BLOG Hayley Dolby

NWR Issue 113

Welsh Mental Health Arts Festival: The Ruins of Talgarth and Gods and Kings

On 22 November, the Welsh Mental Health Arts Festival hosted a double bill of performance at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay. Featured were The Ruins of Talgarth, performed by Blackwood Little Theatre, and Gods and Kings, a shared reading by Paul Whittaker. The festival was organised by Disability Arts Cymru, Ynys Mon a Gwynedd Mind, and Making Minds.

This is the second year of the Welsh Mental Health Arts Festival. Throughout October and November several events took place around Wales, the theme being ‘Walls’ (Muriau). For the performances on 22 November, 'Walls' was interpreted to mean physical and emotional barriers that exist for those with mental illnesses.

After a short explanation of its timetable, the evening began with Blackwood Little Theatre’s performance of The Ruins of Talgarth. The one-act play was performed by Peta Maidman, Sarah Jones and Vic Mills, with Mills playing all four of the male roles himself. Maidman and Jones performed the roles of Jean and Olwen. The Millennium Centre’s Weston Studio had been transformed for the production; dimly lit and filled with smoke. The stage was set with a solitary chair and two grey brick walls, featuring cracked windows. It reminded me of Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph of St Pauls during the Blitz.

The protagonist, Jean, was committed to the asylum in Talgarth at the behest of her husband William, in an attempt to finally ‘shut her up’. There, she is haunted by flashbacks, and her only comfort is the support and friendship of Olwen, the single inhabitant of the asylum who can hear and understand her. Olwen is later revealed to be a projection of Jean’s younger self, created as a second participant in the internal conversation she has.

The abuse suffered by Jean was portrayed in such a manner that I cringed as I watched. However, what I found most horrifying was the failure of both her doctor and father to believe the accusations against her husband, and just as horrifying was the failure of the hospital to understand and treat Jean’s condition.

It is far too easy for one to simply write off the events of the play as a part of history that we no longer need to be concerned about. The powerlessness felt by Jean is something that both those who suffer from mental health issues and victims of abuse experience to this day.

The same theme were continued in Paul Whittaker’s shared reading, Gods and Kings. The performance was stated as ‘a work in progress’, so I expected something far less polished than what I was presented with. The piece focuses on the moment Whittaker received his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. After a twenty-minute consultation, he was thrown back out onto the street with a leaflet and the recommendation to begin taking lithium.

I found the piece to be humorous, engaging and unapologetically honest. The way in which Whittaker addresses his own experience with mental illness is inspiring, as not only does he highlight faults within the mental health sector, but he admits to the ways in which he was making the situation worse for himself. I believe there is a wide appeal to his work, and while it may seem controversial to some, Whittaker has expressed a realism that I have yet to find elsewhere. Despite this, he has admitted that Gods and Kings may not be to everyone’s liking, and actively encourages anyone who disagrees with his portrayal to add their voice to the ongoing conversation surrounding mental health.

Hayley Dolby is an undergraduate at Cardiff University undertaking a work placement with New Welsh Review.


previous blog: Polaris
next blog: Hay Festival – Winter Weekend


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