The expanded name of what was until recently Theatr Clwyd lays an explicit claim to what had de facto been the case for some time: that it is the national theatre of Wales. The move is, it is tacitly admitted, partly to do with the politics of funding, as is artistic director Terry Hands's choice of current material: in order to attract sizeable enough audiences to persuade various bodies to provide what amounts to a viable patchwork of funding, a commercial flagship project is called for. Hence the first major revival that I can recall of the trilogy which brought Alan Ayckbourn to wide attention in 1974. Its three constituent plays are performed in repertoire during the week, and together on Saturdays.
The Norman Conquests was also the first major manifestation of Ayckbourn's delight in imposing bizarre structural constraints upon himself. The three plays cover the same weekend in the same house, and their corresponding scenes are set at broadly the same hours, but each is located in a different part of the house: dining room, living room and garden respectively. Thus, although it is intended that each play can be seen separately from the others without seeming incomplete, the full picture is obtained only by slotting together the pieces of information and illustrations of character traits which we see over the course of the entire trilogy.
When viewed in a single ten-and-a-half-hour day (including intervals and meal breaks), it becomes apparent that the pace of characterisation has been set by, and performed in terms of, the trilogy as a whole. For instance, Sarah Malin's characterisation of Annie – the only one of three grown-up siblings still living at their home in the country, chained to her psychosomatically bedridden mother – at first seems distracted and perhaps even a little unbalanced; only when we have seen the first scene of Round & Round The Garden, which takes place half an hour before that of Table Manners, can we properly understand Annie's dislocated mood. Similarly, elder brother Reg (Robert Blythe) appears at first to be stolidly cheerful, and only later are we vouchsafed glimpses into his escapist obsessions and their possible causes; Charles Millham, by contrast, plays Tom at the same slow-witted but good-hearted plod throughout, and it is we who gradually grow more alert to subtleties of nuance in the character.
This factor is at once a tribute to the actors and a mild criticism of Hands's direction, in that – however hard one might labour to combat such an effect, and however inevitable it may seem to be – the independence of the constituent plays is, after all, slightly compromised. In general hands plays as straight a directorial bat as possible, which is the only practical approach to take to such a subject. The "walls" of Martyn Bainbridge's skewed sets are semi-opaque gauzes, so that when a character nips into another room, we vaguely discern the activity there: in Table Manners, Reg nips offstage into the living room to interrupt Annie and her naïve but manipulative philandering brother-in-law Norman (Steffan Rhodri, looking and behaving not unlike David Thewlis), and we half-see his gesticulations through the gauze – a few hours later, in Living Together, his interruption is presented from the other side of the wall. In Hands's production, the plays do not stand altogether alone... but then again, the theatre is after "return custom", so to speak, and judging by the more than respectable houses throughout the Saturday presentation I saw (which included a sixth-form party all the way from Kent), it achieves its goal.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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