The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Autumn 2019
Evocative, moving and
thought-inspiring, there is more meat to this under-ninety-minute play
than to many twice its length.
In an abandoned shop in an
abandoned village in a war-ravaged countryside, an elderly couple carry
on, not just with the passivity of habit but in determined defiance of
If they do not remain and
remember, then not only will the largest part of their lives fade away,
but the world they once inhabited might just as well not have been.
The two figures are not
especially heroic types, but playwright Ed Thomas makes us feel the
heroism of their self-appointed task.
We are deep into Beckett territory here, but Thomas wears his influences comfortably and adds enough that is new and vivid to make his vision his own.
In particular he places an
emotively resonant metaphor at the centre of his play. The man is
evidently the last living speaker of something called only The Old
Language, and his fading memory threatens the negation of a whole culture
as well as a large part of who he is.
(It is not irrelevant that
this play is a co-production with the National Theatre Wales and the
characters are given Welsh names.)
And the couple also fight
against time and false progress by burying their dead son in a secret wild
place rather than letting his grave be lost in the anonymity of the war
There are two other
characters in the play, a dimwitted former employee kept going by the
memory of his love for the dead son, and a passing soldier who joined the
army because it offered order in a chaotic world only to discover it
They are, in a way, the Pozzo
and Lucky to the play's central couple, putting their heroic stature into
relief by contrast.
On top of everything else,
playwright Thomas has a superb ear for the resonant line or image.
Existential fear is domesticated into a vicious but resistible wild fox
just outside their door, while memory is a long corridor with rooms
leading off it that they have to visit frequently to keep warm and well
The employee spends his days
laboriously working on a jigsaw map of the world, and the couple have
grown old without realising it 'because time fell asleep in the snow and
never told us.'
Ed Thomas co-directs with the
Royal Court's Vicky Featherstone and, in striking contrast to Beckett,
anchors the play in a solid reality of time, place and characters.
Rhys Ifans makes the man not
especially bright or courageous, but driven almost animal-like to do what
he understands as his duty, while Rakie Ayola makes the woman more
recognisably Beckett-ish, carrying on simply because she is incapable of
not carrying on.
Jason Hughes as the soldier
and Sion Daniel Young as the boy provide generous support and are each
rewarded with a powerful scene of their own.
If On Bear Ridge has any flaw
it may be that it is packed too densely with themes, ideas and images –
I've barely gotten into the anti-war element, the memories of the village
in better times or designer Cal Dyfan's effect of having the solid set
begin to disappear as the main characters' memories fade.
But how exciting it is to encounter a play with so much to hold, move and stimulate you.
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