An ancient tale transformed into a thoroughly modern, thought-provoking piece about 21st century Britain and identity politics.
“What will happen to Wales in the case of Scottish independence?” It’s a question posed by many academics here at Cardiff University, and one which fuels Act One’s latest production, White Crow. The premise is that forty years in the future, Scotland and Ireland have gained independence - the former peacefully, the latter through terrorism – leaving Wales to be walked all over by England. Ruled ever more strictly by Westminster, Wales becomes increasingly destitute, giving rise to radical nationalist groups. White Crow explores difficult questions like where is the boundary between nationalism and being proud of your country, and just what is best for the future of Wales.
White Crow, however, started life as the Branwen branch of the Mabinogi, the foundational myth of Wales. The myth tells of Bendigeidfran, King of Wales, his brother Efnissien, and their little sister Branwen (Welsh for White Crow). Branwen marries the Irish leader Matholwch who imprisons and tortures her, so her brothers, with the help of Pryderi must fight to free her. Under the guidance of director Aled Bidder and production manager Ellen Green, over ten months of preparation, improvisation and editing, the myth was transformed into a remarkable play which combined hard-hitting political commentary with a deeply personal story. The main characters and plot points remain, but this time Ben, Niss, Branwen and Father Pyrderi are involved in a much larger struggle for national self-determination. Many new characters have also been added, including the sibling’s parents Eirlys and Llyr, and their friend turned political opponent Bran Lloyd who serves as catalyst for much of the play’s political philosophising.
The long preparation process and strict editing (which I believe caused a few arguments at the time) ensure that this unique, original and collaborative play is consistently engrossing. Pacing is often a problem with Act One plays, which usually feel far too long, but White Crow was kept tight whilst tying together many diverse plot strands. Particularly effective was the clever use of temporal shifts, flashbacks of Bran in his early days with the movement and relationships with Eirlys and Llyr interwoven with Ben’s assent in the nationalist movement. The juxtaposition of the two periods really added to the sense of Bran’s heartbreak and regrets, although they did seem to perplex some audience members - a fault of the audience not Act One I believe!
More than just a great script, however, the production brings together an extremely talented cast and creative team. Right from the beginning, Act One successfully create an oppressive atmosphere symbolic of the political climate, encapsulated in the black crows that constantly surround the stage. Like many other audience members, I was genuinely frightened when I walked into an almost black auditorium and found myself face to face with a giant crow. Apparently many hours of rehearsal and improvisation were dedicated to perfecting the birds, but it certainly paid off! Besides avian impressions, much of the power of this production comes from the very strong central performances of Greg Davies (Ben), Ben Atterbury (Niss) and particularly Alex Mann, who really stood out for me as disillusioned politician Bran Lloyd. In fact, the whole ensemble seemed the strongest Act One cast that I have seen, bringing to life the strong emotions and high drama of the script with subtlety. They were also very versatile, with some beautiful singing (particularly James Rollinson) and once again proving Act One’s stage fighting prowess, although some of the cast could do with a bit more work on their accents (especially Irish ones)!
The production received a well-deserved standing ovation and it’s not hard to see why. White Crow is in a league of its own when it comes to amateur productions, both in terms of the performances and especially the quality of the writing. Act One pull off a real achievement with this production, combining gripping entertainment with serious political commentary. I will be recommending it to my Nationalism professor and to anyone who wants to see an exciting, engrossing new production.
SHOWING AT THE GATE ON 2-4 MARCH 2012.