touchingly by Cler Stephens) droops over a kitchen chair, in agony at the life she now faces with her husbands Morys.
As both Sheila and Morys start to deteriorate, the soft piano and string music changes. Chords and strings are plucked and scratched, a harmonica is played erratically, creating an unpleasant tone to mirror the feelings of the Dementia sufferers and the upset within the family network. This use of music (Composer, James Clark) is really effective.
In the final scenes of the play, the characters are presented in snapshot again, this time they stand together, as two families, offering hope for the future. This is a powerful final message and one that is important for the subject matter. The fragility of life and of the human mind can be eased by the love of family and the support of those around you. There were more than a few tears as the actors took their final moments on stage.
The entire cast of this production deserve recognition, for their passion and dedication to their roles.
If you haven’t yet seen this play, you need to. You won’t be disappointed. Re-live and the Torch Theatre have again succeeded in providing a thought-provoking and powerful piece of theatre, worthy of its previous awards.
Belonging is at Theatr Clwyd 16th – 19th May, Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea 23rd-25th May and Borough Theatre, Abergavenny on 6th June.
Main image: Gillian Elisa
More reviews of Belonging/Perthyn:
Belonging/ Perthyn by Karin Diamond, Re-Live