It is often on the fringes that boundaries are pushed the most and West London’s Finborough continues to do just that by hosting the English premiere of Gwenlyn Parry’s Welsh play Saer Doliau, translated as Doll Mender. Performed entirely in Welsh, with English surtitles available for those whose command of Welsh is not so strong, it really is a unique opportunity to take in a vibrant expression of Welsh linguistic and cultural history in a season which has already covered the sad decline of another British minority language, Scots Gaelic.
Set in the timewarp that is Ifans’ studio in rural Wales where he is surrounded by broken dolls and painstakingly repairs them one by one with the tools that his father used and his grandfather before him, the doll mender’s tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of two strangers. Merch, a young woman who is determined to drag the business into the twenty-first century and then Llanc, her accomplice and putative apprentice doll mender, thoroughly shake up this world, smashing Ifans’ certainties and playing mind games to unsettle him. But all is not quite so straightforward, Ifans constantly makes calls to talk to his gaffer yet there’s no phone line in the building and so we’re left to question if the visitors are real or just manifestations of Ifans’ imagination.
The practicalities of watching any surtitled production, especially one in such an intimate space, has its own intriguing quality too. Opting to concentrate on the surtitles gives a more vivid account of Parry’s sparse use of language and of course a more literal knowledge of what is going on. But choosing to watch the actors, as I found myself increasingly doing so, means one gets swept up in the strange melodiousness of what is really quite a foreign language, yet still coming away with a clear sense of the emotional intent and dramatic thrust.
This comes across best in scenes like the vocal rowdiness of the squabbles between Llanc and Ifans which Merch cuts through like a knife with scornful intent, there’s no mistaking the disdain in Catherine Ayers’ voice. And Pedrick works in enough physical language too, to communicate key strands of the writing: Steffan Donnelly’s lanky frame as Llanc is full of the youthful vitality that suggests the changing of the guard from Ifans’ more laboured demeanour as given weary life by Seirol Tomos; Ayers slinks about with a hyper-realised sensuality which perhaps indicates she’s a more fantastical figure; and though there’s an element of violence, it is less truly menacing than somewhat playful as the challenges the interlopers pose are mainly about the modernisation of the business, something Ifans resists stubbornly.
The play does sometimes show its age (it was written in 1966) with a little creakiness – Ifans’ vicious racism and hatred of black dolls is a curiously underdeveloped point but in many ways, its abstract, almost existentialist nature ensures it possesses a timeless quality. Inscrutable yet funny, strange and dark, one hopes that Saer Doliau isn’t the only chance that Londoners get to take in this or any other Welsh drama as it demonstrates just how expressive theatre can be in any language.