Daily Archives: August 16, 2011

The Dark Philosophers

The Dark Philosophers
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****

PUNCTUATED BY the ear-cracking thunder and boom of explosions deep underground, where new coal seams are being opened up with sweat and dynamite, this 2010 show based on the life and stories of the Welsh writer and thinker Gwyn Thomas marks a hugely theatrical and deeply enjoyable Scottish stage debut for the new English-language National Theatre Wales, founded on a similar without-walls model to the National Theatre Of Scotland, and now taking the first steps in what could be a powerful creative relationship.

In a sense, in The Dark Philosophers – co-produced with the London-based physical theatre group Told By An Idiot – the NTW is carrying out one of the most traditional tasks of a national theatre, exploring and restoring the reputation of a neglected writer, whose short stories expressed a sharp, surreal vision of life in the Rhondda in the middle years of the 20th century.

They do it, though, in a style that defies dusty convention. Angela Davies’s superb set conjures up the teeming miners’ terraces of a small valley town, crawling up the side of a looming mountain, with a great heap of old wooden wardrobes and tallboys, reflecting both the intense respectability and the heavy, Victorian morality of domestic life in the valleys. The people, though, are no sheep; and like the fishing-village residents of Dylan Thomas’s Llaregyb, they burst from the doors of their closets with vividly extreme tales of violence and abuse, exploitation and absurdity, lust and loathing and speculative thought, that fill the air with sound, and sometimes converge in a great chorus of song, orchestrated by (Scottish) composer and musical director Iain Johnstone.

And just occasionally, in best post-modern style, the event is punctuated by re-enactments of an appearance Thomas made on the Michael Parkinson show in the 1970’s. It’s a salutary reminder that the world Thomas describes is not so far from us in time as it now seems; a time when working-class people in Britain both endured the dramatic horror of a life at the coal-face, and yet had the self-respect, the organisation, and the hope, to educate a son like Thomas to the point where he became a mighty and eccentric voice for the valley of his birth, wry, experimental, bold, and true.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 253.