It is quite fitting that the closing installment in the Other Room’s Violence Series is also the hardest to stomach. Self-describing as a bilingual play accessible to English speakers, Mari Izzard’s Hela is first and foremost a punch to the stomach – its themes, its visuals, and its resolution are most certainly not for the squeamish. This is in equal measure brave and important: brave, because the danger of indulging in excess violence merely for the sake of shock value is ever-present, yet Izzard’s writing proves skilled and thoughtful in walking the fine line bewteen impact and voyeurism, never overstepping it; important, because at a time where the assumption that there are things that should not be represented in art has once again reared its ugly head, productions like this must exist to remind us all that nothing is forbidden in art and on the stage, as long as any subject matter, even the most disturbing, is approached thoughtfully and supported adequately by story and characters.
In Hela, the characters are the backbone of the play. The interplay between Erin and Hugh (Lowri Izzard and Gwydion Rhys, back on the Other Room’s stage for the second time this season, highlighting their excellent stage chemistry and their versatility in taking on rather different roles) is literally what keeps the play’s machine ticking on, through a series of reveals that radically shift the audience’s perception of what is happening as the story progressed. The characters are fleshed out in a way that highlights their complexities and vulnerabilities without passing judgement on either of them, even when it would be far too easy to do so; this is worthy of praise too, as by presenting its protagonists as fully rounded humans the productions gains weight and poignancy.
This is especially important because the narration, on the other hand, has some issues with focus; perhaps with the intent of lending additional weight to its reveals, it makes it so that for at least the first third it is unclear what the story really is about, and it is in fact pretty easy to be misled into thinking that it is about something else entirely. As a narrative device, this is successful in keeping the tension high and the attention of the audience engaged, but the transition when the real matter at hand is finally revealed could have been handled more smoothly, with the result that the final part of the play felt ever so slightly disconnected, and some threads introduced in the earlier section (for instance, the matter around Hugh’s mother) were left hanging without resolution. The main issue faced by Hela, perhaps, is that it is trying to do too many things at the same time: it wants to confront some of the deep societal fears plaguing Britain, to reflect on the interplay between language and identity and that between language purity and contamination, to inject some ideas on Welsh indepententism (perhaps) and on the dangers of technology (certainly). These might be too many topics, especially given the scope of each, for such a relatively contained work; the result is that while there is a clear depth of analysis, a feeling remains that the play would have benefited from dropping at least one of them, so that the others could be interwoven more organically and gain some more space to breathe. The sinister mentions of bots and algorithms, in particular, are jarring – addressed only in passing, they can come across as technophobia just for the sake of it.
The reflection on language in particular was intriguing and one of the most successful aspects of this work. There is clearly a great amount of reflection and subtlety in the way the interplay between Welsh and English is used, and the way that the two languages define the characters that speak them, the occasions in which they speak them, and what speaking them reveals about those characters. One of the most poignant moments is when both Erin and Hugh, in the height of violent emotions, find themselves slipping out of the language they clearly identify with – a cleverly conveyed, telling moment highlighting this play’s ability to manipulate subtext. In being accessible to English speakers, Hela certainly succeeds; I did not feel that my lack of knowledge of Welsh took anything away from my appreciation of the work. This is particularly remarkable and a great positive example amidst the tension concerning the use of Welsh language works, with conflicting pulls between the desire to see more productions using the language and the risk of creating a gatekeeping environment that leaves non-Welsh speakers out. Here is a good example of a work that is uncompromising in its use of the language while making it not just a gimmick, but an important theme that is broadly open to all and relevant to all.
I have always thought that a work whose main issue is that it’s trying to do too much deserves praise much more than criticism; this is exactly the case with Hela. It is an ambitious work with a kind of ambition that we should see more often on stage. In some of its many goals, it fully succeeds, aided by strong performances and an excellent work on characters. In others it falls somewhat short of the mark, though not for lack of dedication. Overall it gives plenty to discuss – this, I suspect, was really its main goal, and this one it has without doubt achieved.