The Dark Philosophers

Carl Grose and Told By An Idiot, based on the stories of Gwyn Thomas
National Theatre Wales
The Riverfront, Newport
(2010)

The Dark Philosophers production photo

Stage adaptations of novels can be tricky seams to mine at the best of times, but in the case of The Dark Philosophers those involved will have had to dig deep. Firstly, there’s the difficulty of merging Gwyn Thomas’s book of short stories into one play and getting the mixture to cohere. More urgently, there is the problem of communicating the narrative voice – a thinly veiled version of the author himself – which is perhaps the most distinctive feature of Thomas’s tales of poverty and perversion in Wales. The triumph of The Dark Philosophers is that it manages to balance a touching tribute to Thomas with an entertaining and accomplished adaptation of some of his finest writing.

The stories are set on the terraces and revolve around impoverished mining families. In Simeon, a rich benefactor hides a dark secret under the stairs in an alcohol-fuelled tale of incest and murder. Oscar, the most absorbing, is the tale of an insatiably greedy and lascivious coal tycoon. Bits of Thomas’s life are woven into the narrative, and it’s all threaded together by the character of Thomas himself, who pops up to give theatrical instructions, address the audience, and crack a joke or two.

There’s always a risk that theatre about Welsh mining communities can become mired in sentimentality; that Wales itself can become trapped in retelling the same stories of the exploitation and hardship of mining communities. Audiences are all too familiar with the flat cap and coal sack of the Welsh miner. So it’s not surprising that National Theatre Wales has, until now, tended to steer clear of theatre that directly addresses the peak of mining in Wales in favour of exploring new possibilities. Thomas’ fiction manages to subvert the bleak subject matter with a narrator as blackly comic as the coal dust that clings to the terraces.

Translating this voice to the stage, however, is obviously problematic. Director Paul Hunter has clearly considered the risks, and come up with a clever way of sidestepping the problem. The entire play has a magical realist aesthetic, from the lovely staging – terraces of miners’ houses made out of wardrobes and cupboards – to the anarchic interjections of Gwyn Thomas, the narrator, to the stories themselves, which are told with a surreal bent and relayed with puppetry, song and physical theatre. It is vital that the wit of Thomas, who was fiercely determined not to allow his own impoverished upbringing to stunt his sense of humour, is not lost, and Hunter has deployed every trick in the book to keep The Dark Philosophers bubbling along. It’s darkly comic, and pitches and rolls gleefully from physical theatre to song to slow-mo to soliloquy, never allowing the audience to settle. A case in point is the Parkinson interjection, which explodes onto the stage like a blast from a coal mine, and recedes almost as quickly.

All of this restlessness has a wider purpose too. The play is a homage to Gwyn Thomas that has his personality written into it. Thomas is there as a character (a marvellous turn by Glyn Pritchard), giving the actors their cues and addressing the audience. But his presence is also felt in the choices that have been made in staging The Dark Philosophers. Every sliver of the production has been compounded and melded into a dazzling, darkly comic play that burns with an intensity befitting its subject.

The Dark Philosophers is more than just a theatrical adaptation of Thomas’ short stories. It's a loving homage to the man whose larger-than-life personality is etched on every facet of the production. Wales’s most underrated writer was an early champion of a Welsh national theatre; they have served him with a fine epitaph in this play.

At The Stiwt, Wrexham, on 19th and 20th November

Reviewer: Ben Bryant