Grav is Still Here

by James W. Thomas

After the song “Yma O Hyd” (“Still Here”) starts, a familiar bearded man slips into the locker room on stage. “Hello, hello?” he calls. Yes, the audience is here, after singing along with Dafydd Iwan’s opening piece. At the well-worn training table, the man intones “Llanelli, 23 caps, British Lions, Barbarians” in a strong, South Walian accent. The rugby legend and Welsh icon Ray Gravell has come home, if not to his house in Mynydd-y-garreg, at least to a rugby changing room. Is there one more game for him to play?

Grav, as he is known to Wales, moves “always forward” through the “ghosts in the dark,” letting free association, “imagination working overtime – again,” find his personal story in the fragments he recollects. The ballad “Danny Boy” reminds him of his Mam. She and music inspire him to remember, telling the audience while retelling her his own story of a boy, and then a man, searching for his father.

Ray Gravell, a rugby union centre, played for sixteen years, internationally for Wales and British Lions as well as locally for the Llanelli “Scarlets,” including the famous winning (9-3!) game in Stradey Park against New Zealand’s All Blacks in 1972. After “hanging up his boots” in 1985, he turned to acting and broadcasting. A fluent Welsh speaker, he was inducted into the Gorsedd with the bardic name of Ray o’r Mynydd and given the role of Grand Sword Bearer. He died of a heart attack in 2007 at the age of 56 on the anniversary of the legendary Llanelli win over the All Blacks – and of his father’s death.

As Ray Gravell, Gareth J. Bale instantly captures the humble “boy from the mountain” and keeps his hands cupped before his body, the “crash ball centre” ready to pass the ball to teammates right or left. He’s here to play. “Get your first tackle in early, even if it’s late,” he cracks. Gravell’s honesty shines through Bale as he ties together wisps of memory from triumphant wins to an aching loss in his family.

Grav, a one-man show from the Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, about the Welsh rugby legend ran Off Off Broadway at the Actors Theatre Workshop in New York. Written by Owen Thomas and directed by Peter Doran, the Torch artistic director, the play has “the blessing of Mari, Ray’s widow.” As the program says, “The show explores the life of a man who was as compelling away from the rugby field as he was on it.”

Compelling as it is though, the lyrical and evocative script carries it far above the tentative staging. In town for only three performances, the show’s design and direction shows perhaps the strain of touring quickly to Manhattan’s ATW. Adequate lighting illuminates a basic set and the music is sporadic.

Bale’s engaging performance with Thomas’ enticing language carries the show. But, occasionally it pushes patriotic buttons and slips. As Grav jumps up on the training table center stage and calls upon Welsh heroes – he thrusts his head beyond the light and finishes the flourish in the dark. And Grav’s about a spirit-rousing game, but “Sospan Fach,” a Llanelli favorite, sounds too sweet, a choir concert piece instead of a crowd-roaring blast of affection.

Vignettes of fellow players, actors, and compatriots glisten vocally. With his “head game before the match,” opposing player Gareth Edwards convinced Grav that he was too fat to run.  In 1992 Grav co-starred with Peter O’Toole in the Dylan Thomas film Rebecca’s Daughters. “Who knew the wild man of Hollywood was a rugby buff?” There’s Bert the team trainer giving Grav his “magic pills” for pain or, really, placebos – candy Smarties. Oh, and a pre-game telegram from Mam and Toodles the family cat.

The Owen Thomas script spirals around the stories, through the years, ending in January 1985 when Grav suits up for his last game ever. Off go the street clothes. He changes into shorts and cleated shoes, and into his red Wales jersey with number 13 on his back. He exits to his game but he’s still here with us, the audience. “Yma O Hyd” comes back. As Grav says, “Life is moments, then it’s music. Hold it close.”