BLOG Demi Roberts

NWR Issue r34

Kamil and Francis (presented by Theatr Cadair) by DJ Britton

My sister and I arrive at the Taliesin Theatre fifteen minutes early, enough time to share a bag of Maltesers. People are clustered into circular groups, conversing heartily. The group sitting next to us are speaking in Welsh, which is always refreshing to hear in Swansea. I am quite easily the youngest person in the room, which I am okay with. I recognise the playwright, DJ Britton, drifting from group to group, holding a pint, doing the rounds, and I wonder if he’s nervous. He doesn’t look it.

The doors open and we find our way to our seats. We are sitting close to the stage – close enough to see the detail on the Persian rug which is laid out on the stage floor. An image of thirteenth-century Egypt is evoked. Alongside the rug, there is an ornate Arabic side table, traditionally Islamic in style, alongside a chest half draped in richly coloured throws. To contrast, at the centre of the stage, behind the rug, is a modern foosball table illuminated by a spot-light. It’s a simple set up, but it works. Before a word is spoken, it is clear that Kamil and Francis reimagines the meeting of St Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil at the height of the Fifth Crusade through the lens of the twentieth century. We are taken back to the thirteenth century in a way that is familiar, in a way we understand. Already, it is millennial-friendly.

The play begins with St Francis (Russell Gomer) and the sultan (Simon Armstrong) aggressively playing foosball. It’s unexpectedly funny, and it becomes easy to forget that the play is a historical narrative. The history is there, all in line with the details provided on the eloquent Director’s Note offered before the show – but we are not bogged by the weight of dull historical recount. Since little detail is known about this historically recorded meeting between the pair, other than (via other imagined sources such as Anne Wroe’s poetry) that both men were left deeply affected, DJ Britton’s imagination fills this gap with philosophical, political and spiritual musings – all delivered with a punch line.

A major theme running throughout, despite the comedic approach, comprises the ways in which two radically opposed cultures might reconcile and find peace. This seems a momentous task to achieve in just two acts, but it is skilfully presented. The invented character of Alhikma (Ri Richards), the Sicilian interpreter, plays a vital role in this aspect.

With her loud, commanding voice, she frequently emphasises that she is not a translator, but an interpreter. There is a big difference, she claims: translators translate, interpreters interpret. It is her role to understand the meaning implicit in words not explicitly said; to move beyond the constraints of language. This invented character plays a pivotal role in bringing opposing cultures closer to peace. I had assumed the stars of the show to be St Francis and the sultan, but it is Ri Richards’ Alhikma who dominates both stage and script.

Prior to the show, I braced myself for a very male-dominated stage, given the military nature and subject of the play (and I use the words braced myself quite deliberately – often as a woman it can be quite a task to enjoy a narrative, particularly a historical narrative, which you are excluded from.) But, once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The female characters do not seem awkwardly inserted for the sake of gender representation – they occupy meaningful roles, and are masterfully performed.

There are points in the show, however where the comedy comes on too heavy, dampening the spirit of the show. The dialogue even resorts to mentioning the ‘dark caves’ between the legs of the sultan’s wives (all six of them), drawing in a proper belly laugh from the audience. For me, however, it feels somewhat childish and only superficially funny.

Russell Gomer plays St Francis exceptionally well. When appropriate, he is quiet and introspective, often silently gazing beyond the audience, seemingly dreaming of all things holy. Simon Armstrong, similarly, plays the sultan well. Often he is frustrated, in particular, at being reduced to ‘footnote, at best’ in history, at falling into obscurity despite his achievements. This tension and angst is felt even when he is sitting down, seemingly disengaged.

The sultan’s jokes successfully revive the comedic thread in the show. He mocks the saint for the disaster of Italian food prior to the discovery of tomatoes and pasta. Francis also proves to be a bad loser at foosball, a fact the sultan attributes to sexual repression. I imagine Freud laughing from his grave at that one.

I leave the theatre feeling grateful for those small lapses in history which make us wonder.

Demi Roberts is this season’s Swansea Digital Correspondent, in our new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.


previous blog: Borscht Without Tears
next blog: Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler, at Swansea’s Elysium Gallery


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