When Paul Hunter was first approached to direct The Dark Philosophers, he balked at the idea. National Theatre Wales, while masterminding its ambitious first season, had sought him out to adapt this book of stories by Gwyn Thomas, the somewhat neglected voice of the South Wales valleys.
At the time, Thomas was an unknown quantity to Hunter, the co-founder of acclaimed London theatre company, Told by an Idiot. Unaware of the author’s true calibre, when he heard of Thomas' focus on Depression-era mining communities he envisioned mawkish depictions of male voice choirs and cheeks smeared with coaldust.
“I suppose I always had that alarm bell in the back of my head,” says Hunter. “But I think the very thing that will always puncture that sentimentality is a rich vein of comedy.”
From the moment he delved into Thomas’s 1946 collection, that was precisely what he found. The Dark Philosophers’ three tales of murder, incest and grinding poverty are shot through with humour as dark as the mines themselves, and within a few pages Hunter was sold. This would not be another cloying tribute to an often-caricatured nation.
Produced in close collaboration with NTW, it comes to the Fringe as one of two Welsh works featured in the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase this year. The other, Llwyth, finds 32-year-old Dafydd James writing in Welsh but offering a no more traditional take on his homeland.
His is very much the Wales of today. His play, a celebration of the Cardiff gay scene that he says raised him, was produced jointly by Sherman Cymru and Theatr Genedlaethol, the Welsh-language touring company that—before NTW—was the country’s only national theatre.
Following NTW’s spectacular inaugural season, The Dark Philosophers’ run at the Traverse Theatre will mark the company’s first foray beyond Welsh borders, while Llwyth will be the first Welsh-language production ever to make the showcase. Between them, these two starkly different comedies, each well received when they premiered last year, will speak for the current state of Welsh theatre at a time when its profile is at its highest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, NTW’s dynamic artistic director John McGrath has great confidence in the country’s output. He speaks of the emergence of a bright new generation of writers, a renaissance of the older ones and a burgeoning fringe scene centred around the capital.
A hero among its current brood is James, whom Edinburgh audiences will remember as the unhinged eponymous frump from his bizarre musical comedy, My Name is Sue, at the 2009 Fringe. Llwyth, his latest festival offering, is a cocktail of sex, drugs and choral music (composed by James), and follows five gay men as they negotiate the Welsh capital’s notoriously rowdy post-rugby nightlife.
He calls it “hugely autobiographical with a huge pinch of salt”, and its fond attempt to encapsulate a subculture saw early reviews draw comparisons to the 1999 cult film Human Traffic, a paean to the club scene in Cardiff. With Llwyth—meaning “tribe”—he explores friendship, what it means to belong to a group and how we reconcile the opposing elements that make up our identities.
Likewise, the play itself is a collision of influences. As a starting point James took Y Gododdin, an ancient Welsh elegy to a group of debauched sixth-century warriors, naming his main character Aneurin after the bard and investing his monologues with a mock-lofty poeticism.
Transposed into a modern context, the theme of tribal tendencies remains. And in a rather neat coincidence, the old legend set the tribesmen’s revelries in the rough area of what is now Edinburgh.
“They spent a year there drinking mead, getting pissed and having feasts before going to war in Catterick, where nearly all of them died,” says James, who himself returns to the city where he fell for drama as a student.
Adding further to Llwyth’s mash-up aesthetic is his decision to write dialogue chiefly in the language he grew up speaking, a mongrel variation of Welsh known as Wenglish.
He says: “It's like a pidgin dialect that happens where you have two languages colliding, creating an urban Welsh that many people hate. But it's just cultural evolution, and I don't think that's a bad thing.”
In McGrath and Hunter’s production, a similar interplay of tradition and innovation moulds Thomas’ work into an exciting new form. Adapted with the help of Carl Grose, The Dark Philosophers' three stories are intertwined with excerpts from the author’s life, amounting to an expressionistic, anarchic piece of theatre – what Hunter calls “an attempt to celebrate the spirit of a man, rather than a faithful adaptation of his stories”.
He adds: “Our approach is always to start with a vibrant, visual and physical world, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
It’s a Told by an Idiot production through and through, and precisely the sort of treatment McGrath thought was needed to convey the author’s imagination.
“Gwyn Thomas could be portrayed as gritty realism, he says, "but you’d lose a lot of what made him extraordinary."
Incorporating puppetry, music and an outlandish and versatile set design comprising a mountain of wardrobes, the production amounts to what Hunter says is "as far from naturalism as you can get". It may still be in its infancy, but NTW has gained a reputation for thinking big, and here it seems The Dark Philosophers is no exception.
Over the past year McGrath’s theatre has turned heads by bringing Greek tragedy to an MOD firing range, choral music to a Swansea library and en-masse “outdoor gaming” to the beaches of North Wales. That’s not to mention Michael Sheen’s participatory Easter epic The Passion, which dominated both the town of Port Talbot and the arts press headlines throughout its 72-hour running time.
After August, NTW joins forces with James for its first musical, The Village Social. Staged in Welsh village halls, the play will marry James’s formidable musical talent to McGrath’s sense of place, kicking off an equally impressive second season that will see NTW expand its international horizons as it incorporates influences and collaborators from Japan, Argentina, Somalia and Kosovo.
But before that, this summer's British Council showcase will offer the country’s twin national theatres a chance to show international audiences just what their own country has to give. With a fresh side of Welsh urban life thrown open and a literary genius welcomed back into the canon, 2011 could well be remembered as the year Wales arrived on the world stage.