BLOG Sophie Baggott

NWR Issue 109

The Good Earth, Chapter Arts Centre

On arrival, first impressions were flawless: beautifully crafted pamphlets greeted each audience member taking a seat in Chapter’s Stiwdio. These introduced Motherlode’s five players and sketched a timeline of their drama, ‘The Good Earth’. The front cover straightaway signalled the performance’s smooth bilingualism, giving a Welsh-language version alongside the tagline ‘Mountains may move, but not without a fight.’ The lights soon dimmed and the performance burst open with more of this two-tone blend, braiding Welsh-language songs into English dialogue.

‘The Good Earth’ tells the true story of a Valleys village thrown into chaos by the council’s announcement that they must relocate from their now ‘dangerous’ mountain. The play follows Dina, and her children, James and Jackie, who stand their ground and refuse to buckle under increasing pressures to leave their home. The director, Rachael Boulton, performed spectacularly as Dina, a single mother who juggles humorous observations with tragic outbursts to compelling effect. Dina’s friend, Trish, is likewise given some uproarious lines amid a script of swelling sadness as more and more neighbours depart for the new-builds nearby. When James’ fiancée, Gwen, decides to crack pepper onto sandwiches for a town meeting, an awkward silence ensues and Trish winces sharply: ‘Bit bold that is, Gwen.’ A distinctly Welsh flavour of funny.

Motherlode opted for a minimalist setting to recreate this collapsing community. A few tables and chairs lay in front of crisscrossed pillars which later resembled a forest. The furniture was put to ear-aching use as percussion, while the metal pillars served as a subtle, reflective backdrop. This visual simplicity was potent, surrendering the spotlight to characters’ actions. Dina’s young daughter, Jackie, is the starring role, vibrantly played by Emma Vickery. Trusting and bubbly, she is the foil to the shadowy forces of the establishment.

Jackie’s adoration of her elder brother James parallels the family’s attachment to their mountain. Yet loyalties seem to become loaded with a fatal sense of over-sentimentality as the play progresses, and I was left confused by the message. Is integrity a force for good or are we advised to drop our principles for an easier life? James’ impassioned resolve is depicted as of little benefit, if not as an active target for onstage and offstage criticism. This ‘if’ is perhaps the point – the drama never seeks to spell out a hardline moral stance but, on the contrary, underlines the devastating consequences of dogma. The council’s authoritarianism evokes disaster.

The historical scenery behind ‘The Good Earth’ is Troedrhiwgwair, whose residents embarked on a fight to remain on their own soil in 1973. Seven years earlier and thirteen miles south-west, a landslide at Aberfan had killed 116 children and 28 adults. This crucial context is nowhere to be seen in the storyline, though this is not to its detriment. For me, the play’s essence was its intense, no-holds-barred portrayal of the fictional family’s dynamics. A rigid record of past politics would have been a far less powerful piece. The bonds and bruises between relations are explored poignantly. Towards the end, Dina’s piercing outcry questioning their familial solidarity was the standout moment.

‘The Good Earth’ may refer back to the 1970s, but this drama is far from retrograde in every other dimension. Motherlode’s 4:1 ratio of female:male actors is a refreshing deviation from the industry’s patriarchal tendencies, and their mediation on a family unit is timeless. A gripping script is executed impeccably in this launch project. For this tight team, I’d guess that no mountain is too high.

Sophie Baggott blogs for New Welsh Review

The Good Earth was at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, from 9 until 12 September


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