3 stars out of 5
Branwen: Dadeni review – epic musical is a landmark in Welsh theatre
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
This Welsh-language retelling of an ancient myth is a huge endeavour, with great performances and lots of promise
Gareth Llŷr Evans
Here is a Welsh-language theatrical rarity: a smash hit. Adapted from the second branch of the medieval Mabinogi, this new musical is ambitious in scale and has already sold out its short tour.
Dadeni directly translates as rebirth; a restorative cauldron is a significant part of the legend but the title also alludes to the princess Branwen’s reinvention as a figure with contemporary sensibilities. She is a savvy, fearless political operator and becomes the master of her own narrative. Of her own volition, Branwen marries Matholwch, the Irish king, before his horses are mutilated by Nish, Branwen’s sister; betrayal, chaos and war ensues. It remains a tragedy, but don’t cry for her, Anglesey.
Better known for writing musicals with numbers that drip with gleeful irony, Seiriol Davies’s songs feel like a stylistic departure. If there is a real rebirth to be found here, it is in the discovery of a contemporary Welsh-language musical theatre idiom, dexterous and playful, unbothered by the Anglo-American conventions of the form. A first-act number, Eira, is a dramatic and crystalline emotive highlight, gorgeously performed by Mared Williams in the title role.
Elin Steele’s design of concrete and catastrophe fills the vast Donald Gordon stage. Directed by Gethin Evans, the cast are similarly up to the task. Gillian Elisa, as Ena, draws a laugh from an audience of almost 2,000 with a quick, withering glance. It’s really great to see something this big in the Welsh language on the second largest stage in Europe in front of a sold-out audience. In a myriad of ways, this is an awesome achievement.
However, bigger isn’t necessarily better and the production’s scale is not always to its benefit. While the first act is a rebirth of a myth, the second act is an extensive rewrite and here proceedings become less persuasive. The epic scale struggles with a book predicated on more complex drama and motivations; stage activity becomes unfocused, a chorus of eight underutilised. One solution seems to have been to make everything really loud, and lyrical detail gets lost in the sound design.
But this is new terrain. If Wales Millennium Centre and Frân Wen’s production contains the first flourishes of a new form, then future endeavours at this scale are vital to fulfil its promise.