Branwen: Dadeni | Live Show Review

Tim Wright
Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The story of Branwen and her family is a tale of magic, greed and hubris as two nations seek to become one

Epic tales demand epic spaces. And few come bigger than the Wales Millennium Centre. It’s fitting, then, that this is the scene for a true cultural moment. A Welsh story on the biggest Welsh stage performed in Welsh. The crackling excitement was audible before curtain.

Part of a canon of Welsh legends, the story of Branwen and her family is a tale of magic, greed and hubris as two nations seek to become one. It’s a story of kings and queens, of power and loss, of love and despair. And of pain. The kind of shared pain that curiously binds people together.

Caitlin Drake (Efnisien) and Gillian Elisa (Ena) (photo: Craig Fuller) 

Branwen is part of the ruling family along with her two siblings. King Bendigeidfran, dressed in modern military reliefs, is brutish but lacks the common touch. Meanwhile, half-sister Efnisien is the perennial outsider due to her lineage. Yet it is Branwen who has the heart of the people. We even get a mention of that most fabled phrase: the ‘People’s Princess’.

But with a marriage to the King of Ireland, things begin to unravel for Branwen who lurches from one heartbreak to the next. Unable to keep things under her control, we watch as this astute political operator heads towards tragedy.

In among Elin Steele’s sometimes gothic, sometimes brutalist set is an octet of voices. Gethin Evans directs them in and out in a kind of Greek chorus fashion. They’re most effective when they’re cast as the brooding heart of the mythical cauldron our characters seek, but their use is curious and sporadic.

For a tale that at various stages touches on rape, infanticide and murder, you’d be very much forgiven for thinking this would feel unmanageably heavy. But Seiriol Davies’s music and lyrics find the uplifting notes among the darkness. The distinctly modern sounding score feels rich and somehow familiar. Davies’s previous work has been on the lighter side, and it shows in some of the playful touches in the lyrics. There are far more laughs than expected. Gillian Elisa as Ena – the real power behind the Irish crown – has most of the laughs as she uses her matriarchal tone to admonish.

Mali Grooms (Plentyn / Child) and Ioan Hefin (Picell) (photo: Polly Thomas) 

The downside of playing some of the first half for laughs is that it gives some characters too much of a journey to go on in too short a time. Perhaps this is the downside of any epic tale, but the pacing is uneven. We have complicated plot points dealt with in singular lines of dialogue. King of Ireland Matholwch suffers from this. Portrayed as something of a foppish playboy king looking to dance the night away, even with a committed turn from Rithvik Andugula in the role, the eventual rage doesn’t convince.

The sense of journey is much more complete for Mared Williams in the title role. It’s a sumptuous portrayal that blends tenderness and love with ambition. Her voice pierces through the darkness as the ever-hopeful Branwen looks for beauty in places where seemingly none exists. It’s this portrayal that lands most squarely at its tragic culmination. In taking on such a character from Welsh myth, Williams may well end up as a Welsh legend herself on this evidence.

The book – jointly written by Davies with Hanna Jarman and Elgan Rhys – tries to pick a path through the original story to find modern resonance in an ancient tale. It occasionally steps into contemporary politics, but without true conviction to develop an idea. As a result, we have fleeting mentions of societal issues, but they struggle to make an impact, fighting for space among the plot strands.

In a year dense with announcements of more screen to stage musicals and jukebox offerings, it’s refreshing to see the form pushed and a reminder of how vital it is that our creatives are funded properly. The short run sold out. ‘Dadeni’ is Welsh for rebirth: based on this outing, this show will have many.

Reviewed on 8 November 2023

Production Credits

Music and lyrics Seiriol Davies 

Book Seiriol Davies, Hanna Jarman, Elgan Rhys 

Cast Mared Williams, Caitlin Drake, Rithvik Andugula,Tomos Eames, Gillian Elisa, Ioan Hefin et al

Direction Gethin Evans

Musical direction, supervision Geraint Owen

Orchestrations Owain Gruffudd Roberts

Movement Nia Lynn, Owain Gwynn

Set, costumes Elin Steele

Lighting Bretta Gerecke

Sound Sebastian Frost