I have a liking for writing like The Wood that is stripped of artifice, is not afraid of telling a clear story, crafts identifiable characters and is not more the author’s political pontificating and parading of peccadilloes than the subject.
Owen Thomas is such a writer and his latest play The Wood is the third recent work I have seen where I have come away thinking about the play rather than the soap box of the author. This is not terribly de rigueur in some circles where agit prop still holds the stage but I suspect it is what many audience members, not linked with the “industry”, actually prefer.
This is a glorious two-handler, base on a true story and an idea by Ifan Huw Daffyd, played out in an evocative Sean Crowley Mametz Wood set, lit by Andrew Sturley.
The success of the play as a performance (as opposed to being read) relies on the strength of the performances from Ifan Huw Daffyd as the ageing, hobbling, man Dan and the ghost of his great friend and former comrade in arms Billy, played by Gwydion Rhys. The former is an explosion of passion and power in gesture, voice and presence – a gripping and gut-wrenching performance that truly shocks with some of the stories of battlefield horror. His account of the death of Billy as a shell sucked the life out of him was more chilling and real than any account of rattling gun fire or “pink mist” explosions.
The story starts off in a relatively straightforward way as the older survivor of the 38th Welsh Regiment returns to the wooded site on the 50th anniversary of the battle that took the life of young Billy and so many other Welsh soldiers.
There are nice touches to establish the Welsh credentials of the work such as charming humour concerning soggy Bara Brith, for example, use of the Welsh language and initially gentle expletives.
The humour and charm is riven with a darkness and horror as the “old soldier” cannot help but relive some of the wartime experiences, with a particularly upsetting verissimo description of bayonetting a young German soldier.
The heart of the story is his relationship with the lad who shared his early soldiering days and with whom he shared a pact to look after the other’s loved ones should anything happen.
Billy, the dead friend, appears to Dan and actor Gwydion Rhys gives a genuinely moving account of his young life, his hopes and aspiration but also his fatalism and dread in this tree filled killing zone. You have to feel total sorrow for his untimely end and for the unbearable existence until that almost surreal death, then the equally surreal non-existence, walking The Wood with other dead souls as the time, years, seasons pass them by.
Ifan Huw Daffyd
I chose not to read the synopsis before the start of the play and I will not reveal what happens, based, of course, on what has happened to the two men, as the telling of the story is all the richer for nor knowing what is to come. Suffice to say that this is not just an anti-war story, a tale of comradeship, a lost youth and innocence tale nor another slice of lyrical text, although it is all of these.
There are some parts of the production, here in the masterful hands of director Peter Doran that I did not feel worked as well, such as the amplified speaking of the two men at the same time and I also did not feel there was any need for the video projections. The imagination is a wonderful thing and pictures reacted in the mind would have been better.
I also felt the little “twist” at the end of The Wood presumably to show it was not just a dream, was unnecessary. If it had just been a dream would it have made any difference?
The power, as mentioned, was in the two very different, contrasting and even at times conflicting performances, the style of their acting, the hair on neck standing up power and bursts of anger and pain, balanced with gentleness, compassion, sorrow, yearning and regret.
I came home and in the morning closed my eyes and listened to the birds singing in the garden. It was impossible to think what it would be like to open them and instead of seeing spring daffodils and fruit trees slowly coming into bud, to see a blasted, blood soaked, lice and rat infested vision of hell.
But The Wood did make me think and try to gain some little, impossibly small, sense or sensibility towards the unimaginable Memetz Wood in July 1916.
I sat next to a young girl who was at first playing with her mobile phone and I worried at first about the number of expletives in the script but then thught, No, it is not just pretty poppies at the Tower of London, lyrical and poignant poetry, marble statues and Portland stone memorial, it is the fucking disgusting reality of war, and that little girl will be all the better for coming face to face with it, hopefully only in a play called The Wood, in a little theatre in a suburb of Cardiff.
Amanda Griffiths review: The Wood, Torch Theatre and touring
Directing The Wood:
Peter Doran: The journey to directing The Wood
Writing The Wood:
Owen Thomas: The Wood, A place of ghosts.