Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Salt, Root and Roe’, which is at Clwyd Theatr Cymru until Saturday May 4th.
Anest and Iola sit on the North Pembrokeshire beach they have known all their lives and stare out to sea. They are inseparable twins; identical in every respect except they button their incongruous pillar-box red coats on opposite sides – and Iola has a malignant brain tumour. So they have a shocking plan to deal with the inevitability.
Journalist/playwright Tim Price stumbled across this story in a South Wales coroner’s report some time ago and it haunted him until London’s Donmar Warehouse picked up on the idea. Now Clwyd Theatr Cymru is giving the play a second airing in their compelling festival of theatre from Britain’s Celtic quarters. (There are four, if you count Cornwall).
Price reckons people who live by the sea are ‘different’ in that they’re more comfortable mixing myth with reality. The twins claim their father was a Merman who secreted them in a lobster pot; and one day the bells of a submerged church will call them home. So, in a completely practical way, they’ve sown huge pockets into their red coats and are busily collecting pebbles.
Price has certainly done his homework on how old people face up to death and dementia. Actors Betsan Llwyd and Sara Harris-Davis have some authentically heart-wrenching scenes together, as Anest learns to deal with Iola’s progressive disease.
They handle their “twin-ness” beautifully, as if they’ve actually found that special psychic link that twins take for granted.
Then, to show us how the cruel condition transforms the wider family, we’re introduced to their daughter/niece, immaculately played by Catrin Aaron. Menna, summoned by a letter, is distraught on arrival. She’s consumed by her fastidious hygiene disorder and her failing marriage back home. So when Iola unaccountably drops her mobile into a fresh pot of tea, it’s a moment of both crisis and freedom.
Catrin is an outstanding, perfectly controlled actor. She has almost subliminal contact with her audience. Every turn of her head sheds yet more light on her character. Give her a pair of hygienic surgical gloves and you can smell the latex. Ask her to pull on an “I Love Pembrokeshire” tee shirt and we all share the secret smile. It’s uncanny.
The writing is sharp and teasing. We’re getting half stories and we have a lot of work to do on them until it all becomes clear. But it’s well, well worth the mental effort.
“Salt, Root and Roe” is a powerful portrait of unconditional love in the gathering gloom of insanity; leaven with wry humour and ridiculousness. Most of the jokes fall to policeman Gareth, delivered by Brendon Charleston with such subtle efficiency you have to keep your wits about you for that too.
Director Kate Wasserberg’s team has created the Pembrokeshire-ness of it all with just a few items of tidal debris, a vast canvass and a Colin Towers score woven round fog horns and whale music. All in all, it’s hugely atmospheric, enigmatic and rewarding story of hope, eternity and the undefeatable spirit of Celtic coastal people.
Visit www.clwyd-theatr-cymru.co.uk for bookings & information about Clwyd Theatr Cymru.