The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Fri 26 August
The author is not dead. Rather, he is prancing around on stage in National Theatre Wales’ The Dark Philosophers, mischievously meddling with the props and putting words into his fellow characters’ mouths. The real Gwyn Thomas may have died in 2008, but the Welsh writer and broadcaster’s words fill Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and his playful influence is still clearly felt.
Channelled by an ever-flamboyant Glyn Pritchard throughout this rich and playful piece, Thomas is firmly in control of the play’s tone and development. With brisk instructions, he directs the speech and movements of his characters. Not only is he brought to life in this representative sense, he is the embodiment of the remote author, a figure seldom actively considered in a work’s presentation. Thomas also features as a character in his own right and the piece becomes a colourful biography, chronicling both the physical and imaginative landscapes of the great, rounded individual who first put this gritty collage of characters on the page. Fittingly, the work exhibits a thrillingly chaotic plot development, swinging recklessly from story to story. In rhythm with this, the comic timing is impeccable, elegantly capturing the rapidly delivered thoughtfulness and quick yet considered wit that characterised Thomas’ onscreen manner.
Beyond this post-modern mode of delivery, this is a production truly defined by a sense of timelessness. Not only do the dead come back to life, forming lively metaphors illustrating the posthumous and transforming power of literature, the piece swiftly jumps from era to era. Constantly, creatively and almost rebelliously anachronistic, the production layers facts and fictions, bringing together characters not for the purposes of historical accuracy, but in a general spirit of lively caricature and artistic extravagance. At one charmingly inventive point, Thomas’ appearance on Parkinson is re-imagined as fellow guests Billy Connolly and Dolly Parton respectively fast-forward through a lengthy comic anecdote and a gleeful ditty. It is this hearty mix of Gwyn Thomas’ biographical details and quirky adaptations of his collection of stories of the same name that forms a patchwork quilt of valleys experience that is strung together with haunting song and inventive movement.
At the end of its Edinburgh run, this was The Dark Philosophers‘ strongest incarnation. Yet even though the piece has been thoroughly streamlined since its first showing at Newport’s Riverfront and neatly polished up throughout the festival, it still bears a charming playfulness and air of creative freedom as it knots together stories in a dingy cabaret of the everyday. There’s the bewitching shabbiness of a circus here as the extravagance of poverty is laced with beautifully captivating off-beat moments. Remarkably, the piece has become tight and structured, without losing the feel of spontaneity and life within the community it depicts.
While Thomas’ bold claim that ‘every Welshman is a kind of mobile theatre’ may not be entirely true, National Theatre Wales have certainly found a mine of inspiration in this one. Thomas is the excitable on-stage catalyst in a symbolic and ever-surprising musical comedy, a postmodernism fantasy of village life in Wales which is emphatically tailored for the present day. The Dark Philosophers is a zappy hymn to a nation peppered with hunger, abuse and murder but is also a tribute to a great man, balancing colloquialism and dry intelligence in a way that does great justice to the spirit of a great Welsh writer. In this production, therefore, Thomas is very much alive.