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Justin Murray

Review: ON BEAR RIDGE at the Royal Court

I’m conflicted about On Bear Ridge, Ed Thomas’ perplexing, upsetting play about memory, the way things fade, and how we choose which hill to die on.

On Bear Ridge - Rhys Ifans and Rakie Ayola. Photo by Mark Douet Rhys Ifans (John Daniel) and Rakie Ayola (Noni) in On Bear Ridge. Photo by Mark Douet

John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and his wife, Noni (Rakie Ayola), haunted by the trauma of a lost child, are aware that the Old Language (Welsh) is slipping away from them. Memories of who they once were and how life used to be are beginning to fade.

Together with their old slaughter-man Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) they are holding out on the old butchers’ shop and general store on Bear Ridge - and the fighter jets are getting closer. But things are complicated when a soldier arrives at the door, gun in hand...

Perhaps the most striking thing about this play is its having the balls to describe itself as ‘semi-autobiographical’. The play takes place in a dystopian version of Wales where the military appears to be carrying out a form of ethnic cleansing. It’s about as autobiographical as Hamlet.

It’s one of those plays that slowly reveals just how a) apocalyptic and b) abstract the world you’re watching is. As scenes move on, pieces of Cal Dylan’s set are gradually removed, till only a solitary door stands in the middle of a bleak snowy wilderness. The moniker appears to be more of a provocation than anything. It reminds one of Beckett - though oddly, or perhaps not, it feels more relevant to today than many ‘current’ plays I’ve seen recently. It appears to live in the apocalyptic future we are teetering on the brink of.

On Bear Ridge demands a considerable amount from the viewer. One wouldn’t describe it as easy viewing. This isn’t in itself a problem, just something to perhaps be aware of going in, but I have to confess that even at 85 minutes, I found it very hard to focus on through some long, slow, middle sections. However arcane and difficult the material is, though, the cast bring life to it stonkingly. Rhys Ifans holds his own as the half-raving, half-cheerily calm John Daniel, while Jason Hughes unsettles as the traumatised, nameless Captain, avoiding many of the expected displays of post-traumatic stress.

More meditative than intense and packed with moments of beauty and connection, On Bear Ridge made me want to like it more than I did. It’s hard to shake the feeling that something is just slightly missing, dramaturgically, and that the combined direction of Thomas and Vicky Featherstone hasn’t entirely solved this.