Theatre in Wales

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

Two languages, one theatre?

JON GOWER assesses the fruits of Chapter's recent "Cymru Heb Ffiniau: Wales Without Borders" drama festival

One of the more telling moments of the "Cymru Heb Ffiniau: Wales Without Borders" festival staged throughout November at Cardiff's Chapter involved the actress Lis Miles. During what one imagines to be one of the most intense and frenetic two weeks of her life the mere fortnight allowed to create El1 Ec2 Tra3 there was an exchange between herself and the Croatian director Branko Brezovec. He speaks little English and is understood through an interpreter so it was strange beyond when he asked: "Lisbeth can you not understand the Welsh?" "Yes but I can't hear the Welsh because of the music.

This was a series of events fraught with difficulty but which also reaped rewards. As Lis Miles went on to say "In the second week the wall fell down between Branko and ourselves." It is important to note the fact that these productions were, in the main, not conceived with a view to crossing linguistic barriers these were plays already written and developed which were packaged by Chapter's new theatre programmer, Gordana Vnuk. She herself admitted that, having seen all the shows and seen lots of good actors and a variety of genres, she faced the difficulty that these were text-oriented or text-based plays "and as I didn't understand the language I was not tempted to stay until the end." Variety of genres there certainly was, from Ceri Sherlock's workshoprehearsal of David Mamet's The Woods to Arad Goch's brace of plays for a younger audience.

From the plays I saw the talent was similarly' undeniable. In the conflation of Sophocles' Electra and Eugene O'Neill's Mourniug Becomes Electra, which formed the basis for El1 Ec2 Tra3 the almost all-woman cast poured a great cataract of energy into this bloodbath at the house of death. Rhian Morgan, in particular, was a dynamo, supercharging the terror-drenched world around her. The primary texts, sampled much in the same way as pop musicians now cannibalise each other's work, were either projected or scrolled down a television set. There were moments when a creeping sense of foreboding and doom-coming crept up the spine. But ultimately there was too much going on, a confusion of signals and one echoed Liz Miles's words, as the primary Welsh text was drowned in noises on stage and the soundtrack of glum Estonian Arvo Part's Miserere. In a month when surtitling, translation and "described" performance were talked about but not necessarily employed, the very fact that the programme synopsis was fundamentally different in English and Welsh was telling. In the English version Orestes stages his own false, accidental death: over the page in Welsh it is his father who dies in an accident!

But at least this was a play which said something in the language of theatre, unlike Dalier Sylw's other offering Maoysata, by Sera Moore Williams, a piece which failed to unshackle itself from the text. This was, in the final analysis, too word dependent a play, and featured a chorus more Eisteddfodic than effective. In one of the festival's seminars director of the piece Bethan Jones thought Mayosata "sufficiently visual". Visual doesn't equal theatrical: even though in the hands of a director such as Robert Lepage theatre is a sort of visual poetry. In a non-scientific straw poll of three non-Welshspeakers after the show they were all mystified by the play, indeed found it a singularly empty experience.

Maoysata opened with a spirited if cliched account of a Sun journalist's view of the world played with Brylcreem slickness by Iwan Tudor then ran itself into a confused detective story in which the hack tries to interrogate a woman who was found starving to death on an island. When she was asked about her experience she drew a picture of an angel.

"Wales Without Borders" concluded with a spirited and inspiring set of seminars which drew on theatre practitioners from Wales and beyond to consider matters of translation, collaboration and how to reach an international audience. Arad Goch's Jeremy Turner, chairing one of the sessions, expressed concern about the festival itself, about the danger of creating "more of a ghetto for our work than already exists" and, archly and rightly, pointed out that most of the leading figures of Welsh theatre would have missed his own company's contributions to the festival positing that it was because "kids" theatre in Welsh by a company from Aberystwyth isn't sexy enough"even though kids' theatre in a language spoken maybe six, seven hundred miles away might be sexy enough.

The weekend was studded with telling comments and statements. Stephanie Jones from the charity Business Sponsorship of the Arts pointed out that last year 2.7m. was spent in Wales, yet only 83,OOO percolated through to theatre, the rest going to festivals and music.

Playwright Gareth Miles, who has written or adapted a play for the stage every year since he started his professional career in 1982, said, with a weary air of resignation, that he was now increasingly writing prose because of a lack of theatre work as "the companies that exist write the plays themselves". Financial constraints are also artistic constraints. Limited funding means that he feels "guilty if he has more than three characters". More optimistically Miles thinks the recent hair's breadth "Yes" vote in the devolution referendum will help authors' narratives and thinks a practical first step in making Welsh theatre accessible would be to translate the best plays in Welsh from the past decade

He also suggested that whilst trying to attract non-Welsh speakers to Welsh theatre is all well and good that, considering the poor audiences in places such as Bangor, maybe the real problem is attracting Welsh-speakers to Welsh language plays. In a rare upbeat burst from one of our most serious-minded writers Miles pointed to the fact that "television is going to get worse and worse in every language so theatre has an opportunity." Television, that idiot's lantern, has for too long been seen as the enemy of the live arts. Therefore carpe diem.

Clwyd Theatr Cymru's associate director Tim Baker echoed Gareth Miles concerns agreeing that "companies have created their own agendas and closed down to writers" and underlined the dangers facing the Theatre in Education network in Wales in the wake of local government reorganisation.

Cliodhna ni Anluam, the artistic director of the only professional Irish-language company working in Ireland, five years old this year, threw illumination on the situation across St. George's Channel, where, during the company's existence it has staged ten plays. These have all been commissions drawing on the talents of poets, journalist and writers who originated plays, translated plays from English and adapted short stories against a backdrop of a strong tradition of amateur theatre in Irish (which we tend to overlook here in Wales). They have funding for only two professional productions per year.

Volcano Theatre's Paul Davies's pointed to the' fact that there is little space in the market and little money for experimental, cutting edge theatre in the UK and that touring overseas is one way of redressing the financial imbalance after losing monev on domestic tours. He warned against the danger of Euroshows "fast, immediate and punchy", the sort of stuff that shores up so many festivals. He told of two unsuccessful collaborations, in Seville and in Wales with the Albanian National Theatre. Aberystwyth academic Heike Roms, underlined the fact that theatre's always a collaborative process before listing collaborations which are negotiations of distinct artistic identities, from John Cage working with choreographer Merce Cunningham to Nigel Charnock's work with Volcano. She also listed failures: a Brazilian dance company which teamed up with a Portuguese colleague where the resulting piece had the dancers dancing by themselves, or Brith Gof's experience in Catalunya. Hopefully we do learn by our mistakes.

Maggie Hampton's deaf person's perspective - she in English first language, BSL second and welsh third - on theatre was revealing, pointing out that following a BSL interpreter is "hard work". One of her current projects is a play about language, in the three languages mentioned. They use cartoon character speech bubbles and work to overcome the focus on language. Her allusion to the fact that the history of suppression of both the Welsh language and British Sign Language is similar sounds like the subject of a play in itself.

Yvette Vaughan-Jones from the Arts Council of Wales pointed out that international work had changed a great deal since the time when ten overseas producers came to Cardiff and there wasn't a thing for them to see on stage: next year they hope to have 300 producers viewing work here. She believes that the problems of staging a theatrical production can be compounded when you're working across boundaries yet points to the possibility that globab~fition offers positive advantages because "as boundaries come down so more interest is shown in what those boundaries formerly enclosed." Open-endedly and rhetorically she asked if Danish theatre has plenty of stories, Quebec has a theatre which harnesses technology and Slovenia has good directors what have we got in Wales?

Another question that got an airing but signally wasn't answered was that posed by Newport-born Neil Wallace from Glasgow's Tron Theatre. "How important is it that Welsh language theatre is seen outside of Wales. If nobody outside sees it, does it still have a value?" I'd say that getting things right at home comes first. Then we should stage a festival, maybe "Wales Without Borders II" wherein the plays are specifically geared for a non-Welsh-speaking audience, harnessing perhaps experimenting with all manner of techniques for helping interpretations, published texts, synopses, speech bubbles, described performances, whatever, and use Wales as a test bed, a model, a showcase. Some of the offerings on stage offered solutions to the problems aired at the seminars.

Sharon Morgan's play Ede Hud wove memories from her family through the century into a tapestry which derived as much colour from songs (barrier-breaking devices if every there were) as from the poetic text or the simple bright stage set by Penny Bestic and gave voice to womens tales suppressed or simply unheard. Apparently in Carmarthen, the hymns were greeted by elderly members of the audience who mumbled "Amen!" Performance as text is one thing, the performance as revival quite another.

If we learn from the lessons and build upon the successes of 'Wales Without Borders' we might realistically see Wales emerge as a world leader in bridging languages, in making texts both available and understandable. Two languages, one theatre, and a great deal of groundbreaking, that's how it might be. And a National Theatre which lives within an architecture of ambition and confidence, not necessarily predicated on and contained within brick walls. Oh! and an audience. An audience. Aye, there's the rub. One comment summed this up. "Language is a barrier. 'Theatre' is a barrier to many." This festival organised by Dalier Sylw in conjunction with Chapter may have been the start of a slow dismantling.

author:Jon Gower

original source: New Welsh Review #39 Winter 1997/98
01 December 1997


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