We've just found our translation of Lowri Haf Cooke's review of The Good Earth featured by Arts Scene Wales. For those of us at Motherlode that don't speak Welsh we really couldn't have asked for a more encouraging start to 2017. To all of our friends who supported us with this production over 2016 - Diolch yn fawr!
Below is a translation of Lowri Haf Cooke's review for The Good Earth by Gareth Meirion - Original Welsh language review here
Back in Cardiff, most fittingly, I experienced a new protest drama, partly based on the citizens of Troedrhiw-gwair's stand in 1973. The Good Earth by Motherlode Theatre offers a personal glimpse of a long battle, and is this season's theatrical ticket in my opinion.
It was praised to the skies in a review in The New York Times following a staging at TriBeCa's The Flea Theatre in August. Thankfully, it was not compared to the works of Dylan Thomas, even though there is an echo of Under Milk Wood at the start of the show. But the musical, which includes strong elements of folk singing, offers more than cartoon characters. Indeed, some of the performances are amongst the best I've seen on the Welsh theatre stage this year.
We follow a family and community in a village in the Rhondda Valley, at the time of an unexpected visit – a stranger comes to report that the nearby mountain poses a great danger to everyone. Everybody in the village is encouraged to move a mile away, where the council is offering new services: a supermarket, a swimming pool, a school, and houses that are less damp than the traditional terraces.
Many people in the valley accept the offer without debate, apart from one particular family.
We are introduced to it all through the eyes of a young girl, Jackie Adams (Gwenllian Higginson), who's brimming with curiosity. We are given a comic, visual list of her many neighbours who live on the same street as her, from the butcher and the grocer to the doctor and the teacher – this is a living community, an 'honest community'. Finally, we are introduced to her mother Dina (Rachel Boulton), who raises Jackie and her older brother James (Mike Humphries) by herself. Her husband 'left', having lost his job, and life has been a battle ever since.
Neither the strike nor the coal pits are mentioned, but there are references to Miami Vice and the new 'Harvester', placing us, and the story, in a period of emptiness, in the no man’s land of the latter half of the 1980s.
To this close-knit family, battling is a way of life and there's no question but to oppose the authorities; they ask for evidence about the 'unstable' mountain, but they are ignored for three years and more. In the meantime, their long-time neighbours, who start to turn against the family, gradually leave. According to Jackie's teacher, the family are daft 'troublemakers' who are blind to development. 'Ask her what's the meaning of integrity,' is Dina's firm answer.
But as the battle moves closer, tensions at home grow, threatening to completely undermine the close-knit family. Is the principle of the campaign stronger than family loyalty?
The drama's conclusion is most ambiguous – and is less hopeful than Tir Sir Gâr (‘The Land of Carmarthenshire’), a similar production in which a heritage is at stake. Despite that, there are comic strands throughout this show, which strike the right note, thanks to excellent performances by everyone.
Even though Gwen from Fishguard – James's fiancée – is Anni Dafydd's main character, she offers a master class by presenting three comic neighbours in less than a minute. Gwenllian Higginson, as Jackie Adams, is incredibly sweet and believable as an innocent girl under ten. Enthralled by nature, she loves the stars, before seeing her world turned upside down. Mike Humphries offered a strong performance as her brother – the passionate family man under siege. In spite of an injury to his knee, he gave his all to the show's many physical challenges. Kate Elis brought light relief to the show as Trish, the mouthy broad next door, at her best, profound and jovial – through fire and water – in the company of her best friend, Dina.
Through it all, the cast bring a powerful blast of physical energy; through collective movements, the five actors work together instinctively, to communicate a spirit of unity and harmony. Sound effects by the cast themselves are simple but extremely effective: heavy sighing, and magical folk singing.
Even though The Good Earth is not a Welsh-language drama, this spirited soundscape gives a background 'commentary' in Welsh. From 'Tŷ Bach Twt' (‘A Little Tidy House’) to 'Gwyn Fyd yr Aderyn' (‘The Bird's Paradise’) to the lullaby 'Si Hwi Hwi' – the latter written during a period of servitude – the themes couple perfectly with each scene, and offer a more profound layer to Welsh-language audiences – congratulations to the musical director Max Mackintosh on the powerful arrangements.
Visually, the stage is empty apart from abstract tables and chairs and metallic installations which bring to mind the pipes of a church organ.
The drama came about thanks to the Wales Millennium Centre's Incubator scheme in 2013, before being further developed by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council's Theatres scheme in Park & Dare Theatre, Treorchy, before going on tour. The drama is polished and directed carefully to hit the right notes before reaching its climax.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the show is Rachel Boulton's performance – the founder of the Motherlode theatre company – who portrays Dina, the 'Welsh Mam' of The Good Earth production. We have seen 'The Mam' in countless productions, but Rachel brings a new freshness to her interpretation, and a healthy dose of everyday reality. Despite being a relatively young actress, she is transformed into an older woman – not through prosthetics, but through a thorough understanding of the character traits of Rhondda women. My father's family came from Porth and her accent hits the mark, with wavy rhythms and elastic vowels. But thanks to her mastery of deadpan comedy, balanced with pure heartbreak, we see in her an embodiment of the Valleys' strength.
If we aren't all stimulated by her to start our own revolution, there's something seriously wrong in Wales. But considering the similar whirlwind of a performance given by Sophie Melville in Iphigeniah in Splott last year – before the political earthquakes of 2016 – it is likely that Dina's story will serve as no more than ephemeral entertainment.