“You shouldn’t fear death, you should only fear not living a true life.”
Extremely poignant words from a man who, when you pull back the veil on his life, was unable to do the very thing he was at pains to tell this full house at the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven last night for new play, Carwyn.
Who is Carwyn James? It defies belief that we even have to ask ourselves this question in Wales. As a proud rugby nation, the names JJ, JPR, Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mervyn Davies, John Dawes, Grav et al trip off the tongue with such affection as we talk with glee of the Goliaths of Welsh rugby in the Golden Era of the 1970s. But Carwyn who?
Carwyn James is the man from Cefneithin, a village of 300 or so people, who masterminded four victories against the mighty All Blacks in the 70s – something no other Welsh coach has accomplished since 1953. He refers to himself as a ‘David’ when he talks of these achievements, yet there really wasn’t a bigger man than he amongst those who put on the famous jerseys of Llanelli, the Barbarians and the British & Irish Lions in those victories.
“Poof” and “pansy” are words that stick in Carwyn’s mind as he stands in the Amsterdam hotel room where he lost his life aged 53, regaling stories of his remarkable achievements in rugby. That’s what the media called him in New Zealand when, as coach, his 1971 Lions team conquered them 2-1, with one draw, in their own backyard: still the only Lions squad to do so.
There is an innate sadness in Simon Nehan’s stunning portrayal of Carwyn in this moving, lyrical and often witty one-man drama by the duo behind the award-winning Grav, a show about another Welsh rugby icon Ray Gravell – writer Owen Thomas and Gareth John Bale, who played Grav and directs here. Alone, impeccable in shirt and tie, Carwyn meticulously makes his tea as he settles down behind a veil of curtains that separate him from the audience in the opening sequences. As he draws back the curtains on Tegan Reg James’ clever set design, he opens his heart to the world: you feel, for the first time.
When the Teasmaid isn’t forthcoming, with cigarette and alcoholic drink in hand he talks us through his career as a Welsh coach who never took that role for Wales themselves. Did his face just not fit in the tribal Wales of the 1960s and 70s? Carwyn never truly found his place, his tribe, despite some happy years in Rovigo, Italy where “he could be himself”.
Ahead of his time in so many ways, whilst this worked for him as a revolutionary rugby coach – in Carwyn, we enjoy his changing room anecdotes about great players like Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, David Duckham and the massive Welsh contingent who played under him – his personal life was a different beast. The world was not ready for the man, and he carries it on his back like an enormous lock bearing down on him. And my goodness, don’t we feel it in this sublime performance from Nehan.
He tells us at the end of the play that he might not have lived a happy life, but he did live a contented one. I didn’t believe him for one second. What I do believe is that this is a heartbreaking and important story of a man who has been forgotten, almost as if he never truly existed in the first place; one wonders how and why that has been allowed to happen.
Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, Wed 16 Feb
Carwyn is at the Torch Theatre until Sat 26 Feb. Tickets: £8.50-£15. Info: here. The play will then tour Wales during February and March. The Fri 3 & Sat 4 March performances at Aberystwyth Arts Centre will include a Q&A afterwards with Into The Wind: The Life of Carwyn James biographer Alun Gibbard.
words JAMIE REES
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