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Developed out of a collaboration between Bangor’s Pontio and families from North Wales, Theatr Iolo’s Platform Program has enabled the unique construction of the Welsh-language play Chwarae, by Elgan Rhys. Theatr Iolo is a theatre company that seeks to produce shows which invite children and young people to learn and get creative. True to its objective, the production follows the protagonist – a young boy, most likely of a similar age to those in the audience – who must adapt to changes and learn to accept new challenges; his journey encourages the audience to explore the importance of play, as we discover that it can be a useful tool for children navigating daily life and the tests they might face.
Opening with synthesised music, we see an in-the-round stage lined with grey cushions and a few stacked sets of yellow chairs. There is nothing else on stage, and this remains the same for the show’s run-time of just under forty minutes (a reasonable length for a younger audience who might get restless!). The cast is made up of just two men, both barefoot throughout the performance; one plays the role of the boy, named Elgan, and the other plays mother, father, Foxy, So-ball, Lucas and Seren, who are distinguishable with the use of additional coloured clothing or props. I think this is an interesting idea as children don’t need to worry about learning lots of new faces, and at the same time it encourages us to notice small differences between individuals. Keeping the protagonist the same worked well as we can get to know him well and things remain reasonably simple.
At first, Elgan and his mother appear to be playing with a balloon. Nearly all the performance is mimed or expressed through movement, so this is just my guess. The boy narrates what he experiences, and how he feels in response to these experiences. Soon into the performance, Elgan goes to live with his father – the older members of the audience are led to understand that this is because the mother has passed away, while I would say the younger people in the audience might not reach this conclusion.
The chairs are relied on to create different settings. To contrast the inside of their house, the outside is presented by upturning the chairs. They are also used to represent Elgan’s bed, and when he begins his journey, the same chairs create a ‘narrow’ and ‘small’ tunnel. Struggling to settle with his father, Elgan goes on a journey to search for a new game they can play together. He crawls through the tunnel, and emerges out the other end to find a man – Foxy – sitting on a chair in a green robe, holding what he calls a ‘rain stick’ in meditation. He talks to Elgan and tells him to think about opening up to new games and to look for someone called So-ball. He gives him a green cape.
Each person he meets on his journey sends him to meet another person – Foxy to So-ball, So-ball to Lucas, and then Lucas to the princess of the stars, Seren. They also each give him something to wear – the green cape as mentioned, a wristband, a red cap, a ‘star’. I think these symbolise the lessons he learns from each person, and gradually he learns to take things as they come. When he travels to find these people, the lights go up and down and strange, alien-ish music plays. The actor playing the other roles moves the yellow chairs into place on the stage, so it seems that the set is naturally changing around Elgan.
This play is easy to follow with a clear structure and simplistic language, which is suitable for young audience members, but could also help viewers with their own learning of the Welsh language. For example, sometimes Elgan counts the stars which can help to teach numbers. Overall, the play was quite different from anything I had seen before. I felt that it was stripped back to the minimum, and although I did take a few minutes to get used to this, I believe that it enables you to just enjoy the freedom of being silly and having fun with play, so I think families would love it!