Llyfr Glas Nebo
Manon Steffan Ros
Cwmni’r Frân Wen / Galeri
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
It is disappointingly rare for well-regarded contemporary fiction written in the Welsh language to reach the non-Welsh-speaking audience. Thus, Frân Wen (in conjunction with fellow North Wales-based Galeri) are to be commended, not only for commissioning Manon Steffan Ros to adapt her novel for the stage, but also ensuring that a handful of performances on this extensive Welsh tour are surtitled in English.
Aimed at the Young Adult audience, Llyfr Glas Nebo was the winner of the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod in 2018 and won in three Welsh-language categories at the Wales Book Awards in 2019. The novel is already on the school syllabus, and is a best-seller—hence the full house in the Sherman's main auditorium, and the "Sold Out" notices on the tour itinerary.
The title refers to the blue ("glas") book ("llyfr") given to adolescent Siôn—played by Eben James—by his mother Rowenna—Tara Bethan—in order for him to make a written record as they negotiate a somewhat problematic life in the village of Nebo. For, as the wordless, poetically choreographed (by Matt Gough) opening scene makes clear, a globally catastrophic nuclear war has taken place. We are given no political context, but as far as we know, Rowenna, Siôn and the ailing baby Dwynwen (presumably named after the tragic Welsh patron saint of love) are, several years on, the only people left on Earth.
Dwynwen takes the form of a puppet, cleverly manipulated by the other cast members, Llŷr Edwards, Leah Gaffey and Cêt Haf (puppet design by Olivia Racionzer who also gives us a rather alarming hare). In addition, they play a number of other roles in fantasy and flashback—the single-parent family's parodically middle-class English neighbours; Rowenna's friend and fellow village hairdresser; a schoolgirl on whom Siôn has become fixated.
The focus of the piece, however, is the mother-son relationship, director Elgan Rhys overseeing a solid chemistry between Bethan and James, her combination of stoicism and desperation complementing his boyish ebullience and (for the most part) optimism. Sion gives the impression of intelligence, endlessly quoting from a batch of abandoned Welsh books (as well as, to his mother's irritation—God having let them down—the Bible). Much of the drama, however, comes from the belatedness of the boy’s realisation that, well, baby Dwynwen must have come from somewhere...
Elin Steele's set is spare, dominated by a raised platform which combines a rudimentary shelter with a vantage point; towards the front of the stage are a rock suitable for sitting and sharpening tools on and a patch of soil for planting vegetables (and other things). Ceri James's lighting design, in conjunction with R Seiliog's sensitive soundtrack and Edie Morris's subtle video backdrops, give us a suitably grim (and occasionally feverish) atmosphere.
Despite the gloominess of the premise, Ros manages to slip in nuggets of sly humour here and there; and, the general theme being love and resilience, one is grateful for the sliver of hope provided as we reach the dénouement.
Ultimately, what stays with us is the powerful and heartening depiction of the mother-son bond under trying circumstances. A bleakly beautiful production.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith