The Wind of Heaven

Emlyn Williams
Finborough Theatre, Earl's Court

Rhiannon Neads Credit: Stefan Hanegraaf
Jamie Wilkes Credit: Stefan Hanegraaf
Jamie Wilkes Credit: Stefan Hanegraaf

Emlyn Williams was one of the most significant actor-playwrights of the mid-20th century. In the case of The Wind of Heaven, the great Welshman not only wrote and starred in but also directed a West End production at St James’s Theatre.

That premièred in November 1945 at the end of one war, but the subject matter takes place 89 years earlier in the aftermath the Crimean War. The play hasn’t subsequently been performed until this revival by the resourceful Finborough.

The events play out in the manor house owned by the excellent Rhiannon Neads taking the role of owner Dilys Parry, widowed a year before. Meeting the usual high Finborough standards, designer Ceci Calf conveys her home through piled furniture and a voyeuristic window, also making good use of lighting and dolls house-style models.

Still grieving having lost her husband to an epidemic, Mrs Parry encounters what she takes to be a policeman seeking information.

In fact, Pitter, played by David Whitworth, is the frontman for a circus run by Jamie Wilkes’s Ambrose, born Welsh but with a London accent, the kind of unprincipled charlatan who seeks freaks to make his fortune.

Their investigations were originally sparked by rumours that the Welsh equivalent to a leprechaun has been making wondrous music, although nobody can identify the relevant little fellow.

The first half of a 2½-hour evening builds tension nicely and is gently amusing, particularly when the locals burst into enthusiastic Welsh language, one of the underlying themes of the piece.

Finally, all eyes turn towards a silent youngster who manages to achieve a miracle, saving a number of villagers from cholera, even resurrecting one poor soul who had apparently died from what is portentously referred to as a “plague”.

After the interval, matters become considerably more earnest as even the committed atheists begin to worship what they see as a new Messiah enjoying a second coming. The strongest of the disciples is almost inevitably Ambrose, the part taken by Emlyn Williams just after the Second World War.

Director Will Maynard can be overly deliberate at times, although this cannot be easiest play to direct given the need to persuade viewers that they must believe in a Messiah who achieves only a single miracle, although that is enough to convert the locals instantaneously.

Times and attitudes change. The play was both written and set at the end of long, damaging wars when faith must have been desperately needed.

Now, while so many of us seem to be happy to vote for charlatans in general elections, unswerving religious belief based on miracles is likely to seem far-fetched, especially when fake news is constantly exposed by the harsh light of the Internet and a media eager for negative stories.

In this light, The Wind of Heaven feels dated and, while the vision of an isolated Welsh village can be illuminating, many might struggle to immerse themselves in a plot that seems too unlikely to gain general acceptance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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