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Review: Y Syrcas (The Circus)

(December 22, 2013)

Review: Y Syrcas (The Circus)
2013, 92 minutes

Y Syrcas


Premiered simultaneously on 14 December 2013 at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Penarth Pier Pavilion, Y Syrcas (The Circus) is set in Victorian Cardiganshire. An 18 year-old Sara (above) lives under the overbearing rule of her father - the respected local minister, Tomos Ifans (below). When the nomadic 'Circus Supremo' strolls into town with an elephant in tow, it shakes up the withdrawn community and throws Sara into conflict with her father, who wants the circus and their 'demons' banished from his town.


Y Syrcas

Y Syrcas


In its themes, settings and ideas, the film that most springs to mind is Chocolat (2000), which was adapted from a book, written in English, about the small French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. However, neither Y Syrcas' director, Kevin Allen (Twin Town; The Big Tease) nor scriptwriter, Helen Griffin, were influenced by any international feature films while developing the script together. "But", says Allen, "as prep began during the hot, dry weather, the idea of making it look a little like a Western began to develop … and a little bit of one of my fave films, Night of the Hunter [1955, directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish], sprang to mind, especially in terms of the wayward minister and the austerity of the period etc." Griffin believes that once the story came to her, it "really did seem to stand on its own." Having seen Pan's Labrynth [2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro] after writing the screenplay, she thought "there was some resonance, but not much. Pan's Labrynth is much darker. Y Syrcas has shades of magic and superstition and a lot of religious fear, but to me it is ultimately joyful."

Helen Griffin's screenplay was inspired by local folklore, which tells the tale of Batty's Travelling Menageries arriving in Tregaron in 1848. Among the circus troupe was an elephant, which died having drunk contaminated water and is, apparently, buried behind the beer garden of the Talbot Arms.

Those with children in Welsh-medium schools should get themselves to Y Syrcas at the earliest opportunity. For this is a family film which, while using the standard language of cinema with confidence, also embraces the very un-standard idea of telling its story in the Welsh language. Allen didn't find the experience of making a film in Cymraeg that different from making an English language tale, saying, "my grasp of Welsh is reasonable and I understand way more than I can speak". Although he had two scripts on set, he rarely needed to refer to his English version, "... and almost never when I was editing". Allen also had a script supervisor on set, which is normal, to keep an ear out for things like language gaffs. "If anything," he said, "it's a liberating directorial experience, as I can spend less time fixating on word emphasis and more time on the overall look, feel and direction of the movie." But overall, he loved the experience. "I loved listening to the music of the language ... and most of all, it made me really regret, even more, that my mother didn't bring me up to speak her first language."


Y Syrcas


The story begins as Sara Ifans (Saran Morgan) and her father Tomos (Aneurin Hughes, Y Gwyll) visit the grave of Sara's mother - who died in childbirth. Morgan gives an excellent performance as the young suppressed girl and helps to ease the audience into her story by the time the circus strolls into town - which is not long, by the way. Y Syrcas takes absolutely no time to get going. The stakes are set within the first few minutes and one suspects that as this was filmed with an eye on Christmas TV screening on S4C (7pm, Boxing Day 2013), the runtime had to clock in at around 90 minutes. This is a little bit of a shame, as twenty minutes more character and story development might have added a little extra to the drama and characters that screenwriter Helen Griffin and Kevin Allen (below) have clearly developed with real care and attention.


Y Syrcas


Despite a couple of humorous and touching romantic subplots weaved into Y Syrcas, its real star is Africa - the elephant that takes pride of place at the heart of the circus. When Sara meets Africa upon their arrival in Tregaron, an instant bond is created between them and it's a credit to the crew how convincing this relationship is onscreen. Africa is actually two different African elephants, Zeta and Zandra, brought to Tregaron from Germany for the shoot, which subsequently caused protests from ADI, an animal rights group. But you can really feel the heart of Africa onscreen and her interactions with Sara give the film its most powerful and touching moments.

The small budget (just under £1 million) impacts the proceedings to some degree, mainly in some of the interior sets, which can appear on screen to be just that - sets. But on the whole, it has a real down-and-dirty filmic look and avoids the pitfalls many low-budget films fall into. Y Syrcas doesn't look like TV - it looks like a film and makes the most of its beautiful, rural setting.


YSyrcas_km2062 YSyrcas_km2250


The use of Irish Gaelic, with French, Spanish, a little English and the African language, Yoruba, lend the film a multicultural authenticity that backs up fine performances from the supporting cast - in particular Llyr Ifans (Twin Town) (above, left) who provides giggles as a local man experiencing a very believable and touching romance with one of the circus' rotund travelling performers (above, right, with Kevin Allen). Oppressive Calvinist Tomos perhaps needs a little more to do to really stand out as the villain of the piece. But again, his performance is convincing and offers good support to Saran Morgan, who sells Sara's fears and frustrations very well, in what must be her first film.

As the end of the film approaches, it successfully avoids clichés, and those unrealistic turnabouts in character that sometimes befall stories of this nature. It's a happy finale but, as in a lot of good stories, tinged with a little sadness in the background.




If this is what Welsh crews can do with limited time and budget, then all efforts should be made to translate more of our folklore to screen, whichever language it comes in. Allen would like to direct more Welsh stories too, saying he would "love to do a mining disaster/political film like How Green Was My Valley [1941, directed by John Ford, starring Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Anna Lee, Donald Crisp and Roddy McDowall], which can't be remade as MGM have a policy of not remaking John Ford pictures. A shame, as it would be great to do that with real Welsh actors, instead of Hollywood ones speaking in cheesy Irish accents." He also thinks the story of Welsh statesman, David Lloyd George, is "screaming out for a proper spin - probably as a series". Both Allen and Griffin think other stories from Welsh history and folklore could benefit from being adapted to a movie format too, "some of the Meibion Glyndŵr stuff appeals," says Allen, "as does Twm Siôn Cati" (coincidentally, also from Tregaron). Intriguingly, Griffin has a Welsh story "in development now."

As you would imagine, Y Syrcas is far from perfect, but will be one of the most original films on TV this Christmas and a great fiim to watch with your kids. But remember, Y Syrcas is a movie; it deserves a big screen and the lights turned off. So, if you do get the chance to see it in the cinema, it is highly recommended. A Welsh film in all its aspects (Welsh director; screenwriter; actors; producers; and language), Y Syrcas offers believable performances and a fun script that help sell a story made with love and warmth. 7/10.

Nick Stradling, December 2013


Y Syrcas (The Circus) will screen on S4C on Boxing Day 2013, at 7pm.

Further screenings include:
Chapter, Market Road, Canton, Cardiff: Monday, 18 January 2014 at 8:30 pm; Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 6:15 pm; Wednesday, 15 January at 2:30 pm
BAFTA Cymru (members only), Cineworld, Mary Ann Street, Cardiff: Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 6:00pm


Y Syrcas (The Circus),  2013, 92 minutes
Producers:  a Ffati Ffilms production in association with Aim Image
Director:  Kevin Allen
Screenplay:  Helen Griffin
Original Score:  Mark Thomas, performed by The Prague Philmarmonic Orchestra

 Saran Morgan
 Aneurin Hughes
Supporting cast includes:

 Damola Adelaja
 Llyr Ifans
 Sharon Morgan
 Sue Rodderick
 William Thomas









If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy this, by Nick Stradling:
The Braveheart effect and the lost stories of Wales; December 2013

Nick Stradling blogs on the "idea and reality of Welsh representation in the movie industry" at Wales in the Movies, including reviews of Welsh and Welsh-interest films.
Find him on Twitter at @MoviesWales


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