Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

It's Back - The Great National Theatre Debate

David Adams introduces his monograph -Stage Welsh.

We had it with Lloyd George, we had it around the time of the First World War, we had it in the troublesome Thirties, we had it in the radical Sixties. Now in the postmodernist Nineties as the Millennium approaches, the issue is on the table again. The Welsh theatre world is divided. The public, probably, couldn't care less.

The most unlikely, as well as the predictable, personalities have joined the debate. But supporters have always seemed strange bedfellows. Today it's Michael Bogdanov, Welsh theatre director, socialist, populariser, and until recently Julian Mitchell, English playwright, rightwing liberal, elitist. But George Bernard Shaw, Lord Howard de Walden, Harley Granville Barker, Lloyd George, Saunders Lewis and Richard Burton have all at some time called for a Welsh National Theatre.

Because the Great National Theatre Debate is really about more than theatre. It is about the state of Wales, about cultural identity, about nationalism and internationalism. But the debaters talk only about theatre

Michael Bogdanov, with homes near Brecon and now in Cardiff Bay, where he has just directed a film version of The Tempest, and Julian Mitchell, fresh from his success as one of the writers of Inspector Morse, opera adaptations and filmscripts, hriefly joined forces a few years ago when it was expected that there would be a new Labour government with a Welsh prime minister and a national assembly for Wales. Bogdanov, as a returning e'migre' Welshman, and Mitchell, as Chairman of the Welsh Arts Council's Drama Committee, shared a belief in the unrealised potential of Welsh theatre and wanted to see a major production company serving the whole country; they now seem to have gone their different ways.

Julian Mitchell believed that a National Theatre should be based on Clwyd Theatr Cymru touring around the country from its North Wales base. Bogdanov's recent revival of the campaign was launched with a speech celebrating his Honorary Professorship at the University of Wales and with a manifesto in The Guardian a few days later where he bemoaned the 'scandal" of the failure to establish a National Theatre of Wales and suggested such a company could be based at the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House. Phil Clark, the Director of the Sherman Theatre and a committed supporter of community theatre, joined Bogdanov's campaign. Neil Kinnock and Dafydd Ellis Thomas jumped on the bandwagon, though not necessarily in any particular brigade. The London-based scourge of Arts Council policies and self-publicist Dedwydd Jones re-entered the arena. A meeting hosted by BBC Controller Geraint Talfan Davies was snubbed by the great and the good who were invited and condemned by theatre practitioners, who weren't, but Bogdanov and Clark persevered. A new consultation document was circulated and they claimed the support of the Arts Council of Wales, BBC, HTV and WDA. Now an embryonic National Theatre Trust is lobbying for an ambitious plan based on the German federal system, with a new purpose-built theatre and a Welsh National Theatre Company to be resident there (prop. M. Bogdanov, presumably). It may be possible, even, that its home would be Mold, where at the time of writing Clwyd Theatr Cymru's future still seems uncertain.

Various obvious problems leap out. With no tradition of mainstage production, where will the writers and directors come from; with arts funding tighter than ever, where will the huge ongoing costs come from; and with a relatively small potential audience, where will the punters come from? The supporters claim that expats (like Bogdanov, Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Matthias and. .er...) will flock back, that the Lottery will cough up a few millions and that tourists (Cardiff's projected growth industry) will make up the majority of the audience. Pass the salt. Wales is a small country, a lot smaller in population than Yorkshire, say, and its capital city, Cardiff, is a little bigger than Kingston-upon-Hull and is smaller than Doncaster; in European terms, Cardiff is about the same size as the capital cities of Albania and Slovenia. The amount of theatrical activity in Wales may be already out of all proportion to the population - but nearly half the population of Wales do go to the theatre at least once a year. The Bogdanov campaign is wrong when it claims that theatre has failed to find an audience in Wales - it's just that the optimum audience is relatively small.

The latest Great National Theatre Debate comes, ironically, as theatre in England is in a parlous state. Centuries' worth of development - from the religious dramas of the Dark Ages through medieval miracle plays to the Jacobethan flowering of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, from the rebuilding of the tradition after the Restoration to the elegant wit of the eighteenth century and from the social consciences of the Edwardians to the kitchen-sink dramas of the Fifties and the pluralist mainstream work of today - all looks set to crumble within a decade as the cornerstone of English theatre, the building-based so-called rep company, all but disappears. The fifty or so building-based companies throughout England, who train and employ actors, directors, designers and technicians and present the work of living dramatists as well as dead ones, could be replaced by a mere dozen "super-companies" who will doubtless recycle the same twenty or so "classics". English theatre looks sick.

Theatre in Wales is, by comparison, very healthy. The day after Michael Bogdanov 's Guardian article, for example, I listened to Powys-based playwright Greg Cullen's poetic, political, marvellous Tower, produced in Cardiff, broadcast on Radio 4. That week Swansea-based Volcano Theatre's deconstruction of Ibsen, How To Live, was at Waterman's in London. Made in Wales was staging its eight-week Trouble and Desire festival of new writing at The Point in Cardiff Bay. Ed Thomas's startling, brilliantly-made exploration of an imagined Wales, Song for a Forgotten City, for Y Cwmni, was touring to Aberystwyth and Builth Wells before going to The Royal Court. Another, new, physical thcatre company from Swansca, Frantic Theatre, was giving Osborne a going-over with their version of Look Back in Anger and opening their latest energetic reworking, Volpone, at Taliesin Arts Centre. Dalier SyIw launched the tour of their rugby-set satire, Y Cinio (The Dinner), at Cardiff Arms Park to coincide with the Wales~lreland women's international. The Sherman Theatre's season of lunch-time theatre produced in co- operation with HTV continued, as did the 22-event Independent Dance Festival at Chapter Arts Centre. The week before, Brith Gof's Y Pen Bas/Y Pen Dwfn made riveting television on S4C. All over Wales community groups were performing in village halls and schools. More conventionally, The Sherman Theatre Company were touring Romeo and Juliet, Theatr Gwynedd's Welsh and hnglish versions of Kitchener Davies's Cwm Glo hit Cardiff and Clwyd Theatr Cymru had opened Mrs Warren's Profrssion in Mold prior to a tour. With few exceptions, new, innovatory, different, Welsh or Welsh-flavoured and all despite the "scandal" of the failure to create a National Theatre.

As an outside insider, an English critic of Welsh theatre, I offer some observations....

This is an extract from David Adams' book Stage Welsh, ISBN 1 85902 344-4 published in 1996 by Gomer Press, Llandysul, Ceredigion

author:David Adams

original source: Gwasg Gomer
01 May 1996


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