Review: ‘Merch yr Eog / Merc’h an Eog’ and ‘A Good Clean Heart’

Two plays, five languages and one reviewer…

This October, the world seems to have visited Aberystwyth, with two multi-language performances, both with Welsh an integral part of them, appearing. Following their rehearsal period in Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Theatr Genedlaethol and Teatr Piba’s Merch yr Eog / Merc’h an Eog (The Salmon’s Daughter) began it’s tour of Wales, England and Brittany, whilst A Good Clean Heart, Neontopia‘s first full length production, is drawing to the end of it’s tour of Wales.

Although it might not look as if either have anything in common at first glance, we see both Merch yr Eog and AGCH placing the Welsh language in a multi-cultural context. Despite modern and global ideas, Merch yr Eog / Merc’h an Eog – which I saw on its second night in Aberystwyth, on the 6th of October – has a mythical dimension, with its dramatic climax appearing in the unlikely guise of a neighbour presenting protagonist Mair (played by Lleuwen Steffan) with a salmon as a gift. The title is a play on words, with ‘eog’ (salmon) and ‘euog’ (guilty), both similar words in Welsh, and the play, based on original work by Owen Martell and Aziliz Bourges, presents Mair’s conundrum, faced with selling the family farm in Wales from her privilaged position in Brittany with her lover, Loeiza (Loeiza Beauvir).

On stage, a striking rock, which transforms into a cave-like bedroom at a later stage in the play, is the nucleus, placed on a bed of sand. As each character leaves his or her mark on Mair’s troubled psyche, they circle this rock, under the subtle direction of Sara Lloyd and Thomas Cleroac. The play wizzes from a funeral tea in rural Wales to a luxurious spa in Brittany, and the subtle differences between the two countries and cultures, the two companies and both directors, emphasises Mair’s situation, torn between two homes. Despite this, some scenes – the dream sequences, for example – seem slightly out of place, and don’t flow as seemlessly as they should. They inturrupt the honest and heart-felt communications between Mair and her family, and they could easily be cut, or perhaps better integrated with the rest of the events.

There has also been complaints regarding Sibrwd; that the technology didn’t work as it should. It has to be said, watching the audience, at the beginning of the play, switching on their phones rather than switching them off, was a strange experience. However, I personally enjoyed listening to the Breton dialogue on stage with one ear – and listening out for words similar to Welsh ones – whilst being kept informed by Sibrwd in the other. However, some of the queues were a little off, and some inturrpted others, but I’m guessing – and do hope – that these were merely teething problems.

merch-yr-eog-action
Merch yr Eog. Picture by Kirstin McTernan. Taken from Theatr Genedlaethol’s Facebook page.

The bilingual tensions in A Good Clean Heart derive from Hefin, a teenager adopted as a child by Welsh-speaking middle class parents, who ventures to London to meet his biological brother, Jay, for the very first time, questioning his comfortable upbringing along the way. Following many five star reviews and a successful run during the Edinburgh Fringe, I had been excited to see this play for a while, and went along to Arad Goch, in Aberystwyth, on the 13th of October to watch the play.

Subtitles – perhaps now old fashioned! – were used during the play, but blended in to the bus-stop that was the main focus of the set. Also in the well-fashioned bus stop was a subtly placed screen, used to project images and dialogue throught the play. Interestingly, Neontopia opted to translate the English dialogue into Welsh too, in what some would argue was a pointless move. What became apparent, by peeping at the subtitles from time to time, was that subtle differences in translation highlighted Neontopia’s aim as a company. Both director Mared Swain and playwright Alun Saunders see ample opportunity to play with and analyze the bilingual aspect of Welsh life; studying two languages, but one existence for Hefin.

The play begins with striking choreography, and the movement continues so throught AGCH, with one comical ‘getaway’ scene in particular springing to mind. Although only two actors, Oliver Wellington and James Ifan, remain on stage throughout, they also turn efficiently to portray their mother and her partner. I was charmed by the humour of the play in particular, despite the situation being tinged with sadness. A young Jay’s heartfelt letter to his brother is a particularly poignient moment, almost bringing a tear to one’s eye. Unexpected twists and turns are piled up during the performance, and in the hands of a less-abled playwright, they could have been slightly OTT. However, it became clear that the audience remained on the edge of their seats throughout, unaware of the many surprises of Jay and Hefin’s story.

a-good-clean-heart
A Good Clean Heart. Image by Aenne Pallasca. From Neontopia’s Facebook page.

One aspect of both plays which I thoroughly enjoyed was the use of technology – and not as an audience member reliant on it – but of its use on stage. Hefin and Jay used Facebook chat on stage, both reading and displaying their messages to each other, and it didn’t feel forced or, for want of a better word, naff. Merch yr Eog in particular excelled with it’s use of Mair’s Skype conversations with her brother Rhys (Dyfan Dwyfor). Rhys’ images was projected on screen, but fragmented, his voice often dissappearing with the attrocious connection. Highlighted is the geographical and emotional distance between the two siblings.

This past month in Aberystwyth, the stage seems to be an appropriate space to explore Welsh’s relationship with the world. Without a doubt, there is further scope to do so, and it’s an interesting step forward for Welsh-language theatre.

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