There is something wonderfully seasonal about Wind of Heaven at the Finborough Theatre. It’s far removed from pantomime and neither is it a nativity play, but the messianic message and the enchanting illuminations that bring it to a close resonate with images of adoring shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.
A mysteriously moving masterpiece
Emlyn Williams’ plays have suffered the fate of much interwar drama, being somewhat unfashionable in the present age, with hints of contemporaries such as J. B. Priestly and T.S. Eliot. The Finborough has championed his works in recent years and now brings this piece to the London stage for the first time in 75 years. There are moments when the storyline lacks a certain degree of credibility, but overall the extraordinary tale runs smoothly through investigations and schemes to soul-searching and salvation.
The action takes place in the Welsh mountain village of Blestin, an isolated settlement that is devoid of children following a disaster that wiped out its youth and its faith, even before its church was converted into a shop. Many are still recovering from the aftermath of the Crimean War. Not least of these is Dilys, who lost her husband. Rhiannon Neads sensitively portrays her struggles with grief, demonstrates her bitterness and joyfully manages her move into being a new woman by the end.
Director Will Maynard has waited six years to find the right time and place to put on this play since he first read it. In fulfilling his ambition he has gathered around himself an astutely chosen cast and creative team. Julian Starr scores another triumph as sound designer, greeting the audience with ethereal strings that edgily suggest events are about to take a turn. His 360° bell sound marks the passage of time from morning to early evening the next day as well as the rising tension in the life of Ambrose. Jamie Wilkes flamboyantly carries off this role of a circus impresario and the transformation that comes when Ambrose experiences the saving grace of Gwyn (Benedict Barker, alternating with Bruno Ben Tovim) a silent, young messiah. However, under the influence of Mrs Lake, vivaciously played in exuberant contrast to the locals by Melissa Woodbridge, he falters. Listen for the inspired sound of a distant cock symbolically crowing at this point.
Any set designer faces a challenge at the intimate Finborough, that seats only around fifty people. The well-chosen use of traverse staging, however, enables Ceci Calf in a very short distance to create the intimacy of a cottage and through a large window the expanse of the world outside that becomes a portal to events below. Rhiannon Drake accentuates the setting by her evocative original songs in Welsh that enhance several scenes. The lighting design by Ryan Joseph Stafford is glowingly warm for much of the play, but there are also poignant apocalyptic bursts that startlingly interrupt the domestic quietude at crucial moments.
There are fine performances all round in this evenly balance troupe of actors. David Whitworth plays Ambrose’s assistant, Pitter, with dignity and stoicism. His deep voice is a gem of theatrical gravitas rarely heard these days, while Seiriol Tomos, as local man Evan, treats us to some fine Welsh lyricism. Louise Breckon-Richards as Bet perfectly captures the status of a housemaid, exuding dutiful warmth towards her mistress, offering comfort when needed and at times an air of enchanting naievete. Kristy Philipps embodies Menna, the ‘beautiful girl of twenty’, making her full of life, with love to give and never overplaying the tragedy she endures.
Gratitude is in the air at this time of year from Thanksgiving in the USA to Christmas and many other joyful festivals celebrated around the world. The theatre world is indebted to the Finborough for resurrecting this play and mounting such a mysteriously moving masterpiece.