Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Emlyn Williams Theatre, Mold
This new production, premièred at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, marks the centenary of Caradoc Evans’s landmark work.
The publication of My People in 1915 caused a storm and saw Evans branded as a ‘traitor’ by some and his work derided as “the literature of the sewer” by The Western Mail. It seems that Steffan Donnelly is determined to ensure that this version maintains the controversial spirit of the original with what is certainly a challenging production.
The central concept of the production, which has a modern day setting, is to question how much has actually changed from the world and characters that Evans wrote about. There are some dark themes contained within the writings—incest, adultery and murder to name but a few—and this could make for a sombre experience. However, the performance veers from the lurid to black comedy at break-neck speed and this ensures that we are never left to dwell too long on the darker side of humanity as another humorous vignette will be along shortly.
We meet the cast on a well-designed set that initially serves as a chapel but becomes almost a macabre advent calendar as panels open and close to reveal different characters and their tales of woe. Beginning as a modern-day sermon delivered by Hugh Thomas, who does a good job of maintaining a light-hearted tone throughout, the subject of My People is brought up and denunciations of Caradoc Evans follow.
From here, the production sets out to examine just how different attitudes today are from those that Evans scornfully illustrated at the time and an energetic cast hurtle through twelve of the fifteen stories that make up My People. This is no mean feat as Donnelly has chosen to keep most of the original dialogue, which hardly lends itself to easy delivery, and the cast are often playing several different characters in rapidly changing scenes.
And so to the subject matter and the theme of hypocrisy that Evans identified as being at the heart of non-conformist chapels in the early twentieth century. We hear a number of stories such as the mad wife and mother kept in the hay loft and taken out on a leash or the sister tricked out of her inheritance by her avaricious brother.
Alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide are prevalent and Valmai James and Roanna Lewis, as the only females in the cast, do well to portray a range of victims. The men seem to alternate who has a hotline to “the Big Man” and therefore able to pass on his latest commands.
There’s no doubt that the evils that are portrayed here are still prevalent in the world and that many a blind eye is turned, be that due to the justification of religious beliefs or maybe a particular political viewpoint.
In that sense then, this production does its job of reminding us that while much changes, some things stay the same. Some may question whether the use of Sunday School toys to ‘humorously’ represent the deaths of children is absolutely appropriate but, in all fairness, the script would not be in the spirit of the original work without a couple of contentious moments.
A final word for the lighting and sound team who do a magnificent job of ensuring the quick-fire scene and mood changes are enhanced and amplified superbly.
Reviewer: Dave Jennings