Thurs 7 Nov, The Other Room at Porter’s, Cardiff
In Niall Griffiths’s savage novel Sheepshagger (2001), Ianto — a young, feral mountain boy whose language and home have been stolen from him — spends his spare time murdering the English ramblers who roam the Welsh countryside. We are invited as readers to read the barbaric killings he commits as acts of vengeance against the wider historical violence and abuse inflicted upon Wales as a subjugated nation.
The recent ‘Violence Series’ of new plays specially commissioned by The Other Room has figured violence in a similarly metaphorical sense. In this trilogy of plays, violence is used as a thematic device in order to reflect the social and political state of modern Wales.
In Mari Izzard’s bilingual two-hander Hela (produced by TOR in association with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru), a man (Hugh) — who can no longer speak the native language fluently — wakes in a room to find himself tied up by a Welsh-speaking young woman (Erin). Unable to understand her, he soon discovers his fate when she turns on her trusty translation device Myfanwy, a screen which displays English subtitles of Erin’s Welsh. All Hugh needs to do is answer Erin’s questions regarding the disappearance of her son, Gethin. In a dystopian Wales, Gethin has slipped through the cracks of an algorithmic justice system, which protects even the most deplorable sexual abuse. If Hugh refuses to co-operate with Erin, he will be mercilessly tortured.
Violet Burns Award-winning playwright Mari Izzard seems like a disciple of Sarah Kane, in terms of her dramatic use of shocking trauma and extreme violence, deployed in highly symbolic ways, to signal the abuse inflicted upon an entire culture. Her writing retains a visceral poeticism whether in English or in Welsh, with moments of inventive linguistic comedy.
Under Dan Jones’s direction, there are echoes of Saw in the set (designed by Delyth Evans), as well as Black Mirror in the play’s suspicion of technology’s influence on contemporary morality. But the tension is well-balanced with an impish and distinctly Welsh sense of humour, helped along by the writer’s twin sister Lowri Izzard, a captivating performer, in the lead role of Erin. Gwydion Rhys is also excellent as her captive male victim Hugh, hiding guilty secrets about his connections to Gethin.
While there is no doubt in my mind that Hela is a wildly ambitious and highly intelligent debut play, it’s not without its flaws. Though brimming with diverse ideas (language death, child abuse, algorithmic justice), the play might be more successful if its focus was a little more concentrated. As is the case for many debut plays, the writer tries to cram in all the things she wants to say. Compelling concepts are dangled in front of us but a lot is left unresolved, as the action rushes toward a gory conclusion (which, I must admit, made this critic cross his legs).
Minor gripes aside, here is a gripping production that heralds the arrival of a new and exciting feminist voice in Welsh theatre, proving yet again that The Other Room at Porter’s is one of our very best venues for first-rate new writing.
words SAM PRYCE
Hela is at The Other Room at Porter’s until Sun 24th Nov. Tickets and info here.