Hiraeth - review
Buddug James Jones and Max Mackintosh.
A 26-year-old theatre designer-turned-actor appears to be having a quarter-life crisis on stage, 11,000 miles away from her Welsh hometown, Newcastle Emlyn.
Buddug James Jones sits centre-stage in a rubber dinghy with two friends: actor Max Mackintosh and musician David Grubb, and unleashes a torrent of honest existentialism: “What the hell am I doing on stage in Auckland? I mean really?! What am I doing with my life?!” she asks. “I’m never going to be able to repay my student loan, yet my art degree taught me nothing!”
As a British, 26-year-old arts graduate myself – with the debt to prove it – I’m right in that dinghy with her, but the universal themes of Hiraeth mean that so too, I imagine, are the rest of the audience.
“Hiraeth” doesn’t translate directly into English, but roughly corresponds with our concept of homesickness or longing. The play tells the apparently autobiographical tale of James Jones’ life so far, from her upbringing in a rural community so tightly knit that even the birds gossip, to the anguish of severing those bonds in order to pursue the world outside.
James Jones plays herself, supported by the only professed actor of the cast, Mackintosh (James Jones claims not to be one, despite all evidence to the contrary) who plays every other character, with live, folky musical accompaniment from Grubb.
The script has the structural nuance of a story told by a 10-year-old, lending the play an endearing literalness – this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. The complexities of life, loss and everything in between are narrated through this simple “small town Welsh girl” lens, complemented by clowning and children’s theatre-style physicality.
When men are cruel, London alienating and home seems far away, it’s okay to call dad and ask if you can come home.
It works for the most part because this appears to be a family-friendly story, only there are moments where the style jars with the content of the play. The Newcastle Emlyn understanding of “outside” seems to be used as license for the actors of Hiraeth to offend without repercussion; James Jones’ mam-gu (grandma) makes fun of gypsies, her father believes the Spanish to be untrustworthy and a family friend thinks James Jones’ dress sense “makes her look disabled”. It’s tricky – Hiraeth wants us to laugh at this kind of ignorance, but often never quite succeeds, simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes of small-minded Wales.
A particularly discordant scene results in Mackintosh losing the audience’s trust as his portrayal of James Jones’ Portuguese love interest goes too far in its body-shaming douchebaggery. It does, however, make us feel closer to James Jones – when men are cruel, London alienating and home seems far away, it’s okay to call dad and ask if you can come home. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives, and the honesty with which Hiraeth explores moments like this makes it a heartwarming play worth watching.
The NZ tour of Hiraeth is supported by British Council New Zealand, Wales Arts International, IdeasTap and National Theatre Wales TEAM. It runs until the 7th November. basementtheatre.co.nz