"The Drowned World"
This week at Chapter saw what was (inexplicably) the first Welsh production, by F.A.B. Theatre, of Gary Owen’s “The Drowned World”, a play which seems to have been everywhere else in the world since its triumphant debut (courtesy of Paines Plough) on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002. It is set during a brutal but somehow unearthly civil war redolent of too many real-life situations (Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany), in which society is divided into “citizens” and those, now oppressed, who have “the radiance”. The plot sees a sexually frustrated, apparently apathetic, lowly civil servant (played by John Norton) reluctantly give refuge to a desperate couple on the run (the ever-reliable Brendan Charleson and Valmai Jones), whilst being spied on by a female soldier (Katy Owen, who’s probably tired of being described as pixie-ish). Class is played up - the well-spoken “refugees” are named Julian and Tara and dress in an elegant, vaguely “ethnic” manner; the casually-combat-clad government loyalists are named Darren and Kelly. Director Steve Fisher gives us a set consisting simply of four step-ladders from which the actors descend to deliver Owen’s meticulous, resonant dialogue – actually, mostly in monologue form, except at certain tense moments; the sound design (by Gareth Evans) is subtly chilling. Some of the scene transitions seem slightly clunky (unless this is an intentional, Brechtian thing), but the overall impression is of a universe which, though sketchily rendered, is anything but alien. Needless to say, things do not end happily, but the conclusion offers strangely satisfying moments of transcendence, which militate against the pessimism the play might otherwise engender (unless I’ve completely misunderstood the author’s intentions, which is entirely possible). While there is some dark humour here, it’s not exactly a fun night out, but this is certainly powerful, universally relevant drama.