Dylan Thomas cited Caradoc Evans as one of his significant inspirations. Watching ‘My People’, you can see the connections. But you can also see the stark differences. Thomas shows great affection for his characters. Evans hates his.
When Evans’ book was published 100 years ago, it was reviled by his countrymen. Even this new adaptation opens with a fire and brimstone chapel preacher announcing that “they are not great stories” and “the writing isn’t very good”. The play’s being ironic, of course – but you do have to be very careful with irony.
I think what happens next is that Evans’ evil book possesses the present day chapel deacons and they are obliged to act out twelve of its stories. But I’m not entirely sure.
We soon get to learn what an entrenched all round bigot the preacher is; and the rest are equally unhappy caricatures of distorted stereotypes. (You don’t often see a pregnant woman in tradition Welsh national costume flashing her knickers). The six actors play dozens of sketchy and largely unredeemable characters in what often seemed to be snatches of stories that were not always easy to grasp. At no time did I feel encouraged to make the effort to comprehend it all.
The themes, however, are abundantly clear. Incest, wife beating, gang rape, alcoholism, murder, blasphemy, usury, greed, enslavement, pride, pomposity and the sin of suicide; to name but a few. Elements of all these exist in every society, of course, but the sheer concentration of nastiness, undiluted by any sense of lasting love, paints a very bleak picture. My Welsh companion shook his head and said it was a Wales he simply could not recognise; then or now. “They are not my people.”
Each section of the play is introduced by the words “A reading from…”; which suggests adapter Steffan Donnelly has clearly been faithful to Evans’ text. His tricksy production (in partnership with Aled Pedrick) is fast and furious and ultimately outrageous. It seemed to be pushing Evans into Joe Orton territory. It’s also immaculately timed and choreographed. An exhausting amount of work has obviously gone into it.
There’s considerable ugliness. For example, after unwittingly sleeping with her father, Matilda, played by Roanna Lewis, is required to sit in a grave and smother herself with soil. And there’s humour to be had from chapelgoers decrying an English maid for walking her dog and washing her flesh on the Sabbath.
The actors deserve a medal. Hugh Thomas holds it all together as the insufferable preacher and Miss Lewis has to be increasingly brave as the ignominies are piled upon her.
The critics of a century ago had a point, and I fear today’s audiences will also reject ‘My People’. It’s a cold, depressive night in the theatre; lacking truth and integrity.
I’m afraid an anniversary is insufficient reason to exhume a buried duck.
Photo : Catherine Ashmore
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