Theatre in Wales

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

Where Are the Big Themes?

During October, I had a week’s holiday in Crete and as it was very much at the tail end of the season, there was no need to jostle the crowds in order to get to see the wonders at the ancient Minoan sites. As we marvelled at the palaces and the frescoes, it struck me how little historians know about this fine civilisation — even the reconstruction of Knossos is educated guesswork. And since we were in Greece, I started thinking about the dramatic tragedies of which we have many examples and of the accompanying satyr plays of which we only have fragments. In the past, academics have found it difficult to reconcile the fact that the great poets who gave us the trilogies of Oedipus and the Oresteia were also capable of penning scurrilous skits about sex and shit as a sort of accompanying digestif.

Now if you were a member of the audience (let alone an actor) at one of these drama competitions and you’d sat through the complete Oresteia, the chances are you’d be exhausted physically, eviscerated emotionally, and it would take more than a flask of retsina and a couple of ouzos to get you back to normal. What you need is a bloody good laugh. Furthermore you need in those circumstances to laugh till it hurts, and you don’t want to tax your brains deciphering sophisticated puns and esoteric satire. What you need is humour at its basest, filthiest and crudest: in short, a sort of back-to-front, inside-out catharsis. And if you live in twenty-first century Wales, you could find it in Bara Caws’s club shows.

This year’s offering was Rhych Wlyb by Geraint Derbyshire.
The plot hardly mattered because what was important were the jokes and the visual gags and that magic ingredient, actors who work well together. These old hands knew exactly when to insult their audience and when to confide in them, when to take centre stage and when to leave it to somebody else. This hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past where there have been on-stage struggles as to who can be the funniest and the most outrageous. When this happens, the production suffers because any timing goes out of the window. There are detractors of these club shows who claim them to be a waste of talent and public funding and indeed some have been dire. However, the venues are always full of happy people with tears streaming down their faces and if this gets them to go to other productions, well that’s all to the good. Furthermore, I have heard tell that some of our respectable playwrights are itching to have a go.

The Greek dramatists gave their audiences stories that they’d grown up with, whereas the trend nowadays is for newer work. Understandably perhaps, in order to ensure an audience, Sgript Cymru’s autumn offering is a staged version of an old favourite. Bethan Gwanas’s Amdani is by now a television institution, a well-loved series about the trials and tribulations (i.e. love life) of a group of young women living in a north Wales quarrying town. It was based on a novel about the setting up of a women’s rugby team, which is as good a way as any of getting attractive female characters of diverse social backgrounds together, but by now the rugby is largely a backdrop to the action and the characters have grown over the years. All as it should be in fact.

Now for some reason Amdani, the play, has gone right back to the beginning, to a reworking of the first series for the stage. It is a well-thought-out production with some nice touches such as the choreography of the training sessions and it conveys well the camaraderie of the women. But it did feel strange to watch a cast which contains two from the original series, including the lead, playing what were in many instances clones of the television actors. I suppose that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and one could argue that it’s pretty difficult to play these characters in any other way and that they did it very well indeed, but I couldn’t suppress the feeling that I was privy to a Welsh version of Dead Ringers.

Much of the dialogue was of the sort that we come to expect in popular television drama: short interchanges dredged with wry humour, and even though there was an attempt at theatrical farce after the interval, it was so out of keeping with the style of the rest of the production that it was a tad uncomfortable to watch. I had heard that this was going to be a musical version of Amdani. I’d have loved to have seen that because imposing a different discipline on a known story might have propelled it to more interesting theatrical territory.

Arad Goch’s Letus by Mari Rhian Owen was this year’s eisteddfod commissioned drama. It’s the story of a female tramp who veers between two worlds: one, the present where she gives the workhouse psychiatrist the benefit of her homespun philosophy while manifesting a reluctance to wash, and the other, the past where she dallies with her émigré violinist lover who dies on her and with whom she is dying (literally) to be again.The Mittel European music is haunting if you like that sort of thing and relentless if you don’t.

It seems to me that in the process of providing popular theatre, there is a tendency to explore the small and the commonplace: everyman (or woman) is plonked firmly in his square mile together with its attendant preoccupations. Not for us Welsh audiences the broader strokes beloved of the ancient Greeks. However, there are exceptions. I know it’s a long way away by now, but the best thing I saw this autumn was the National Youth Theatre of Wales’s Frida and Diego (reviewed in Planet 161). Greg Cullen’s lively, enthusiastic and colourful production did not shy away from the big themes of art’s place in society and of the nature of love and death, and although occasionally reminiscent of Seventies’ political drama, what a marvellous evocation of time and place. A huge thank you to all concerned for showing that it is still possible to thrill visually and verbally in the theatre.


This article first appeared in Planet magazine (issue 162) and is reproduced here with their permission

author:Gwen Ellis

original source: Planet Magazine
16 December 2003


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