The Torch Theatre Company has once again teamed up with award-winning writer Owen Thomas for the latest production The Wood, which is based on a true story and an idea by actor, Ifan Huw Dafydd.
Grav, also by Thomas, won Audience Award at the Wales Theatre Award 2016 for its writer and the Torch Theatre, under artistic director Peter Doran, and is about to head to New York. In The Wood, the successful partnership between Thomas and Doran similarly creates a deeply moving and authentic production which has an inherently Welsh feel.
In 1966, 50 years since World War one and the battle of the Somme, an elderly man returns to Mametz Wood on the Western front where the 38th Welsh division fought against the Germans. Here he must face the demons of his past and the horrors he witnessed as well as the ghost of his friend and fellow soldier Billy.
The studio theatre is the perfect setting for the play, with its cast of two men and small stage, lowered to floor level to create the effect of a shared community rather than a separation between the audience and actors. The choice to set the play over 75 minutes, without an interval, allowed for an intense and uninterrupted experience which ensured the atmosphere was charged throughout.
The set (Sean Crowley) impresses as an autumn woodland scene with real trees and branches, a forest floor littered with leaves and twigs, tree stumps a convenient resting place for the lead character. Smoke drifts across the skyline, like the mist of early morning, or later the trail of a ghost that is finally laid to rest. The background screen enhances the forest scene, later revealing photographs of lost comrades and linking the story together with images of Billy’s Wife Eileen and their baby, Eileen comforting Dan when he visits her.
The lighting (Ceri James) is very effective as it takes the wood from daylight, flickering over the tops of the trees to create the effect of sunlight and the breeze moving the leaves, to shadowed when the men recall their stories and tinged with red to echo the bloodshed and flames of the burning wood during battle.
Ifan Huw Dafydd
From the beginning Dan’s story is our story, as he enters through the side of the Theatre, gazing up at the wood as we do from the audience. In his rucksack he has bara brith, orange squash which he hates and has soaked the contents of his bag, including his underpants. He laughs as he recalls what’s been said about him, ‘silly old bugger won’t make it to France’ and we immediately warm to his character. This is the war veteran we see on TV, we talk to in the pub, the distant relative we know or have been told of. The man who was ‘in the war once’. We soon learn there is much more to his story as he reveals his pain and anguish, the spark of a burning log that sends him hurtling back to the wood and the reason he has returned.
Being part of a small cast is a tribute to the actors skills and stamina, to sustain the momentum and chemistry between them as their story unfolds. Not once do they appear to wane, or to pause to recall their lines.
Dafydd plays Dan with strength and integrity, carrying the audience through his journey of emotions with deep sincerity. He commands the stage for almost half of the play, before the ghost of his friend Billy appears to listen and tell Dan his own story.
Rhys, a newcomer to the Torch Theatre Company, is remarkable in his role as Billy. We first see him in the background, a ghost of Dan’s memory as he walks through the wood, in full uniform, whistling and smoking a cigarette. Later he takes centre stage and we really see Rhys’ capabilities in this role. He commands the stage and conjures emotions as he describes being trapped in the wood, haunted by the horrors yet not fully knowing what has happened to him. As he talks of things he would have liked to have done, the family and friends left behind.
What’s interesting about Thomas’ story is the dual perspective, how it explores the idea of loss from the young soldier trapped in the purgatory of the wood, to the old man who is trapped in his mind and by his physical ailment in a life that has passed in the blink of an eye. Billy asks if it was worth it, he talks of his name on a dusty wall and medals in a drawer somewhere. While Dan recalls that no one cares about the survivors, he goes unnoticed limping through life. This is what draws the audience further into the play. We feel for these men who have been affected by war in different ways, they could be our fathers, our grandfathers, our great grand fathers. Today, they could be our sons, our daughters, our brothers and sisters.
As the tension heightens between the two men and their memories, their voices become raised against each other, shouting thoughts and recollections into the woodland. This adds to the anger and confusion, the running emotion, as the lights fall red with the fire and blood of turmoil.
James Williams provides the music for this production. Beautiful piano pieces highlight the scenes were Dan and Billy recount their emotional stories, while the wood is filled with the birdsong at times of peace, and gunfire in later recollections.
Thomas has a real talent for creating authenticity within a Welsh story. Throughout the play there are references to Dan and Billy’s heritage. As well as Dan and his bara brith in his rucksack, Billy sings a Welsh song as he walks through the wood, when Dan lies injured in a shell hole, unsure if those close by are friends or foe, he shouts out in Welsh and, to his amazement, receives a reply in his mother tongue.
The final scenes are touching and emotional as the emphasis falls on love and friendship as well as the loyalty Dan shows to his friend Billy and his family left behind. Two elderly ladies held hands in the audience as they watched these powerful scenes. This in itself, proved the power of this production. From the writing and directing down to the acting of two very talented men.
With Grav set to begin its tour and The Wood programmed for a number of Welsh venues, it’s clear that Owen Thomas is the writer to watch. His collaboration with the talented Torch Theatre team ensures The Wood is a gripping and touching drama, bringing home to Wales an engrossing story of our own men and a fitting tribute to those involved in the First World War and the suffering they faced for our country.
The Wood is at the Torch Theatre until March 1 then tours Wales until March 24.
THE WOOD – TOUR DATES SPRING 2018
TORCH THEATRE, MILFORD HAVEN
Tuesday 20 February – Thursday 1 March, 7.30pm | Wednesday 28 February, 2.30pm (Matinee)
01646 695267 | torchtheatre.co.uk
ROYAL WELSH COLLEGE OF MUSIC & DRAMA, CARDIFF
Friday 2 March, 7.45pm
02920 391 391 | rwcmd.ac.uk
Tuesday 6 March, 7.30pm
08452 263 510 | theatrausirgar.co.uk
THE WELFARE, YSTRADGYNLAIS
Wednesday 7 March, 7.30pm
01639 843 163 | thewelfare.co.uk
THEATR BRYCHEINIOG, BRECON
Thursday 8 March, 7.30pm
01874 611 622 | brycheiniog.co.uk
THE HAFREN, NEWTOWN
Saturday 10 March, 7.30pm
01686 614 555 | thehafren.co.uk
THEATR MWLDAN, CARDIGAN
Tuesday 13 March, 7.30pm
01239 621 200 | mwldan.co.uk
THE RIVERFRONT, NEWPORT
Wednesday 14 March, 7.30pm
01633 656 757 | newportlive.co.uk/riverfront
PONTARDAWE ARTS CENTRE, PONTARDAWE
Thursday 15 March, 7.30pm
01792 863 722 | pontardaweartscentre.com
NEWBRIDGE MEMO, NEWBRIDGE
Friday 16 March, 7.30pm
01495 243 252 | newbridgememo.co.uk
BOROUGH THEATRE, ABERGAVENNY
Tuesday 20 March, 7.30pm
01873 850 805 | boroughtheatreabergavenny.co.uk
NEUADD DWYFOR, PWLLHELI
Thursday 22 March, 7.30pm
01758 704 088
ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE, ABERYSTWYTH
Friday 23 March, 7.30pm
01970 623 232 | aberystwythartscentre.co.uk
THEATR CLWYD, MOLD
Saturday 24 March, 7.45pm
01352 701 521 | theatrclwyd.com