Theatre in Wales

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

State of play at the stage door

THE dedicated people who make, promote and live for theatre are meeting today to discuss the future of Welsh theatre. It isn't billed as a crisis meeting, but it could be because for many people the future of Welsh theatre is bleak.

That's despite a new troop-rallying optimistic statement in The Western Mail from the chairman of the Arts Council of Wales, Geraint Talfan Davies, that there could be more investment in theatre production.

So does that mean he wants to create a National Theatre of Wales? I, for one, am a bit confused.

The ACW's commitment to creating a major new theatre company is welcome but, as usual, words are not enough.

Even if his plans come to fruition, theatre's future in Wales would still be dominated by big companies created mainly for political reasons.

And where in his plans do the new small-scale theatre companies, or the playwrights, or the directors, or the actors come?

In the last 10 years Welsh theatre has spiralled from being one of the most exciting small nation scenes to one that most people in the business would consider is in a state of terminal decline.

The reason, it's alleged, is simply that those who control the public purse strings (without which no serious theatre exists anywhere) don't know what they're doing.

The pot of public money is limited - the total budget for Welsh theatre is around a third of what goes just to the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example.

For the current year, the arts council's budget for drama is almost 6m. The figure for next year is expected to be around the same figure.

But it's how the money is spent that people need to question - and ask if there is proper investment in the future of Welsh theatre from all sectors.

There is, of course, a case made for a very expensive item called Welsh language theatre, even if it is actually accessible to only, say, around a million people in the whole world. This provision gets 20% of the arts council theatre budget next year.

And who can deny the other commitment from the ACW, the allocation of 40% of its budget to theatre for young people?

That leaves 40% for every other kind of theatre for grown-ups who speak only the majority language of Wales, English.

Will most of that go to Clwyd Theatr Clwyd in Mold or this embryonic new production company - whatever that is - that the chairman of the arts council has called for?

That's one to think about and maybe, before that's answered, the money managers should ask themselves a few questions.

Here's one to start off with.

Can you name the three representatives of Welsh theatre invited by the British Council to its prestigious international showcase at this year's Edinburgh Festival?

Terry Hands's Clwyd Theatr Cymru, you say?

No. Apart from anything else, I think few people outside of the UK would have heard of that company.

Michael Bogdanov's Wales Theatre Company?

Wrong again. Bogdanov is an internationally-renowned director, but the company is as yet too new.

The Sherman Theatre Company, based in the capital's only producing theatre?

Mappa Mundi, reformed specifically at the invitation of the arts council so as to take classics to middle-scale theatres?

Theatr Gwynedd, since their Welsh-language repertoire would be as foreign as English is to some overseas visitors ?

No, no and no.

The answer is Good Cop Bad Cop, Volcano Theatre and performer Eddie Ladd.

If you confine your theatre-going to big theatres you will not have heard or seen them although Volcano's subversive version of Noel Coward's Private Lives did make it on to some middle-scale stages last year.

But in the modern world beyond Wales, if Welsh theatre is known at all, it is through small groups like these - and ones like Arad Goch, Carlson Dance, Earthfall, Elan, Frantic Assembly, Green Ginger, Sioned Huws, Sean Tuan John, Marc Rees and Small World.

Not many people know of our would-be "national" companies.

Readers with long memories will recall Cardiff Lab, Moving Being, Paupers Carnival, Y Cwmni, Brith Gof, Hywl a Fflag, The Magdalena Project - all now defunct, though their legacy lives on (Good Cop Bad Cop and Eddie Ladd, for example, were originally Brith Gof performers).

These were the companies that defined Welsh theatre, along with the admirable theatre-in-education and community theatre provision.

The strength of theatre in Wales to outsiders does not lie in worthy and large institutions run by big-name directors but, as with other small countries, in the variety and innovation of smaller groups and individuals.

The future of Welsh theatre must depend on developing audiences at home, regardless of any overseas renown.

The very sad thing is that those who make decisions inside Wales think that the future does lie in big, expensive and all-too-often barren temples of excellence - and Geraint Talfan Davies's thoughts have all the hallmarks of a well-intentioned man whose idea of theatre is that of any other middle-class English-influenced enthusiast.

And that is a Welsh version of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In fact the powers-that-be have done everything they could over the past decade to destroy a broad-based Welsh theatre in order to have a monolithic "national" theatre - or, rather, two, one in each language.

The idea of a national theatre has been around for a century or more, and in the 1990s was dusted down again when it started to look as if Wales might have some degree of cultural autonomy with devolution.

Michael Bogdanov, having toured the world as a highly-individual director, decided he wanted to come home again to Wales and form a national theatre company based on the system he'd seen and worked under in Germany.

The merits of this never really got debated because at the same time Bogdanov recommended his old colleague and rival from the RSC, Terry Hands, to take over the ailing Theatr Clwyd in Mold.

The arts council decided to divert the bulk of its drama budget to Mold - CTC's grants almost trebled in a matter of a few years, from around 500,000 in 1995 to 1.3m in 1998.

The invisible powers who decided that what Wales needed was a national theatre, and that national theatre should be based on CTC, were driven by a variety of motives no doubt.

But what the redirection of public funds to CTC in the late 1990s meant was that there simply wasn't much money left for the rest of theatre in Wales.

To my mind the wholesale cull of companies was to facilitate an embryonic national theatre, initially based in Mold but, most of us assumed, with its eyes set on an early move to Cardiff.

Fortunately the arts council was forced to reconsider its sweeping changes - but it still changed the face of theatre in Wales.

At the same time, the campaign for a Welsh-language national theatre stuttered along.

Finally, of course, a Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru was created - with a substantial amount of money given to set it up and finance a state-of-the-art theatre in Carmarthenshire from the National Assembly, local authorities and the arts council.

And we will see its first production proper next year.

The Assembly is to be congratulated for increasing funding to the arts - but there is little expertise or real understanding in the decisions that are made.

There is also a frighteningly populist agenda (evidenced by a senior AM who declared the Assembly was not interested in the arta) which exists alongside a very real desire to create institutions that would legitimise the new Wales.

The concept of a national theatre is a perfect example of such an institution - especially if you knew nothing about the course and condition of Welsh theatre.

And I leave to one side the whole question of what Welsh nationality means. If it means everyone who lives within the borders of the country, then let's hope the national theatre's include work embracing the cultures of Urdu, Bengali, Somali, Arabic, Gujerati, Chinese, Hindi, Pushtu and Punjabi, all official languages of Cardiff.

Welsh theatre, in the past few years, has been in deep crisis.

Wales, obviously, could do with properly-funded mainstream productions that could tour to the larger theatres. No-one would argue that Terry Hands and Michael Bogdanov, who both want to create a so-called National Theatre of Wales, have both created good-quality ensembles of Welsh actors.

It is simply that the case for a national theatre, based on the English repertory model, dominates the debate about Welsh theatre and, crucially, consumes most of the public money.

So where, then, does all this leave the future of Welsh theatre today?

Already many of the most exciting Welsh performers earn as much, if not more, of their income from international tours.

They are given neither financial encouragement nor political support in Wales.

There is no attempt at audience development so that so-called "difficult" work can be better appreciated (though international audiences apparently don't find it difficult).

And I haven't even started on the subject of playwrights - the people who would ideally be producing the work to be seen on the stages of the new national theatre.

The principal new-writing company, Sgript Cymru, and the smaller Theatr y Byd are both starved of funds. And that's to say nothing of smaller venues who could do with more money, such at the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven.

The prominent playwrights of the last couple of decades - people like Laurence Allen, Greg Cullen, Sion Eirian, Lucy Gough, Gareth Miles, Alan Osborne, Meic Povey, Ian Rowlands, Ed Thomas, Frank Vickery and Roger Williams - have had to turn mainly to radio and television or have all but given up.

New writers like Gary Owen are based in London, which is where Mark Jenkins's work is mostly performed.

Those working with community and young people's theatre groups - Charlie Way, Dic Edwards and Paul Conway, for example - are still doing fine work but it's not really high-profile stuff.

So. Little support for new writers. No encouragement for emerging new work. No promotion of the international high-fliers within their own country.

And yet there's still talk of us needing a National Theatre of Wales.

Why do the decision-makers talk of such nonsense while the whole industry is on its knees?

Maybe today we'll find a few answers to that burning question.

author:Davud Adams

original source: westerrn mail
05 December 2003


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