Review: On Bear Ridge, Royal Court

On Bear Ridge seems to be set in a present day Wales, but one plagued by a kind of apocalyptic curse. A small town sits in the shadow of a mountain, all but deserted. The phone lines have been cut off and the post isn’t delivered any more. Apart from shop owners John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Rakie Ayola), along with their now redundant slaughterman Sion (Ifan Williams), everyone has left. It’s painfully obvious that they’re not keeping the town alive, but instead the town has died around them. As a result, their main function now is to be vessels of memory.

As they sit in the unlikely and dangerous presence of a lost soldier who has wandered in from the snow, memory starts to feel even more like a character in its own right, sitting amongst them. Ed Thomas’s script is heavy in the pain of a very real experience: the death of a language which contains an oral history, thus taking the history with it. If the language dies and the history dies with it, what little is left of the people and place that it represented? In the real world, this is a sort of partial reality when it comes to Welsh. Rates of first language Welsh speakers are declining steadily, but the number of Welsh learners – many of whom moved to Wales from outside of the UK – is increasing. With that said, seeing Welsh place names on road signs, even if the English has been spray painted over, doesn’t always make it feel much less like a dead language.

Designer Cai Dyfan represents a crumbling world through a crumbling set in which the outside world encroaches increasingly on the inner, which could feel a bit heavy handed but in this case really does work. It’s a slow and deliberate process which feels more and more inevitable as the play rolls on.

The ending of On Bear Ridge was somewhat more cynical than I was expecting. We’re allowed to hope, just for a moment, that it’s possible for this culture to be passed on in some way. Sharing is possible, and therefore redevelopment can happen. In the world of the play, of course, it’s too little too late. The path has been set, and no amount of nice moments between characters can change that. Ultimately, the effort at preservation is useless and subject to uncontrollable and malicious outside forces.

In a way, a single moment towards the end encapsulates the whole premise. Our main characters sit huddled around an empty but pristine tea set, going through the motions of preparing tea. As they pour, stir and sip their cups of air, nobody mentions what they all know. The little rituals continue, because maybe life can be normal again if they do. It’s tempting to call this naive, but it’s easy to imagine how it is actually more like pragmatism.

This is an uncomfortable and sad little story, of a once vibrant place barely going out with a whisper, let alone a bang. The script is rich in language and content, supported by excellent performances and a beautiful set.

On Bear Ridge is playing at Royal Court until 23 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Court website.