Theatre in Wales

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

Agor Drysiau/Opening Doors

Keith Morris reviews the first international festival of theatre for young people

Festival of theatre for young audiences
Aberystwyth March 20 - 23 1996

Aberystwyth , as if determined to live up to its reputation as the cultural capital of Wales, is in danger of drowning in a sea of festivals. Hot on the heels of the International Film Festival, the International Potters Festival, MusicFest and even an Indian Food Festival, comes Agor Drysiau/Opening Doors, the festival of theatre for young audiences. Organised by Arad Goch, the theatre in education company for the area of the former Dyfed County Council, with the usual panoply of funding from UK and European sources, the festival, which ran from 20 - 23 March, brought together most of the Wales based TIE companies alongside a smattering of companies from continental Europe.

Combining performances in local schools and theatres with discussion sessions the festival aimed to showcase the generally high quality and varied theatre in education practice here in Wales , to provide some from of analytical framework for that work, and, intentionally or not, to illustrate the differences in approach to the whole notion of theatre for young audiences here and in Europe.

As sponsors of the festival, Arad Goch lead the way in presenting three of their current repertoire of productions. Rushes, by the prolific Lucy Gough, explored the issue of the Nazi holocaust, and its attendant feelings of guilt and responsibility, for a post-Schindler's list, media-aware, teenage audience. Set in a cattle truck on a film set the show adroitly raised all sorts of questions about this most difficult and harrowing of topics and skilfully avoided coming to any pat answers. Dros y Garreg/Over the Stone, aimed at a much younger audience, written by Mari Owen and performed by her and Ryland Teifi, was an enchanting tale of "leaving, searching and finding", simply told. Their third contribution was Taliesin, a conventional if energetic re-telling of the Taliesin myth, firmly in the magical Celtic tradition. What the international audience lost in the complexity of the welsh language was more than compensated for by the vigour of the performances by this young company and the effectively simple set.

Theatr Powys, perhaps the largest of the welsh TIE companies, and one with a particularly rigorous company ideology, came to the festival with two of their latest productions. My Old Jumper, a devised piece created by the company in response to the horrors of the war in Bosnia .Now in its second incarnation the show is a series of episodes and flashbacks in the lives of four characters sharing a precarious shelter from the bombing of Sarajevo in the basement of an old theatre. Ambitious in its objectives the piece was emotionally strong if at times unclear in its execution. One of the dangers of the collaborative process of writing is that sometimes the team are so close to ,and familiar with, their source materials that they occasionally assume too much of their audience. Points which the actors sincerely believe they are putting across clearly can sometimes fly over the head of even the most astute and assiduous of viewers.
Their other product - The Sky Blue Sea was guilty of this to a far greater degree. A magical realist play about women artists, based loosely, tangentially even, on Gwen John, and a bewildering array of supporting artists played with vim by Mathew Waite, the production was unfocussed and unclear . Of the remaining welsh companies at the festival Fran Wen's production of Yr Aur Gwyn , a parable of exploitation and betrayal in drought-ridden southern Africa, got it's points over clearly; simplifying the issues without over-simplification. Theatr Iolo's Bag Dancing walked the fine line betwen humour and tragedy with assurance.

Graffitti Theatre, from Cork, brought over two shows, The Riddle Keeper and Lives worth Living. Working very much in an educationalist mold , the productions, the former aimed at primary school pupils and the latter at middle years at secondary school, tackled the "taboo" issues of death and mental illness respectively. One of the great potential dangers of this festival, as it is in all festivals of this type, is that the companies are put in the position of presenting their work out of its normal context. By this I mean that the usual practice is to accompany the performances with workshops, teachers packs and discussion sessions to enable the pupils to articulate their thoughts to the pieces and to work through their responses. If you simply present a piece of theatre, especially one which deals with traumatic issues, without this associated safety net you run the risk raising anxieties without actually addressing them. Theatre in education after all implies that the performance is a part of a wider educational framework; and that the majority of the work done by the pupils happens after the theatre company has left. The more powerful the piece of theatre, the greater the is need to help the young audiences to make sense of their responses. Certainly Graffitti theatre's work is strong meat

It was striking that the other productions from Europe had a radically different "take" on what theatre for young audiences was all about. Whether this is a true refection of the state of European young people's theatre or is a result of the choices made by Jeremy Tuner, the artistic director of Arad Goch and of this festival, I am not qualified to say, but the robust physicality of Breton company Ar Vro Bagan's production of Ar Roue Mar'ch , based on a Breton myth, was an eye-opener. We are familiar with a certain amount of physical danger and discomfort inherent in being an audience member for, say a Brith Gof production, but never have seen quite as many pyrotechnics and fast moving alarmingly sharp metal in a show for eight year olds.

Without doubt the highlight of the festival was the achingly beautiful performance by Norwegian based french actor Guandaline Sagliocco in her solo show The Story of the Fallen Hero. Tracing the journey of Jason and his fatal meting with Medea through the eyes of a naive servant on Mount Olympus the play was a model of pared-down story-telling. With an economy of gesture and a focused performance of breath-taking control she held the audience spell-bound; changing from one character to another with the merest flick of her costume. This was theatre for young people that made no concessions to youth and no compromises on artistic quality.

The three discussion sessions organised to provide the intellectual meat in this theatre sandwich were less than successful. Perhaps as a result of extreme tiredness [late nights in the upstairs bar of the Coopers Arms combined with early morning performances can be very demanding on the stamina of even the heartiest of delegates] none of the forums really sparkled - there was a feeling that people were contributing from a sense of obligation rather than genuine interest. The one session that could possibly have lead to something interesting - a presentation on the Danish system of peer group assessment - was swiftly bogged down by the by the barely concealed mistrust between many of the TIE companies n Wales. In an increasingly competitive world and with the added insecurity of funding as a result of local government re-organisation many companies are eyeing each other with concern if not suspicion. This is not the best of climates in which to promote honest and open criticism of each other work; there are too many hidden agendas and the companies have too much too lose

There is already talk of repeating this festival in two years time. Certainly the companies in Wales would greatly benfit from a regular platform to showcase their productions to a wider audience; how many of them will survive until then can only be a matter of speculation.

author:keith morris

original source: New Welsh Review, # 33, Spring 1996.
01 April 1996


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