REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue 105


by Rachel Trezise

To begin at the beginning. In terms of Welsh drama, there is one play, a play for voices, which, perhaps especially in 2014, casts a long shadow. As she writes her first original work for the stage, how will Rachel Trezise, one of Wales’ best and most exciting writers of the last twenty years, respond to her dramatic inheritance?

The answer, of course, is brilliantly. The first thing to say is that Tonypandemonium is, in lots of ways, a play which is very much unlike Under Milk Wood. Despite its title, which might at first glance suggest a play about a community, Trezise’s play is narrower in focus, concentrating on the dysfunctional relationship between the central character, Danielle, and her lascivious, alcoholic mother, Deborah. In an incident which sets the tone for the relationship, one of the first things we see is Deborah asking Danielle to retrieve Deborah’s best shoes which she threw into a neighbour’s garden the night before, making her drunken way home.

This sort of mother/daughter relationship is ground that Trezise has made her own in her fiction. It is the great authenticity with which the relationship is rendered, its humour and ultimately its deeply moving presentation, which is the central achievement of the play. Towards the end, for example, there is a moment when Danielle opens up about how she feels about her mother – though tellingly not to her mother herself. It’s a very emotive moment, which shows us what really lies behind the bitterness, conflict and sarcasm which sometimes rules:

What’s the point in anything if she’s dead? Everything I’ve ever done, I did for her. Everything. I did it to impress her, to annoy her, to shock her… So that she’d notice me. So that she’d love me. So that she’d hate me. Anything. So now what?

If Tonypandemonium is, in terms of focus and tone, a very different play to Under Milk Wood, there are similar elements of technique. Thomas’ use of First Voice and Second Voice to guide the reader through Llareggub and introduce characters, is echoed to some extent in Trezise’s use of multiple versions of Danielle, at different ages. These appear on stage together, for example with Danielle of fourteen, having a conversation with her school friends alongside an older Danielle commenting on that conversation in the light of her subsequent experiences. This is a really good device, which adds texture and interest to the surface of the play. Much more importantly, it provides further scope for the emotive potential of Danielle and Deborah’s relationship to be drawn out. One of the turning points in Deborah’s life is seen to be Danielle’s choice to move out and live with her father. When this is staged, Danielle is hauled away from her mother by an older version of herself, who tells her: ‘Come on, let’s go. Move. You can’t go backwards. Leave her. You can’t go backwards. That’s not the way it works.’ It’s a brilliantly dramatic moment, which powerfully skewers the tragedy that time is for all of us.

You can’t go backwards. But the playwright can, and does. As well as having multiple versions of Danielle on stage, Trezise also plays with narrative sequence, shifting from 1996, to 1987, to 1992, for example, in the play’s opening three scenes. In his introduction, John McGrath, artistic director of the National Theatre Wales, makes a claim for the play’s management of time being revolutionary: ‘The timeline shattered and folded in on itself… There were few rules of dramaturgy left to apply.’ This seems, a little, to be stretching a point. There are plenty of playwrights who have played around with time – Alan Bennett seems an obvious example – and a non-linear approach to time is in some ways inevitable for a writer who is as much post-Tarantino as she is post-Dylan Thomas. In its social realism and its moving focus on a relationship, Trezise’s play is more conventional than McGrath would have us believe, and brilliantly successful for that.

In those terms, it should be remembered that this is Trezise’s first original play, and that there is plenty of time for her to develop and experiment as a playwright. I very much hope that this will be the first of many Rachel Trezise plays, and that the development that we saw in her prose writing, from the autobiographical debut novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl to the wider canvas of Fresh Apples, will be echoed in her plays. Tonypandemonium is a wholly successful play. With notable exceptions, such as Ed Thomas, it perhaps hasn’t always been clear in the past few decades who the contemporary Welsh playwrights are who can reflect the reality of our lives, who can do for the play what Rachel Trezise has done for prose and what writers like Mike Jenkins have done for poetry. With this play, that becomes more clear. Who ever would have guessed that the Rachel Trezise of theatre would be – well, Rachel Trezise herself?

Jonathan Edwards was runner up for the Cardiff International Poetry Competition in 2012, won the Terry Hetherington award for young writers in 2010, and is the author of My Family & Other Superheroes, his debut collection.

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