Theatre in Wales

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

Planning theatre’s legacy of memory

Geraint Talfan Davies
Chairman, Arts Council of Wales

As teenagers a friend and I twice cycled from Cardiff to stay with my friend’s relations near Stratford. They did me a lifelong favour by booking tickets to see Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus and Peter O’Toole as Shylock at the RSC. Even now I can feel the power of those performances.

I can hear the audience’s intake of breath at the ripping sound as Shylock rent his garment. I can hear the loud, collective gasp as Olivier, in the assassination scene, pitched himself from a 15 foot high platform, and, caught by the ankles by two of the Volsci, was left dangling, upside down, facing the audience with blood dripping from his fingertips. A brilliant, physical coup de theatre.

I cannot tell you that those two evenings changed my life, but it has certainly been the richer for them. I have never forgotten those moments, and I would defy any young person to be unaffected by the thrill of live performance of such power.

There are no better reasons for setting as goals for the next few years two tasks: ensuring that our young people get regular access to live performance, and the extension of the theatre production sector in Wales to a point where it will be possible for us to produce regularly our own legacy of memory for our audiences here.

More than 40 per cent of the Council’s investment in theatre this year will be going into Theatre in Education and Theatre for Young People. A further 20% is being invested in Welsh language Theatre, with the creation this year of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. Next Spring will see its first production. That is a major step forward, and we should all wish the company well as it seeks to build its reputation and its audience.

But it remains scarcely believable, nearly 90 years after George Bernard Shaw famously passed comment on an early attempt to establish a Welsh National Theatre, that we do not have – with the one exception of Clwyd Theatr Cymru - an established theatre production base, rooted in the main centres of population, working in the English language and capable of engaging large audiences with the output of Wales’s own writers as well as the classics of world theatre.

It cannot be right that the two million people who live between Chepstow and Llanelli do not have a single major production company, comparable in scale with The Abbey or even The Gate in Dublin, the Citizens or Traverse in Scotland or even the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Taffy was a Welshman – said Shaw in 1914
Taffy was a poet.
But as he had no theatre
He never came to know it.

Wales has made a considerable investment in bricks and mortar. We have at least eight small theatres across the country, and more will be open in the next two years – in Newport, Cardigan, Caernarfon and Wrexham. The Council has also made a considerable investment in new writing, through Sgript Cymru, but the public – either as audience or as taxpayer – will not see the proper return on that investment unless we also invest in production. These buildings must be used to the full, and I am delighted that the Minister for Culture, Alun Pugh, placed so much emphasis on theatre and the use of those venues when he made his recent announcement about additional money for the arts outside Cardiff.

In short, there is no more urgent task in the professional arts in Wales at present than the filling of this gap. I sense and share the frustration that is building within the theatre community, and while it may take a little longer to win the necessary resources to put the most ambitious plans in place, I believe we have to start planning a way forward immediately.

To that end the Council will establish a small group to produce – not another strategic report, we already have more than enough of those – but a clear action plan: identifying things that can be done speedily with known present and future resources, and things for which we will need to find additional funding. My hope is that we can do the work quickly and in time to take decisions before the end of this financial year.

It is not a simple task, because it involves a range of decisions: how many production companies should we be aiming at? Where should we locate them? Where are the audiences? How do we avoid another sterile Swansea / Cardiff tussle? What is the future for existing venues in Cardiff once WMC is open? How should we balance investment in the mid scale venues across Wales - in effect the valuable admission of market influence – with investment in the production entities themselves?

It seems to me that present conditions are favourable, but I am very conscious that the theatre in Wales has had too many false starts. It’s been a longer running saga than the reform of Welsh rugby, and without the comfort of a past golden age. I hope we can get to a lasting solution without the acrimony that has surrounded the reorganisation of our national game and without the equivalent of captains wandering the world unable to get a contract with a regional club back home. It’s high time we got it right, so I make no apologies for taking time to do the necessary groundwork.

We need vibrant theatre to entertain and to challenge us. To be a rose and, just as importantly, a thorn.

author:Geraint talfan Davies

original source: Arts Council of Wales
19 November 2003


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