Friday, June 03, 2016

Belonging/ Perthyn (Galeri, Caernarfon)

The ultimate power of theatre - as with any art form - is to provoke an emotional response. Whether it makes the audience laugh or cry, outraged or embarrassed, theatre should provoke a reaction. Nobody should leave the auditorium thinking about what to have for tomorrow night's dinner. Live theatre should leave a mark.

In the case of playwright Karin Diamond's Belonging/ Perthyn, most people left the theatre in tears, because this is one very powerful, and beautifully told, play. Five years in the making, Belonging is the brainchild of the Cardiff-based Re-Live project, which works with communities to share stories and transform them into live theatrical experiences. Diamond was inspired to write a play about the ups and downs, the truths and myths, of living with dementia in 21st century Wales after working with a Japanese theatre-maker who specialises in promoting a greater understanding of the condition through performance.

And you can tell Diamond has done her research, because every possible perspective is portrayed - the sufferer, the carer, the nurse, the family, the advocates. Because dementia is a disease that invades and controls not just the life of those diagnosed with it, but also those around them, those who are forced to soberly witness the decline and disappearance of the person they love before their very eyes. The most tragic aspect being, of course, that they are still there physically, but mentally, they're absent.

Nathan Sussex as Gareth and
Francine Morgan as Sheila
Belonging tells the heartbreaking stories of two dementia sufferers in different stages of decline. There's Sheila (Francine Morgan), a retired schoolteacher who dotes on her grown-up children but is showing telling signs of memory problems. She is constantly misplacing her handbag, and invariably finding it in the fridge. She buys endless loaves of bread and squirrels them away in her bed (sometimes she doesn't even buy the bread, but walks out of the shop with it unpaid). She cooks with plastic containers which melt all over her oven. It's these unusual signs which daughter Rhian (Karin Diamond) picks up on, and she attempts to get her brother Gareth (Nathan Sussex) on her side.

This is the story of a family about to be torn apart by a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Sheila is understandably resistant to the truth, in denial, but can only give in to the facts in the end. Gareth is also initially resistant to the truth, cracking inane jokes about memory loss which hide a deeper fear. It's Rhian who bears the brunt of her family's outspoken denials, but it is also she who is the bravest for facing up to this collective fear, fully understanding where it may lead.

Llion Williams and Cler Stephens
as Morys and Mags
Sheila's story is woven into scenes depicting the terrible decline of pensioner Morys (Llion Williams). We learn about how Morys met Mags (Clêr Stephens), how they fell in love, got married and lived as soul mates for 42 years. And then we fast-forward the decades to see Morys as a shell of his former self, stricken hard by dementia. The change is utterly devastating. There's a particular moment when Williams has his back to the audience as a young Morys energetically fiddles on shelves in the newlyweds' first home. And then he turns to face the audience, and the years rush by and we now see an elderly man crippled by his condition. The physical transformation is remarkable.

Morys and Mags' story is the most powerful of the two because the audience gets to see Morys before and after dementia, whereas Sheila is seen in a transitionary state, where she is still largely self-aware. The loss of a person through dementia is told unapologetically and sensitively by Diamond, who shows what it is like for Mags to watch her husband disappear. She cares for him for as long as she can, but there comes a point where his condition is too much. He no longer remember her. Mags has to put Morys into a home, and the pain of letting go, and allowing a stranger to care for her husband, is agonising to watch.

Director Peter Doran (Artistic Director of Belonging's production partner the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven) has put together an exemplary cast who clearly know, understand and care deeply about the subject matter. This is a tough play to perform, never mind watch, and all five actors put in gold standard turns. Four of them have multiple roles, each character distinctly different. As well as playing Sheila's daughter Rhian, writer Diamond also plays care home worker Sian, who makes a delightful connection with Welsh-speaking Morys which his English-speaking wife can no longer do. As Morys retreats into his fantasy world of the past, he reverts to only speaking his mother tongue, which alienates the heartbroken Mags.

Nathan Sussex is likeable and real as Sheila's happy-go-lucky son Gareth, whose refusal to accept what's happening to his mother quickly turns to fearful heartbreak. A son is always his mother's little boy, and there's a brief speech where Sussex translates that little boy's fears with touching sensitivity. His brief turn as a hospital nurse is Diamond's less than subtle excuse to address some of the politics surrounding EMI care, but it doesn't feel out of place for that. Rather, the audience feels rallied by it.

Francine Morgan's turn as Sheila is another strong performance which gets across the funny side of dementia (and there can be one if you know where to look!), as well as the tragedy of knowing what's coming, but refusing to believe it. A brief scene with Sheila calling to her dead mother upstairs pierces the heart, which also demonstrates how good Diamond's writing is, full of little moments like this.

Llion Williams as Morys
Llion Williams and Clêr Stephens play Morys and Mags, an utterly believable pair of characters whose love for one another is plain from the start. Their story is honest and true, and you can tell Diamond has a lot of personal investment in this particular story. Williams is astonishing as the dementia-stricken Morys. His entire face and body seem to transform and wither in what is a stunningly studied and well-observed portrayal.

Stephens is the beating heart of the production in her performance as Mags, a lovely woman who loses the love of her life and is pushed to the very edge of her wits. Stephens has a delicacy and a truthfulness which aims for the hearts of every single person in the audience, and you cannot fail to be moved, especially by the closing moments. Her additional turns as a GP and a pizzeria waitress are impressively opposed to her depiction of Mags, demonstrating what a versatile and thoughtful actor Clêr is.

Belonging is a very important play. It's not easy to watch, but then neither should it be. It shows the harsh realities of living with dementia, both for those with it and those watching it. Everybody suffers. There was barely a dry eye in the house when the lights lifted, and that's because the audience had been moved by what they saw. This is 75 minutes of live theatre that everybody should see, and certainly one of the most affecting plays I have been privileged to see.

The stats
Writer: Karin Diamond
Director: Peter Doran
Cast: Francine Morgan (Sheila); Karin Diamond (Rhian/ Sian); Nathan Sussex (Gareth/ Nurse); Llion Williams (Morys/ Mike); Clêr Stephens (Mags/ GP/ Maria)
Performed at Galeri, Caernarfon, on June 2nd, 2016 (evening performance reviewed).

Belonging/ Perthyn on Re-Live website (retrieved Jun 3 2016)
Wales Dementia Helpline website (retrieved Jun 3 2016)
Belonging/ Perthyn video teaser (retrieved Jun 3 2016)
Belonging/ Perthyn featured on S4C's Heno programme (retrieved Jun 3 2016)

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