Review: Y Storm
This article is pending translation
As you walk into a small circus tent at the back of the National Eisteddfod field you can feel the cold Welsh mud slowly dissolve into sand. The air is warm from the overhead stage lights twinned with the bare bulbs of the Big Top, while the sound of waves ripples from the speakers. Within an instant, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru have managed to transport their audience from the damp British Summer into the warmer climes of Prospero’s fabled island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Y Storm is Gwyneth Lewis’ Welsh language adaptation of what is believed to be Shakespeare’s final solo work, The Tempest. The tale follows the lives of the magician Prospero and his young daughter Miranda, exiled to a mysterious and magical island after Antonio (Prospero’s jealous brother) deposed him as the Duke of Milan. Fueled by revenge, the book-learned sorcerer conjures a violent storm and wrecks the King of Naples’ ship, carrying his brother and other acquaintances to his shores. As they reach the magical island they are haunted by the many spirits under Prospero’s command, including the servant Ariel, who strive to teach Antonio the error of his ways and have him repent of the crimes he committed towards his long lost brother.
The stage itself is beautifully constructed, with tiered seating surrounding the bare sandy circle of space which will act as the stage for this troupe of daring performers. The roof of the theatre is adorned with circus paraphernalia and aerial equipment, promising a dynamic and exciting display. As the waves grow louder we are plunged head first into Y Storm, an intense scene of physical theatre and aerial acrobatics. Ariel and his spirits use their simple costuming of white shirts to create the white foam of the waves a they crash on their victims, sending them into the rafters as they splay about the stage clambering for their lives.
The European violin music which underlies many of the key scenes of the show creates a old world, cabaret feel to the events that take place; paired with the 1930s dress it almost has the feel of immigrant carniváles of Dust Bowl America. This haunting soundtrack also adds to the scenes of terror and anger in the show, contrasting against the child-like wonderment usually associated with the circus. This brilliant play-off of the innocence of the magic and wonder of the circus against the scenes of cruelty to Caliban and Ariel, as well as the plotting scenes between Sebastian and Antonio, emphasizes the great theme of the beauty and cruelty of nature and magic which Shakespeare originally intended.
As a non-Welsh speaker, I was pleased that such an emphasis was placed on the physicality and movement of the piece, creating a vibrant piece of theatre that did not rely on the words of its cast to portray its wonderful story. However, I was surprised that not much attention was paid thematically to the scene in which Caliban explains his abhorrence for Miranda and Prospero, due to their imprisoning him through their magic but also their language:
English: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!”
Welsh: “Fe ddysgaist i mi iaith; a’r fantais yw y gwn
Sut i felltithio. Cipied y pla coch di
Am ddysgu imi dy iaith.”
Considering that this was a Welsh translation of an English play; and the history of the Welsh language and its subjugation by the English government throughout history, I would have thought such a scene would create more pathos for the oppressed Caliban, but sadly this was not the case. Whilst Caliban’s anger and Prospero’s cruelty towards him were wonderfully portrayed, this scene could have had much more of an impact on a Welsh speaking audience.
The fearlessness of this company was astonishing. From the use of silks, ropes, pyrotechnics, aerial hoops, cloud swings and even the odd display of strength on the Chinese pole (using the stage scaffold), this was a feast for the eyes. Pairing Shakespearean theatre with jaw-dropping circus skills for unique dramatic effect. Meilir Rhys Williams’ Ariel was charmingly sweet with his spritely movements but also haunting in his ghostly physicality. Along with his team of spirits, he commanded the stage beautifully and their choreography was astounding. The choice to dress him and his fellow spirits in simple nautical dress, with pale grease paint faces, created the illusion of drowned sailors rather than natural sprites. This emphasized the danger and dark nature of Prospero’s ‘dark arts’ with a necromancy feel rather than the usual natural wizardry.
Hugh Thomas’ Trinculo and Sion Pritchard’s Steffano were hysterical characters, even beyond the language divide. Their timing and physicality were superb with some brilliant comic moments which drew the audience into their drunken little world. Their interaction with the physically dominating Kai Owen (Caliban) was both funny but also sweet as he bounded around the stage like a doting puppy. It was these child-like interactions which really sold Caliban as a sympathetic creature. While his large physical stature and intimidating appearance created uncomfortable scenes of aggression, his naďve happiness at eve the slightest human compassion was wonderfully endearing.
While the pairing of Miranda and Fferdinand grew on me throughout the performance, I felt that their love was not as instant as the text would have you believe. Gwydion Rhys’ Fferdinand’s introduction to Lisa Marged’s Miranda seemed concussive, drowned and trance-like due to the recent shipwreck. This stole from the instant attraction to Miranda and instead replaced it with a strange drugged-up like effect, as if his love were merely suggested to him while still reeling from the salt water. While this may add to the idea that Prospero is using Fferdinand to further his daughter’s future after they leave the island, it did also leave an uncomfortable feeling surrounding their courtship throughout the play. As they grew to know each other, this initial feeling faded, but still added a sinister foreboding to usually innocent romance.
Llion Williams leads the show as the enigmatic Prospero with a suitable mix of fatherly devotion, ambition, aggressive revenge and cruel mastery. The fact that he enters with a whip not only conjures images of Circus ring masters but also shows that his ‘wand’ is in fact a tool of suppression and dominance.
Whilst a knowledge of the text may be beneficial for a non-Welsh speaking audience, it is not essential as the cast create a rich world through their dynamic and exciting physicality and daring feats of choreography. Overall this is a triumph of physical theatre and a brilliant spectacle with performances that transcend the barrier of language without being melodramatic, but holding onto the wonderful subtleties of emotion that the story conveys.
Y Storm will be performed at Carmarthen between 18-21 September 2012, and the Vaynol Estate, Bangor between 2-6 October, 2012.