Other Room Theatre / Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru
The Other Room Theatre, Cardiff
Hela is the third and final play in the autumn season of new dramas at The Other Room—the Violence Series. In common with the previous two, Matthew Bulgo's American Nightmare and Tess Berry-Hart's The Story, there is a dystopian sci-fi tone. This latest piece, however, is concerned less with macro-politics than with personal despair and vengeance.
Hela—the title refers, in Welsh, to hunting—is the debut play from actress Mari Izzard. It is the inaugural winner of the Violet Burns Award for female writers (named in honour of the mother of one of the supporters of The Other Room, a woman who did not manage to fulfil her own artistic ambitions).
As we wait for the action to begin, we see displayed on a large video-screen definitions of the word 'algorithm' in both Welsh and English—the play has bilingualism at its heart. We also see that there is a man tied to a chair in what seems to be some kind of dungeon.
We quickly learn that we are in a hi-tech world, where justice is administered via computer. The captive, Hugh—Gwydion Rhys, who was also seen in American Nightmare—fears that he is a political prisoner, seen as valuable because of his father, the recently deceased First Minister of Wales.
At first, he believes that Erin, the ostensibly upbeat young woman who ministers to him—played by Lowri Izzard (the playwright's twin sister—they featured together in the Sherman's all-female Lord Of The Flies in 2018)—is a fellow captive. She is dressed in clean dungarees, however, and seems relatively relaxed.
It soon becomes evident that Hugh is not in a government facility, however, but an isolated farmhouse, and that Erin is, in fact, his captor. But what is her motive? And why does she address him only in Welsh, a language he no longer speaks?
Erin, it turns out, blames Hugh for something dreadful which has happened to her family—in the back room of Delyth Evans's meticulously detailed set, we see, along with close-circuit video showing the exterior of Erin's farm, a wall plastered with crime investigation photos connected by red string. The algorithm, it would appear, has failed Erin, despite the assurances offered by The System (played on glitchy video by Rhian Blythe; video design by Simon Clode); her investigations, however, have nailed Hugh as prime suspect.
Erin uses Welsh to disorientate both the Anglicised Hugh (as opposed to "Huw") and non-fluent members of the audience; the suggestion is that abandoning his roots has fatally affected his morality. Her words are translated, for his and our benefit, by a computer program named Myfanwy (sometimes even before she says them, which is slightly distracting). It is notable, however, that Hugh becomes more Welsh as the drama progresses, and that Erin explodes into English at a moment of extreme emotion.
As a psychological thriller, Hela is highly effective, the author's writing giving us two protagonists believably on the edge of desperation. The performances are excellent, director Dan Jones maintaining the tension throughout, aided by Tic Ashfield's anxiety-inducing electronic score and Katy Morison's murky lighting design. Inevitably, there is violence, fight director Kevin McCurdy once more called into action.
Hela tells a story which has been often told before, but which remains tragically relevant; the futuristic Welsh context at least ensures a freshness of approach and provides a political subtext. And, as so often at this venue, the look of the piece is an essential element of its appeal.
Early in the New Year, all three of the Violence Series plays will tour to London’s Theatre 503 and various Welsh venues; they comprise an exciting, if somewhat pessimistic, trilogy.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith