The small town of Rhayader near to The Elan Valley was the location for Peter Cox’s play “The Stick Maker Tales” by Peter Cox, part of NTW’s NHS70.
It captures the wild beauty of the place, the magic of the Spring and Summer there and the desperate harshness of the long winter months. The mind’s eye picture generated by the protagonist, loan sheep farmer Geth Roberts, played by the excellent Llion Williams, and aided by Jennifer Lee and Joe Fletcher’s minimal and highly effective design: a few simple items of furniture – everything used, especially the “sticks” of the title for the farmer’s pass time and passion making shepherds’ crooks – and the simple and subtly operated lighting working in tandem with projections which are impressionistic rather than literal: snow and ice, darkness and shadows, sky and clouds, the deep cleft of two high hills meeting and the clear night sky with the myriad stars of the milky way (the Elan Valley is renowned as an area where there is no light pollution at all, you really can see the Milky Way on a clear night).
All of this captures the beauty but also the grimness and loneliness of the small-scale, bachelor sheep farmer’s life, kept company only by his beloved sheep dogs, the old Ben and the younger “apprentice” dog, Meg. A hard, hard life, the rewards not financial but in the joy and satisfaction of sheep rearing, in the visceral connection to the land with its pleasures and its horrors and in the occasional bursts of social life: livestock market days, the Eisteddfodau and the little kindnesses of neighbours, a plate of Welsh cakes left on the window ledge “…wrapped in tin foil to keep them from the birds”…
At the beginning, as Geth Roberts/Llion Williams begins to tell the story of all the occupational ailments, I expect a litany of illnesses treated by the NHS, but the genius of the story and the extraordinary ability of Williams to inhabit the mind and the physicality of his character (played older than the actor’s actual years) soon has us involved and moved by the humour, trials and sadnesses of his life and those of the absent characters of family and friends involved in his story, for example his grandfather, “brought down” by “an old yow” (ewe) and cutting his leg with the knife meant for tagging the ear of her lamb, the fatal cut leading later to his death from “lockjaw” (tetanus); or the nephew to whom he hoped to leave his farm, as the nearest he’d have to a son, who had recovered from the alarming Weill’s disease (contracted from infected livestock or rodents in wet and muddy places); and the much later and very serious quad bike accident (all too common on Mid Wales farms) that needed the “helicopter” (the air ambulance, a vital service in this inaccessible area). And finally his own sad decline into the dark of blindness, thinking he’s at the end of the road. But life gives him a jolt and he ends up at “Lland’od hospital” where, to his amazement – and here tragedy turns almost to comedy – he finds he can have his eyes replaced! The nurse explaining that from a small cut she will drain the contents of his eye “…you mean just like draining the sump of a tractor!”, he says, and so Geth gets his sight back thanks to the simple cataract operation performed regularly by the visiting surgeon at Llandrindod Wells Memorial Hospital (which has escaped the fate of smaller cottage hospitals in Mid Wales and still remains open today).
Lion Williams has worked on and researched the Radnor accent, the play is peppered with dialect words and manners of speech, and he achieves the Radnor sound (with a bit of extra lilt), no mean feat as this is a difficult one to get. He’s an exemplary talent, working in English and Welsh, in 2017 he won the Wales Theatre Awards Welsh and English language best actor awards..
The Stick Maker Tales played two nights at The Pavilion Llandrindod Wells on the 11th and 12th of July and the Old Town Hall Welshpool 14th July for a matinee and an evening performance.
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