REVIEW by Nathan Llywelyn Monday

NWR Issue r26

The Wolf Tattoo

However hard the playwright tries, the theatre tends to be us and them. Usually, the audience return to a St Mellons, a Pontprennau or a Birchgrove. The curtain always closes, even if it isn’t visible. But this play was different. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ disintegrated into ‘the pack’ – not ‘me’, or a ‘him’, or a ‘her’.

I walked in from a heatwave into a hotter environment. Four bodies lay on the floor like biblical Nebuchadnezzars – sweating beasts clawing the ground. Waiting.

Cue the characters. There aren’t many. Avian Flu has taken its toll. Humanity is contracted to five individuals. Graf (Gwydion Rhys) and Rose (Sarah Morgan) are seventeen and in love. She is pregnant; he is part of this cultish gang which ‘pack’ at night on the concrete wasteland, dressed in real wolf skins. Another member of that gang, Shenks (Jarred Ellis Thomas), spends the play dribbling, sweating, swearing; he even pisses himself at the end. It’s a bit much actually. Then there’s Rose’s friend, Ash (Non Evans) and the curious tattooist called Snakeskin (John Rowley) – my favourite character.

There are some beautiful moments in the play which usually involve Graf and Rose, even though their dialogue is somewhat repetitive. I would have liked to have experienced more between them, instead of f*** this and f*** that. I don’t necessarily mean words. The programme does say that ‘language has broken down’. But language is much more than the spoken word, isn’t it?

I was both fascinated and disturbed by the opening scene, in which the cast writhe in a cultish, drug-fuelled agony. Apparently, this scene contains devised movement which Chris Durnall developed out of the physical vocabulary of British Sign Language. I didn’t necessarily pick up on that but I was thinking Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa on steroids!

We were arranged in a square. I felt the charcoaled ground and was surprised when I held chipped playground rubber which, in the half-light, built up this wasteland. The lighting flickered throughout the play; it was all a bit unheimlich and disorientating until a thread of red colour broke through the darkness. It was a welcome change, even though there was a sense of Star Trek’s ‘red alert system’ about it; coming on, as it were, when something bad was about to happen.

And a lot of bad things did happen. Gough explores the toxic gang-culture which scars our cities. She creates a culture that is dominated by masculinity – animalistic, primordial, and scarily current at the same time. Solo kill becomes an initiation in a world where the knife is strapped to the belt again. Even as I wrote this review, Malaciah Joseph Thomas suffered multiple stab wounds and died at a house in Corporation Road, Cardiff. He was only twenty-years-old and it happened a mile away from Chapter Arts Centre where I viewed this performance. The play carries on and is eerily mirrored in our neighbourhoods. Buttons may be pressed in distant deserts, but ultimately, this is a landscape where blood is spilt on the streets and hatred is seen in our eyes. The old ‘Cain and Abel thing’ kicks in again and again. I can hear you say, ‘It’s got nothing to do with me… I’m respectable.’ Wasn’t it Cain who said, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Nothing has changed. The same wolf lurks in each and every one of us.
Here, evolution is portrayed like a memory and progression is a myth. The character Snakeskin is a mystery – does the name suggests a satanic figure who takes Graf’s soul? Or is he the absent gang leader – a cloaked Mephistopheles? Could he even represent the remnant (the skin) of religion, which separated good and evil; he tattoos hearts and wolves, wanders here and there, marking his words (like his customers) with wisdom and woe. Whoever he represents, I wanted more. But perhaps the whole point of Snakeskin is his absence and the uncertainty surrounding him.

Is there any redemption in the play? I think there is. Rose ‘chooses life’ and yearns after something more than the desolation of wolf and wasteland. There is a hope which is only ever whispered among the disillusioned characters. She carries the next generation, who, like every one of us, has both wolf and butterfly within. It will be up to that child whether they will embrace the natural instincts and wear the wolf skin. Or perhaps they will ‘choose life’ by saying ‘no’.
I thoroughly enjoyed the play, and left its heat for the heatwave again a ‘wiser and sadder man’.

Nathan Llywelyn Munday won the 2016 New Welsh Writing Awards with his debut novel, Seven Days, A Pyrenean Adventure (Parthian).


previous review: To Môn not Mölma: Feature review of Craith/Hidden
next review: Up Top: From Lunatic Asylum to Community Care: A Century of the Mid Wales Mental Hospital


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