Theatre in Wales

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

Wales Actors Company

David Adams looks at the work of one of Wales's most active companies

They are without doubt one of the most successful professional theatre companies in Wales, they’ve been going for nearly twenty years, they regularly attract audiences of over 10,000 and they are almost certainly at a venue near you in the next few weeks – but they are snubbed by the elite that control the arts in Wales, have no brand-image to offer to their many satisfied customers and they are absent from the chronicles of Welsh drama.

Life must get pretty frustrating for Wales Actors Company. But director Paul Garnault battles on and launches a provocative new show today at Brecon’s Theatr Brycheiniog, the start of a 40-gig tour that takes them from Holyhead to Cardiff.

Best known for their summer tour of castles, WAC have never been able to get regular financial support from the Welsh arts council – especially when the two organisations’ acronym was the same, a coincidence the arts council regarded somewhat huffily. With regular sell-outs for their al fresco Shakespeare, however, they didn’t really have to depend on any stamp of artistic approval – contented holidaymakers and a happy Cadw ensured return bookings as everyone enjoyed the combination of a picnic, a heritage setting and a dose of the Bard.

But winter ? Castles are out (it’s everything from a community centre to a converted fire station) and so is Shakespeare.

And while they’ve chosen a classic by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlow (Kit to his friends and academics – you may recall the character in Shakespeare in Love), the treatment will quite definitely not be in any way geared to helping the Cava and ciabata go down.

Dr Faustus, the man who sold his soul to the Devil, is surrounded by high-tech equipment as Paul gives the 16th-century text a 21st-century gloss.

“When Marlowe originally wrote his play, there was very much the idea that God was somewhere watching you, acting as a kind of cosmological policemen,” he says. Today we have CCT and other surveillance and spy cameras track the four protagonists in this fascinating play.

And it isn’t just the hardware that makes this new production topical.

“The show is set in his study – and in his mind. It’s essentially a very postmodern issue, that of judgement and the nature of good and evil.

“In terms of the drama, what draws you in is Marlowe’s interpretation of the insane idea that you can get everything you want without any consequences – whether it’s Helen of Troy or marching into Iraq and seize a country and grab its oil.

“The themes of the Faust legend remain as relevant today as ever.”

So could this be the turning-point for the company, now of an age when most others have given up and disbanded ?

It could be, especially since the National Assembly, who drive arts policy these days, like to emphasise accessibility and bums on seats rather than quality or consistency. That the constant criticism of WAC has been their variable standards is no longer a major factor, and they are now attracting funding via the arts council.

The question of quality is a ticklish one for Paul Garnault, an intense and committed theatremaker and follower of seminal figures like Growtowski and the iconic director Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop, who very much believes in the importance of the actor (thus the company name).

He has been known to rail against critics (like me) who have found their summer Shakespeares sometimes unsatisfactory, the callowness of the cast and occasional lack of subtlety forgivable only if it was a sunny evening and the picnic agreeable – although we have also enjoyed their successes, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of years ago.

With limited resources, though, the company have done remarkably well and most would concede that they deserve official recognition if only for the perseverance of their gutsy and passionate director.
Paul, from Caerphilly, has been an actor for 24 years after training at the East 15 School of Acting. He tries to recruit graduates from East 15 for WAC because he knows they will share his ethos and approach.

Theatre Workshop, which used a range of techniques but also intervened in the society of its time in a highly spectacular fashion, was the inspiration for the East 15 School of Acting and took its basic principles from the great periods of theatre - the Greeks, the Commedia dell’Arte, the Elizabethan theatre of Shakespeare and his contemporaries as well as the seventeenth-century French theatre of Moliére and the theories of Brecht.

“We work in the ensemble style of Theatre Workshop that allows greater creative freedom for the actor,” he explains.

But when your productions are usually staged in a windy ruin with atrocious acoustics, it isn’t exactly straightforward.

“We use a very specific kind of actor in our productions,” he explains, “and they must be able to do both Brecht and method acting - and be heard !”

The result has been a mixed bunch of performers, although recently there has been a core of East 15 performers. There has been a considerable turnover of actors over the last 19 years, giving the sense of a company without much continuity or coherence – hardly surprising when they would only stage one production a year.

“We do have a local casting policy,” affirms Paul, and mentions Pontypridd’s Phil John and Eddw Vale’s Griff Jameson in the present company. The company also has a policy of developing new actors.

But the reality of being until now a once-a-year company places artistic, organisational and financial strains on WAC – it means, for example, that it cannot be a full-time job for Paul and he earns a living as a lecturer at Coleg Gwent at Crosskeys.

“We are very much hoping that we will get proper funding from the arts council,” he admits. “Although we like tackling Shakespeare every summer, we really would like to prove we can do other plays as well !”

author:David Adams

original source:
23 February 2004


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