Theatre: Paradise lost in rural west Wales

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The Independent Culture

ONE OF the features of Terry Hands' successful first season as artistic director at Clwyd Theatr last year was Tim Baker's The Rape of the Fair Country, an adaptation of Alexander Cordell's novel.

The Rape of the Fair Country's virtues as a headline production for this Welsh theatre were immediately obvious, and it comes as no surprise that Baker and his writer, Manon Eames, have now followed that production with the next work in Cordell's trilogy.

Cordell's brand of popular historical novel offers family saga interacting melodramatically with momentous public events in ways that are powerfully sentimental and coursed with an indignation salted with nationalism. Like its predecessor, Hosts of Rebecca is enraged by the 19th-century degradation of the land and culture of Wales by the effects of rapacious industry and heedless colonialism.

If he does beg the historian Gwyn A Williams' famously awkward question "When Was Wales?", Cordell presents a broadbrush history recognisable to industrial and rural, Welsh and English-speaking, heartland and border - this theatre's wide and complex constituency.

Hosts of Rebecca continues the story of the Mortymer family as they move from the inferno of the iron-works at Monmouth to the supposed paradise of rural west Wales.

With the patriarch Dada and Morfydd's husband both dead, and Iestyn transported to Botany Bay penal colony in Australia for his part in the Chartist protest, it is a family of women - save for the 14-year-old Jethro (Kai Owen), who becomes the central character.

But Granfer Zephaniah's old farm can no longer yield a living, and Jethro and Morfydd are both forced into the local mine. Also misery and starvation has fuelled the "Rebecca Riots", a guerrilla war aimed mainly at the smashing of the hated toll-gates and conducted by nocturnal, wraith-like bands that are dressed as women.

There are many strands running here, and Eames and Baker have difficulty making one thread. First there is the representation of social conditions, best evoked in designer Mark Bailey's fearful picture of the mine ladders reaching up and out of sight. (None the less - redoubtable as Vivien Parry's Morfydd is - it's hardly credible she would come home after 10 hours in a 2ft coal seam as though from a counter at Laura Ashley.)

There is also the developing intensity of Jethro's love for Mari, his brother Iestyn's faithful wife - beautifully played by Siwan Morris. This in turn is torqued by the revelation that Mari is the child of Zephaniah's tragic liaison with the daughter of gentry.

Sion Probert fixes this vivid tale, but, in this occasionally overcooked production, he is compelled to shake his Old Testament locks too many times, both in its repetition and in prophesying that the mark of Cain is upon the intemperate Mortymers. This comes true in Jethro's involvement with the Rebeccas, but by the time he kills a dragoon its dramatic significance is lost in the regular segmentation of the action.

Although the teeming character of the novel has not been sufficiently filtered to provide a pure enough dramatic line, this is a gutsy, committed show, especially in the singing and ensemble work.

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