Rhys David hails The Persians as an outstanding achievement by Wales’s new National Theatre
Forget about the Edinburgh Festival. The cultural event of August – for those of a Welsh persuasion anyway – must have been the magnificent and sold-out National Theatre Wales production of Aeschylus’s 2,480 year old play, The Persians staged in remote and inhospitable countryside north west of Brecon.
Over a period of 10 days earlier this month around 180 people every night gathered in the car park at the Sennybridge military camp to be driven by coach into the heart of the Mynydd Epynt training area – an evocative landscape which has been left largely untouched and uncultivated since its forcible acquisition by the military in the years leading up to World War II.
Yet, after climbing up steep hills, home only to thousands of sheep, and enjoying some of the best scenery in Wales, the audience member came upon one of the strangest sites Wales has to offer – a reconstructed German village consisting of a score or so of houses and outbuildings and a church. This is where the army practised for possible house to house combat against the forces of Russia and its allies in central Europe, and was the stage chosen for writer Kaite O’Reilly’s version of oldest recorded play.
Those who remember their Greek history will know that in 480 BC an army led by the Persian king, Xerxes, defeated a Greek army at Thermopylae, despite a valiant defence led by Leonidas and the Spartans. From there they marched south to take Athens. The city had been largely evacuated, the Athenians deciding instead to force a naval battle, which with shrewd tactics and against all the odds they won, routing the Persian forces.
Arriving at Wales’s German village the audience, every last one required to robe in “Army drab” ponchos against the atmospherically-inspired driving rain and swirling mist, was met by the triumphant four man chorus, who, to a background of martial music playing from a 1950s German van, hailed the inevitability of victory in vaunting, boastful declarations. From there we were led to the only very partially covered scaffold auditorium fronting on to a stage created out of the exposed interior of one of the houses.
Looking into the three storeys of the house we hear the messenger pass the news on to Xerxes’s mother, Atossa, magnificently played by Sian Thomas, of the Persian defeat. The ghost of Darius, Xerxes father (Paul Rhys), is summoned up on video screen to lament his son’s vain sacrifice of the flower of Persia’s (and much of the rest of Asia’s youth) before a bloodied and exhausted Xerxes himself comes home to tell the tale. The story is accompanied by much breast-beating and bewailing by a brilliantly acting chorus who in the conventions of Greek tragedy help to narrate the action.
The director, Mike Pearson, has eschewed the temptation to draw unlikely parallels with modern conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where conquest has not been the prime motivation of – this time – a western invasion of the east. In truth, there are probably greater similarities with another event being celebrated this month, the Battle of Britain. As in classical times, this involved an all-powerful land army marching into neighbouring territories, inflicting a semi-heroic defeat on its main remaining opponent (Dunkirk/Thermopylae) and then succumbing to an unexpected defeat (Battle of Britain/Salamis) at the hands of what appeared to be a technically less powerful but tactically more astute foe using an island base from which to start to roll back the enemy.
Following the success of The Persians – which drew audiences from a wide area, including visitors from across the border, and received very good reviews from London critics – it is hard to imagine how we have managed for so long in Wales without a national theatre in English. The theatre’s other works this year, including its debut offering A Good Night out in the Valleys and The Devil Inside Him have also been well-received, as, too, has its core peripatetic mission. It will not have its headquarters in Cardiff or anywhere else, and thus will not be spending vast sums on bricks and mortar. Instead, in what might seem, if it did not pre-date it, a nod to contemporary notions of reaching back to society, the theatre is performing at venues all over Wales and on beaches (at Barmouth) as well on mountains (Brecon), in Newport, Port Talbot and Bangor as well as in Swansea.
The Devil Inside Him, which was performed at the New Theatre in Cardiff brought back to light a forgotten John Osborne play, and perhaps just as importantly uncovered the author’s previously unknown Welsh origins. With a mother hailing from Newport he had no doubt on visits to Wales picked up some of the material for his angst-laden but very stimulating exploration of teenage rebellion against strict non-Conformist values and hypocrisies in early 20th century Wales.
The theatre owes much to the efforts of Arts Council Wales chairman, Professor Dai Smith, who managed to cut through 100 years of debate on when, whether, and how to set up a Welsh national English language theatre by persuading the culture minister in the Welsh Assembly Government four years ago to advance sufficient funding – a modest £1m a year – to establish the venture.
It is a venture that on the evidence of its first season strongly deserves to be granted the funding it will need to become over time as much part of Welsh national life as other venerable institutions such as Welsh National Opera. It is also yet another answer to a much-asked question – what did we get out of devolution?