With striking sets, powerhouse performances and an interesting mishmash of tones, Branwen: Dadeni – a Welsh-language co-production between Frân Wen and the Wales Millennium Centre – is an epic musical take on tales from the Mabinogion that’ll likely divide opinion.
The tale referenced in the title (the Pair Dadeni, or magic cauldron) comes from the second of the Mabinogion’s Four Branches – thought to be the oldest prose in Britain – but the show pulls elements from most of them to create a composite story with Welsh mythological princess Branwen, a tragic heroine, at its centre. The headstrong Branwen – played by singer-songwriter and seasoned Welsh Of The West End member Mared Williams – and her stoic brother Bendigeidfran (aka Brân the Blessed, a legendary giant brought down to size for this version and played by Tomos Eames) are born to the sorcerer King Llŷr and Queen Penarddun.
When Llŷr is slain by his ally-turned-enemy Euroswydd, who also claims his wife, Branwen and Bendi get a new half-sibling: the unstable Efnysien (Caitlin Drake), gender-flipped here. Bendi takes over the kingdom and the siblings agree to rule as one, but Efnysien, with her psychotic tendencies, is sent away to deal with Bendi’s enemies while Branwen’s voice is silenced.
This leads Branwen to make a rash proposal of marriage to the visiting King of Ireland, Matholwch (Rithvik Andugula), in a bid to force an alliance between Wales and Ireland. Math accepts, much to Bendi and a returned Efnysien’s anger. Rather than peace and prosperity, however, this sets into motion a series of bloody betrayals and shattered kingdoms, both aided and marred by supernatural relics.
Branwen’s biggest problem is that not all of its elements make for a concordant potion at times. Upon entry to the theatre, you’re greeted by a marvellously Brutalist take on a medieval castle: dried leaves strewn across the ground, discordant whispers echoing from the rafters and a young child (Mali Grooms) wandering curiously through it all. The production then starts with a literal bang – making the entire audience jump out of our seats – before narrator Picell (Ioan Heffin), strapped to a torture device and seemingly undead from his chest wound, launches into a howling introduction.
Spine-tingling stuff – however, this heavy atmosphere of foreboding is soon evaporated by a far lighter tone, perky and overly theatrical songs ricocheting off a set that then looks completely at odds with those using it. With a small cast and large stage, the lack of any choreographed dance numbers also leaves the big belters visually hollow.
Some of the characterisations are difficult to get your head around, as well. Efnysien’s absence during Math and Branwen’s courtship leaves her character underdeveloped until she returns, at which point the extreme act she commits as a way to lash out at her sister for ‘abandoning her’ comes completely out of leftfield. The swaggering Math, meanwhile, is given plenty of charm by Andugula, but it’s hard to tell what his true feelings and motivations are – and whether that’s the point or not. This is sometimes the problem with adding realistic nuance to folklore figures, as reconciling this three-dimensionality with their nonsensical and allegorical actions becomes problematic.
Despite this, there’s still a lot to love about Dadeni. The second half, when things get much weirder and darker, is also when the show comes into its own, with ingenious use of the octet chorus – who creep closer and closer to the audience as things progress – employing fantastically dramatic movement and sound to create the Pair Dadeni’s necromantic magic. Every performer is exemplary, with Gillian Elsa’s Ena, the real power behind the Irish throne, getting an especially rapturous response for a growling signature villain song. Dues must also be given to Andugula for brushing up on his school-level Welsh for this – an intimidating job in front of a theatre full of Welsh speakers…
Challenging, ambitious and imperfect, much like its titular heroine, you’d be hard-pressed to find Welsh mythology retold with this much vim and viscera elsewhere.
Branwen: Dadeni, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Wed 8 Nov
words HANNAH COLLINS