Theatre in Wales

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

Where there's a Will

So Scotland has a national theatre. It’s only got 7 million but that’s 7 more than us

So Scotland has a national theatre. It’s only got 7 million but that’s 7 more than us. And the local council of the small town of Lichfield near Birmingham has a spanking new state-of-the-art theatre. It, too, only cost 7 million, but that’s 7 more than we’re willing to put up even for a National theatre. There’s no political will, you see, for yet another new building in Cardiff. Now, if it’s 65 million for another state-of-the-art stadium, dim problem. Now you’re talking. When sport and culture are lumped together under one Minister, guess which one loses out?

Now that the cultural capital of Europe 2008 has disappeared over the horizon, all talk of a cultural revolution has evaporated like Scotch mist. The talk is once again of diverting funds to grass roots and community (and, of course, Welsh-language theatre, we mustn’t forget that). The quality that makes Wales such a fascinating country to live in – the communitarian passion of its politics – is at the same time its cultural downfall. As long as the entire population has access to throwing a pot, it doesn’t matter how good that pot is. Accessability – a buzz word.

What a wasted opportunity. We have a great capacity in Wales for shooting ourselves in both feet and the brain at the same time. None of the Arts community would quarrel with the admirable and fundamental aim of developing an educational and grass-roots approach across the length and breadth of Wales. But where in all this is the professional? Not developing and achieving excellence individually or collectively, in the particular art form of a chosen profession, but acting as ‘facilitators or animators in the community’; in other words teaching. Or, as Cynog Dafis put it at the Press launch of A Culture In Common, “closing the gap between the amateur and the professional”, “blurring the distinction”, “learning from the amateurs”.

If the Arts Council and the Assembly are to direct significant sums of money to education and grass-roots activity, where does that leave the professional theatre companies and buildings? It was in an attempt to rationalise the paucity of funds that the Arts Council came up with its disastrous approach of a few years back to “funding fewer better”. We are back at the bottom of the slippery pole,

Simply because we are a communitarian nation with a passion for education does not mean that we should ignore the need for excellence at a professional level. Theatre is the most performed, attended, practised and studied Art form in these islands. The amount of amateur activity in Wales at all levels – schools, clubs, pubs, colleges – is enormous. For Theatre is the means by which a nation can take its pulse, listen to its heart-beat. Theatre matters, it has a voice and people listen. Not just here, all over the world. Without centres where this can take place the national conscience is dissipated, fragmented, for political and social exploration in Art need a focus and national institutions often serve to provide a platform for the necessary investigatory, innovative and coalescing process.

There also seems to be a perception that somehow Theatre is flawed, an “etiolated cultural form”, elitist. It is none of these things; it is merely suffering from years of under-investment and neglect. The projected increase over the next three years will only return Arts funding to the pre 1995 level and much of this has already been taken up by the extraordinary idea of Regional Arts Associations (copied from the English model and now, inevitably, rescinded). And anyway a dose of elitism is sometimes necessary to ensure the minority is catered for as well as the majority. I am a taxpayer and sometimes I want my money spent on things that otherwise would be unavailable to me. Not all the time but sometimes. It is anti-elitism that led to 800 million and more being spent on the Dome. The popular and the esoteric must be able to share a communal bed and not have to fight for a duvet that is too small to cover both sets of private parts. It is significant that in the world of sport here in Wales the word ‘elite’ is used with pride, being synonymous with excellence, achievement. There is even a fund for sports people called “Elite Cymru”.

There is no question, however, that theatre at the turn of the millennium doesn’t have a problem. It is perceived as, and indeed sometimes is, old-fashioned. That is both its strength and its weakness. While the twenty-first century Internet communications highway powers along its technological path into a digitalised sunset, theatre is all too often two planks and a soggy tissue. It cannot go forward, it cannot go back. It has nowhere to go, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. All roads return to the same point. Theatre was, is, continues to be, a ceremonial circle, lassoing language – the last custodian and the embodiment of an oral tradition now threatened by extinction from soft-ware, hard-ware, any old where. Not that there aren’t attempts to evolve, adapt, even rival its computerised confederates. Where once we whistled the set, now we sing the hydraulics.

And the problem is also social. Theatre hides in dark corners of old buildings or cosies up in new. It has unwillingly crawled up an intellectual foxhole on the first floor of Chapter Arts pursued by marketing hounds, refusing to come out even when attacked by ferocious terriers. The audience for it is perceived as finite, educated, middle-upper class, prescribed, and sometimes professional theatre has not helped – running into the only arms open to it in order to find comfort – aided and abetted by an in-built philistinism and a chronic lack of funding. Push down on the jelly from the top and it all runs out the side. Still plenty of jelly, but where it once had a structure (a bit wobbly maybe but recognisable nonetheless), now it is a formless, generalised mess.

For it is through theatre that the itch to be alive is most powerfully focused. Under-investment in Theatre as an Art form will leave Wales bereft of the very people we need to scratch that itch, and if the tension is not held between the community and the centre, Wales will always limp culturally through the twenty-first century. Ireland provides an interesting parallel. The Abbey Theatre was the first western subsidised theatre, growing out of a nationalist movement – the Gaelic League – a desire on the part of W B Yeats and Lady Gregory in particular to promote all things culturally Irish after centuries of English domination. Ninety years later the Theatre in Ireland is a major debating force on the world platform, a voice of a nation confident in itself, writing and performing almost exclusively in the English language. The Western Mail writes proudly of our world-class actors, directors and writers. The trouble is they all train and work elsewhere; their voices are not heard in their native land.

Matthew Rhys is an example. Feted and lauded at the National Theatre and in London’s West End, never mind his work on film and TV, he is appearing for the first time professionally on stage in his homeland in the Wales Theatre Company’s opening production of Under Milk Wood (don’t ask me about Ioan, Michael, Rhys, Daniel, Cathy…). The Wales Theatre Company, born out of discussions with Swansea City Council and operating out of The Grand Theatre Swansea, has been formed to partially fill the aching gap that exists in the provision of large-scale theatre work in South Wales. Though the output in the first year will be modest it is planned eventually to produce medium and large scale work in both the English and Welsh languages, associated educational and community programmes and specially commissioned and devised work for children, eventually becoming a full-time theatre company. The Wales Theatre Company will form associations with other organisations at home and abroad to create co-productions that will tour Wales, the UK, Europe and Internationally and its programme of classical and original work will originate from unconventional as well as orthodox performance venues. A principle aim will be to raise the profile of Welsh Theatre throughout Wales and beyond, providing a quality working environment for those many Welsh theatre practitioners working outside of Wales who currently lack a platform on which to display their talents.

Under Milk Wood, the opening production of The Wales Theatre Company, marks the 50th anniversaries of Dylan Thomas’s death and the first stage/radio performances of the play. The production will tour Wales after Christmas before embarking on a round of major cities and theatres throughout the UK in 2004. In May of next year a parallel production will be mounted in Hamburg which will embark on a three-month tour of Germany in the autumn.

Where in all this are the Arts Council of Wales and the Assembly? At the moment – nowhere. Fed up with national inaction, Swansea is going it alone. Whether the company thrives and survives or not will depend on its popular and accessible appeal, coupled with production standards of excellence that we are able to display to the rest of the world. The audiences are out there. We just have to find them. Where there’s a will….

Michael Bogdanov, 2003
Published in The Western Mail, 10 October 2003

author:Michael Bogdanov

original source:
10 October 2003


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