Writer: Emlyn Williams
Director: Will Maynard
Reviewer: David Guest
Faith, hope and community at a time of trauma and loss are at the core of a play by Emlyn Williams, appropriately revived in London for the first time in 75 years as a pre-Christmas treat.
If you’re looking for a panto-style stocking filler then the breathtaking The Wind of Heaven at the Finborough Theatre is not for you. This is something far darker and more intense, with a possible Messiah rather than a fairy godmother performing the miracles which transform the life of a remote Welsh village.
For a venue that is renowned for rediscovering rarely performed or even lost plays, this could be the best of its sort yet staged. It is gripping dramatically and extraordinarily eye-catching at every level, from scintillating performances to design and direction.
The setting is Blestin in the 1850s, a Welsh village where every resident is tortured by history (the recent Crimean War, a disaster that robbed the place of all of its children 11 years earlier and the passing of Christian faith with a church which has been turned into a shop) yet where all recognise, “the empty place in our heart that’s waiting to be filled.”
Williams originally appeared in the play himself back in 1945, only weeks before the ending of the Second World War, and even today it seems deeply personal yet it remains broad enough to deal with smaller issues as well as tackling larger questions which we might not generally expect to discover in the 21st Century.
Every single performance is of such finesse and emotional depth that it is a constant surprise that the small Finborough space (once again using its traverse stage layout, meaning there’s only room for around 50 in the audience) is able to contain them.
It is impossible not to be entranced by these characters who come to understand that they might just be at the centre of a Second Coming for which a tear-stained world has been waiting for 2000 years. Beyond all reason, they find themselves wondering, “Is Jesus coming to Blestin village?” and even the sky holds its breath.
Rhiannon Neads is powerful and determined as Dilys, an inconsolable widow since her husband died in the war, resolute but joyless and godless. Her scream of agonised desperation in realisation that her lack of belief means she doesn’t even have the comfort of hoping her late husband might be in heaven is a sound that haunts you long after you have left the theatre. It is a down to earth and highly credible portrayal of a rational woman who has, “stumbled on a small myth in Blestin, Wales, that has grown out of a great myth in Palestine, Asia” and who can barely believe that she is tempted to yield to what might be merely religious mania.
As the flashy and cynical showman Ambrose (who has repudiated his Welsh homeland and language) Jamie Wilkes is a sensation. His arrival in a bid to exploit the young boy (Bruno Ben Tovim as Gwyn, quiet but expressive) at the centre of the mysterious activity as a great magician sets off the chain of events that leads to tragedy and discovery of deep-seated identity. Wilkes allows us to see and experience the change of heart which gives his life new meaning, becoming a devoted disciple to Gwyn and escaping the ruthless business treadmill
Perceptive and penetrating performances come also from Louise Breckon-Richards as Gwyn’s mother; Kristy Phillipps as Dilys’ flighty niece Menna, who is granted a personal resurrection experience; Melissa Woodbridge as a shadowy figure from Ambrose’s past, tempting him away from new-found truth; Seiriol Thomas as a simple peasant who has never quite lost his spiritual convictions; and a consistently solid David Whitworth as the rational circus manager Pitter, unmoved by miracle or emotionalism yet seeking his own epiphany.
Director Will Maynard makes the most of the Christian allegory (at a crucial moment of denial we hear a cock crow as the young prophet turns to look at his betrayer, an uncomfortable moment of awareness frozen in time) yet never loses sight of the broader implications of a traumatised nation left barren of emotion and belief yet who discover miracles when the age of miracles seems to have past.
The design team all play their parts too. Ceci Calf’s clever set features a large window at one end and a packed study at the other, overlooked by a doll’s house representing the on-stage dwelling. A closing scene in which small, lit houses are added to the set to suggest the new hope dawning in the village is a work of awesome beauty.
Attention is also paid to detail in Isobel Pellow’s costumes, Ryan Joseph Stafford’s lighting, and the haunting music (the spirit-filled wind of heaven of the play’s title) composed by Julian Starr and Rhiannon Drake – herald angels or the sound of a blessed community opening its hearts and minds?
The Wind of Heaven is an exceptional and outstanding production to round off a remarkable year at the Finborough, fully deserving of its five stars of wonder and delight.
Runs until December 21 2019 | Image: Stefan Hanegraaf