Welsh playwright Ed Thomas’s return to the stage fifteen years after his previous creation opens in memorably unceremonious fashion. In fact, On Bear Ridge opens on an ending – the end of the world, the end of hope and family bonds, and the end of language, which is perhaps the most compelling protagonist in Thomas’s new creation for the National Theatre Wales.
Repetitions, false starts, poetic sound games form an important part of the exchanges between the two main characters, Noni (Rakie Ayola) and John Daniel (Rhys Ifan), the married owners of a shop that seems to be the last remnant of the rural community it once belonged to. The couple is left to remember the past, while eating and drinking through the last of their food and whisky. They seem to be the last standing inhabitants of Bear Ridge, only accompanied by Sion Daniel Young (Ifan Williams), their deceased son’s best friend.
There are more than insistent allusions to Samuel Beckett in the play. Even the set has a vague air of Endgame, with its openings only looking at a world on the verge of destruction, and a cold, bright winter light. The play hints at a universe in the middle of social collapse, evidenced by the intermittent threat of planes and the menacing presence of The Captain (Jason Hughes). In this post-apocalyptic world, names – of long-gone delicacies, trinkets, or people – are the only thing that keeps insanity at bay, and John Daniel’s memories alive. When the play begins, though, there is a creeping sense that the power of words, ‘the Old Language’, is beginning to crumble.
Ed Thomas’s writing has an undeniable literary quality, audible line after line. His creation also evinces a notable suspicion towards lyricism. Each emotional moment is undercut by an anticlimactic note, yet followed by another solemn outburst, which occasionally gave the play a stilted feeling. Some scenes never quite reach as absurd or grand a conclusion as we might have expected. An allusion to migrants – through another enumeration, countries this time, Germany, Hungary, Poland, France, Turkey – made me wonder whether On Bear Ridge could be yet another Brexit play in disguise. Thankfully this particular thread is never quite pulled to its extremity, but then again neither are many of the other symbols and stories that Thomas inserts in his creation.
Noni and John Daniel are haunted by the voices of their former neighbours, just like Sion Daniel Young and the Captain are haunted by their own losses. The ghosts call upon the livings’ attention, and sometimes, quite frankly, overpopulate the stage a little too much. Raki Ayola and Rhys Ifans, however, manage to extract themselves from this crowd of spectres to offer a nuanced performance as a couple who has lived through the worst but managed to survive whatever life has been throwing at them. The duo’s dialogue alone makes this creation well worth seeing.
- By Ed Thomas
- Directed by Ed Thomas and Vicky Featherstone
- Composer: John Hardy Music
- Photography: Mark Douet
- Cast includes: Jason Hughes, Raike Ayola, Rhys Ifans, Sion Daniel Young
- Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
- Until Sat 05 Oct 2019 (then transferring to the Royal Court)
- Running time: Approx. 95m (no interval)