“There is no Wales to speak of, no real national life: no art, no dance, no folklore; no literature… except for the foolish mouthing of its preachers.”
So said Caradoc Evans, writer of My People and once (and, for some, perhaps still) the “most hated man in Wales”. Evans’s short stories, published 100 years ago, portrayed life in Nonconformist Wales for what he believed it really was – hypocritical, stunted, short-sighted and ultimately self-deceived. He saw the power that the chapels of Wales had over their congregations – who, remember, were far greater in number then than today – as limiting to people’s spiritual development. Without the luxury of self-expression and the freedom to lead life as one chooses (rather than by the rigid guidelines of organised religion), the Welsh culture could not develop or grow, and may never be a part of the wider world around it.
It was hugely controversial at the time (there were threats to burn his books in the street), but a century later this stage adaptation of Evans’s stories by Steffan Donnelly can’t help but ask: has anything really changed? Is Wales still stunted by its history and traditions? Although the power and influence of the chapels has waned in the last 100 years, is Wales still being held back by a default to tradition rather than having the vision and ambition to push forward and ahead?
The play kicks off with an amusing setpiece which sets out the play’s stall well. A minister gives a sermon to his congregation (the audience) and talks about a book he’s just read which he believes misrepresents the chapel community and its history. It’s My People, which he declares as “full of violence, bad caricatures and slander”.
The play then goes on to depict several of the short stories in Evans’s book, replete with said violence, bad caricatures and slander. We see a woman imprisoned in a hayloft with a leather brace across her mouth; a horse is skinned and its hide thrown across a drunkard; and a young girl who falls pregnant is pilloried by the community because her claim of who the father is does not fit chapel code.
The enactments of these stories are as ludicrous and madcap as Evans wrote them, hence their controversial nature. But as the play progresses, particularly in the second half, these depictions get even more extreme and surreal, until by the end the cast are sunbathing and taking a dip (in real water – it’s location on the stage is ingenious) in a situation that very quickly turns to violence. As blood is spilt, nobody can fail to acknowledge that there is no going back. The hypocrisy of Nonconformism is laid bare in all its temerity, and you are left to wonder if Caradoc Evans had a point back then, and indeed whether he does still.
The cast have a lot to do, doubling up in several roles and with acres of stylised, almost Biblical dialogue to memorise. Hugh Thomas is fantastic, especially in his opening monologue. He has the right level of passion for the sermon scenes, but also a little twinkle in the performance which softens what could otherwise be a pretty unlikeable character. There are equally as passionate turns from the formidable Michael Geary and the angelic Sion Alun Davies (but don’t let his sweet demeanour distract you too much), while Roanna Lewis projects both virginal innocence and post-virginal sauce in equal measure. Valmai Jones pitches her performance a little higher than most of her colleagues, but still has the power to raise laughs and is a confident physical performer.
I was most impressed by Rhys Meredith, who seemed to possess a quietly manic quality, a rebelliousness just bubbling below the surface which occasionally pops its head above the parapet to lovely effect. He has a wide-eyed danger to his performance which gives his characters a real edge, and I revelled in seeing Meredith embody each character. He is consistently powerful throughout.
The stories-within-stories set-up to the staging shows that co-directors Steffan Donnelly and Aled Pedrick are more than happy to tinker with tradition. The play has an almost Monty Python frenetic quality at times, and Cecile Tremolieres’ startling set – a chapel which doubles up as a series of Celebrity Squares-type windows – combines to make it an unpredictable show. Appropriately, the presentation of Caradoc Evans’s stories is theatrically nonconformist, with some real risks taken, but I suspect the Big Man himself wouldn’t have it any other way.
My People can be seen at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, until November 21st, 2015
Main picture: Sion Alun Davies