The Finborough Theatre said by some to be the most influential fringe theatre in the world aims to present both new writing and revive neglected classics. Its latest offering The Wind of Heaven by Emlyn Williams (1905-1987) has not been seen on stage since 1945. This is the third of Williams’ plays to be revived at the Finborough following on from The Druid’s Rest in 2009 and Accolade in 2011.
The Wind of Heaven is a religious play about the Welsh mountain village of Blestin in the aftermath of the Crimean War, in the summer of 1856. Part Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, part Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (in this case the village of Blestin revisited) and partly the religious mysticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘The Windhover’ (I can’t help thinking that the very title of the play was an unconscious echo of the poem).
The play is superbly acted and is certainly well worth reviving. My only quibble is that at two hours it’s too long. The judicious use of Occam’s razor would make for a sharper focus (no pun intended), a more powerful play and provide a more entertaining experience for the audience. I felt at times that the performers were having more fun than the audience. This play will appeal particularly to Christian audiences but has enough social and psychological depth to keep non-believers on board. But I must advise it is a religious play first and foremost. But overall it’s a worthwhile venture that brings to the stage an important Welsh voice that deserves to be heard.
The small space of the Finborough (50 seats at most) works well as a way of suggesting the claustrophobia of village life. The few items of furniture are enough to conjure up the interior of a modest Welsh household. A screen with backlighting acts as window onto the village and mountain beyond. The costumes are suitably rustic. Most successful are the accents. Both the English spoken with a Welsh idiolect and the actual Welsh spoken by Dilys Parry and Evan Howell are spot on. The two central character’s Dilys Parry (the superb Rhiannon Neads) and Ambrose Ellis (Jamie Wilkes, who is very good). In their different ways they are both ‘dead’ people. She is a childless widow and he is a shallow businessman. But his return to the village of Blestin (pronounced Blessin) from his money-making years in Birmingham (as his lover Mrs Lake, the lively Melissa Woodbridge, puts it with 4 mansions in the best part and five pubs in the poorest parts) sparks off a series of chain reactions that will transform not just himself and Dilys but the village and the wider world.
In some ways there are parallels between Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken and The Wind of Heaven in that both see the people as being like zombies not fully alive – just going through the motions. How the transformation and awakenings occur is what the play turns on and for that you will need to see it and make up your own mind. Not so much and did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green but did those feet walk upon Welsh hills and valleys? And did the countenance divine shine forth upon Blestin’s clouded hills? That’s a matter to be discussed post-show over a glass or two downstairs in the bar of The Finborough Arms.
Review by John O’Brien
Dilys Parry lives in Blestin, a Welsh mountain village which has no children and worships no god since a disaster snatched away all its youth.
Inconsolable since her husband died in the Crimean War, Dilys is gradually re-awakened to life when a prophet-like child working in her household is called by God to serve the world.
In the wake of vast social inequality and a mismanaged war, one small community rediscovers its lost faith, with startling consequences for the village, and the world beyond…
A parable about healing the wounds inflicted by a national trauma, The Wind of Heaven was first produced in the West End in April 1945, just three weeks before the end of the Second World War in Europe, starring Emlyn Williams himself. It now receives its first London production in nearly 75 years at the Finborough Theatre, well known for its recent rediscoveries of Emlyn Williams’ work, including the multi-award-winning Accolade.
THE WIND OF HEAVEN
by Emlyn Williams
Tuesday, 26 November – Saturday, 21 December 2019
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED