Theatre in Wales

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

It's an interesting spring.....

David Adams writes on the impact of the Drama Strategy on the future of theatre in Wales

For the average theatregoer in Wales - and, let's remember, according to statistics people in Wales choose to see more theatre than their counterparts in England - it's an interesting Spring.

The Sherman has a cult hit on its hands with Everything Must Go, an angry, poetic indictment of an apathetic Britain, and has an unexpected success with an altogether different show, a radical adaptation of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Clwyd Theatr Cymru is enthusing conventional audiences with a version of Alexander Cordell's Hosts of Rebecca. Volcano, the most highly-regarded of Wales's cuffing-edge companies, is touring a drastic reworking of Macbeth that relates the murderous duo to Fred and Rose West.

A new company, Common Pulse, is talking the award-winning political thriller Death and the Maiden, newly relevant thanks to the Pinochet affair, round small venues. Another new group, Swansea's Steel Wasp, has two new shows, Ed Thomas's East From the Gantry and the new Rising Tide. RIPE, another newish company, challenges with a multi-discipline performance, Fist. Demspey's pub in Cardiff has launched an ambitious and exciting season of pub theatre.

Vanya Constant, one of the founding members of the fondly-remembered Paupers Carnival, has a new one-woman show, The Hydrographer's Daughter. Sean Tuan John's dance-theatre company has a European hit with its latest quirky performance, Hanging Out With Jesus. Cwmni Theatr Gwynnedd is experiencing a new lease of life and is presenting Dyn Hysbys, a Welsh adaptation of Brian Friel's Faith Healer, followed by a translation of John Godber's Bouncers. Theatr Powys's Romeo and Juliet project is touring schools in mid-Wales.

Theatr Iolo has commissioned a new play, The Lost Boys, from local playwright Paul Conway with the backing of Cardiff Department of Education and Culture. Frantic Assembly has shaken off its Volcano-clones tag and is winning fans internationally with Sell Out. The Centre for Performance Research at Aberystwyth stages two major international conference there, Giving Voice and Here Be Dragons, in April. Dalier Sylw is touring Y Madogwys. Theatr West Glamorgan are in Ireland with their co-production with Swansea Grand of Cider With Rosie. Theatr Y Byd bring back the remarkable Ian Rowlands's Blue Heron in the Womb in April. And there's more.

Another success story for Welsh culture, it would seem, albeit one that doesn't get the publicity that bands are getting. But underneath this picture of a diverse, different and active theatre activity looms a major crisis - and one that has hardly surfaced in the media.

Essentially, Wales's unique range of theatre, where the popular and the off-beat happily coexist, is threatened with extinction. If arts council proposals are adopted then there will be only half the number of companies, half-a-dozen established names will disappear - and there will be no more community theatre, whereby virtually everyone in Wales however remote is guaranteed live theatre within a few miles, or theatre-in-education, whereby all schoolchildren get a taste of drama in the classroom as part of their education. The only winner in the proposals is CIwyd Theatr Cymru, the mainstream company based in Mold, where audiences come from England, and run by Terry Hands, who was once at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The swingeing demolition exercise is part of the Arts Council of Wales's Drama Strategy for Wales. The document has been savaged by nearly every theatre organisation in Wales, and criticisms are on public view on this web site. This, say critics, is to ensure than the mass opposition to the plan is not buried by the arts council officers.

Those theatre companies directly threatened - such as Hijinx, the Sherman and the eight community and TIE companies - are obviously at the forefront of the campaign against the ACW Strategy. But disinterested parties are also adding their voices.

They point out that the democratic ideal of taking theatre to people, rather than the elitist model where people are expected to go to the theatre, is one that has developed and flourished in Wales - thanks, ironically, to two decades of arts council investment and support. Almost every evening a community centre or village hall or school is alive with provocative, entertaining theatre - with plays by Wales's best playwrights that have included what are acknowledged as some of the best productions to have been staged in Wales's relatively short history of professional theatre.

Instead the arts council want now to emphasise what they call "high quality" productions provided by "fewer but better" companies. Quality, the ACW suggests, is measured in the money spent - and so is promising Clwyd Theatr Cymru over 1 million a year, apparently disregarding the fact that Volcano, for example, has been producing what the rest of the world thinks is the best quality theatre in Wales for less than a tenth of this. Against all the evidence, the ACW is also convinced that there is a "general audience" throughout the country that should not get accessible. topical community theatre but the style of middle-brow mainstream classic theatre popular in England but never a tradition in Wales.

In its attempt to face up to a drastic reduction in revenue to drama, the arts council seems to have lost sight of its role and responsibility to nurture what is still a fledgling arts form in Wales - professional theatre provision is less than forty years old.

This wholesale destruction of Welsh theatre seems to be supported only by the arts council, who had less than six weeks' "consultation" period and is to make its decisions on March 19. This unseemly haste, it's alleged, is to ensure the changes are implemented before the National Assembly comes into being - and maybe decides the ACW is redundant.

And that's what is annoying even those who may have no great interest in theatre. Welsh MPs Allan Williams, Donald Anderson, Martin Caton, Huw Edwards, Jackie Lawrence and John Marek are among eleven who tabled an early day motion on St David's Day, complaining that a non-elected quango is pre-empting the decision of a democratically-elected Assembly.

Theatre in Wales, it now seems, might at last grab some headlines - not because, like the bands, it is excitingly different but because it has become a political hot potato.

author:David Adams

original source: Unpublished article
01 March 1999

 

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