A new play touring Wales tells the unsung story of the coach who masterminded four victories against the All Blacks in the 70s. But as its director – no stranger to rugby biopics – tells Jamie Rees, there’s more to Carwyn than sporting glory.
What makes Carwyn James a great subject for a play like this?
The play was commissioned a couple of years ago to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Lions series win in New Zealand, but COVID put pay to that. What’s really handy for us is that 2022 is the anniversary of his great success with Llanelli and that 9-3 victory against the All Blacks in 1972. And if we’d had to wait another year there would have been another anniversary to enjoy because he also beat the All Blacks with the Barbarians in 1973 when Gareth Edwards scored that try. So that’s the rugby side.
There’s far more to Carwyn than rugby though, and that’s what’s so interesting about him. You can’t really talk about him without asking two things: First of all, why didn’t he coach Wales? And secondly, the debate around his sexuality. The boring answer to both of those, in terms of rugby, is he never actually went for the Welsh coach job and in terms of his sexuality, I guess it’s no one’s business, you know?
Unless you’re writing a show about his life, and then it becomes your business? Is his sexuality something you touch on in the play?
It’s not easy for me, really. I am a straight 40-year-old man and we have to deal with it in a sensitive way. My personal view is, on the one hand, we can’t out him because Carwyn never came out himself, but I feel that it would be equally bad if we ignored it completely. We’ve focused the play on his mental health, the demons he had – not just about his sexuality, but about the skin condition he had so outwardly: psoriasis plagued him all his life. He had battles with alcohol, too. We’ve explored what happens when the door is closed and he was on his own to deal with all of those things. It’s very much a play about men not talking about mental health, which is a really important issue.
This is a one-man show. How different is it to direct such a piece?
It’s a very different way of directing – it’s more about trusting the person you have in the role. I totally trust Simon Nehan, playing Carwyn, because he’s a fantastic actor. It’s about supporting him in terms of the fact that he’s never done a one-person show before. As you know, I’ve been there on stage by myself, having performed the one-man show about Ray Gravell’s life and therefore can help a bit in terms of my experience. Obviously, I have a vision as the director and for me, I’m very aware that this production is also done by the same team behind Grav, so we’ve really challenged ourselves to tell this story in a different way.
I’m very lucky to have a great team around me at the Torch Theatre in terms of technical, marketing, backstage, front of house, etc. is absolutely brilliant. The production team we have too is exceptional, with Tegan Reg James’ clever set design and Ceri James’ lighting working beautifully to help tell the story. There’re some lovely moments where we get to see some of those magic rugby moments from Carwyn’s career projected onto the set.
If you could pick anyone else in the world of rugby to tell the story of next, who would it be?
I don’t know if I want to give it away because someone else will steal the idea, but it would make a superb play and I hope it happens. I think a great story, not in terms of a rugby player, but a rugby character would be Bill McLaren. He was ‘the rugby voice’ for decades, I’ve read his book and he is such a good storyteller: witty, intelligent and so knowledgeable about the game. Imagine taking that show to the Edinburgh Fringe!
Carwyn is at The Riverfront, Newport on Tue 1 Mar; Pontardawe Arts Centre on Wed 2; Theatr Brychieniog, Brecon on Sat 5; Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan on Mon 7; Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on Tue 8 + Wed 9; Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea on Thurs 10 and Galeri, Caernarfon on Sat 12 Mar.
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.
More info on the Torch Theatre’s website here.
words JAMIE REES
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