Theatre in Wales

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

Played in Wales

After years of infighting, the Welsh finally have their own national theatre. Alfred Hickling reports

When Terry Hands arrived to assume the artistic directorship of Theatr Clwyd in 1997, a press quote on a board in the foyer proclaimed the theatre to be "the nearest thing to a National Theatre of Wales". He took it down. "It had to go because it wasn't true," Hands explains. "The theatre didn't have a national remit, nor did it employ Welsh actors. I felt that if we were to warrant the status of a national theatre, we would have to earn it."

In the intervening years, Hands has done much to deserve the designation. Clwyd Theatr Cymru has built up a fine ensemble of predominantly Welsh actors, tours extensively, and has plans to establish a second base in Cardiff. But the board in the foyer has not been reinstated. The problem lies with the use of the word "national". "It is used a great deal in Wales," says Hands. "We have a National Assembly, a National Stadium and a National Opera. I even noticed a sign in Cardiff recently for a Welsh National Body Piercing Centre. Yet once you apply it to theatre, the debate becomes unusually contentious."

The Cardiff-born writer and director Peter Gill agrees. "There have been so many attempts to get a Welsh National Theatre off the ground that it seems to have lost its meaning," he says.

"Welsh theatre has a remarkable capacity for talking things out of existence," says director Michael Bogdanov, whose Swansea-based Wales Theatre Company has also been dubbed "the Welsh National Theatre-in-waiting".

Yet after years of stalemate and inertia, it seems the dragon is stirring. Peter Boyden - the author of the report that led to 20m of reinvestment in English regional theatre - is conducting a similar survey for the Arts Council of Wales."What is immediately apparent is that the building wave of the 1960s and 70s, which led to the establishment of large repertory theatres in most regional centres of England, did not occur on a similar scale in Wales," Boyden says. "As a result, the picture is far more fragmented, with a long legacy of misunderstanding and mistrust about the way the sector speaks to itself."

Yet the surprising fact is that after years of abortive efforts and in-fighting, the Welsh National Theatre has now come into being - though the event has been so low-key that it may have escaped people's notice. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh-language national theatre, was launched in March and has just embarked on its debut tour. Founded with a 750,000 grant from the Welsh Arts Council, it has temporary accommodation in a former tin factory in Llanelli and employs five full-time staff, plus a company of four actors.

The company's remit is to tour to Welsh-speaking communities, though audiences can be elusive. The first of two performances at the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven had to be cancelled as it clashed with a Welsh-language translation of the Vagina Monologues in a nearby village hall.

Theatr Genedlaethol's debut is a piece by one of Wales's most prolific playwrights, Meic Povey, entitled Yn Debyg Iawn i Ti a Fi (Rather Like You or Me) - a raw family drama about coping with schizophrenia. For non-Welsh speakers, the company presents extracts from the play in English beforehand. But even if you don't understand the dialogue, the intensity of Cefin Roberts's production seems clear, and Glyn Pritchard's outstanding central performance speaks the universal language of disturbance.

Lyn T Jones, the theatre's chairman, explains the rationale for starting out small: "After the company got the go-ahead from the National Assembly and Welsh Arts Council a year ago, we decided that we had to announce our presence and get out on the road as quickly as possible. There have been so many false dawns that we simply couldn't afford another hiatus in which nothing was seen to be happening."

The company has plans to establish a purpose-built administrative and rehearsal base in Caermarthon, but does not intend to run its own venue. "The Welsh-speaking community is a diaspora," says Jones, "so this has to be a theatre that we take to the people."

Hands welcomes the development but doubts whether a national theatre can have a sufficient impact without a permanent home: "Wales needs a flagship as well as a fleet of coracles," he says.

Bogdanov is similarly circumspect. "It was jumping the gun to establish a national company before the future of English-language theatre was decided," he says. "Separating them out seems to be a retrogressive step, particularly in a small country like Wales where it would make far more sense for resources to be shared."

One issue upon which all are agreed, however, is the need to establish a major repertory theatre in south Wales. The only full-scale, year-round producing theatre is Theatr Clwyd, yet its location in the north-east places it closer to Liverpool and Manchester. For the past five years, Theatr Clwyd has presented visiting seasons of work in Cardiff and would like to open a second, permanent base in the capital.

A venue has already been found - a former chapel in Cardiff city centre - and plans have been drawn up by the theatre architect Michael Reardon to convert it into a 450-seat auditorium. "My aim would be to replicate the Royal Shakespeare Company's original principle of a shared axis," says Hands. "Productions would originate in both venues, then swap over, as used to be the case between London and Stratford."

Bogdanov believes Clwyd's plans still do not answer the need for a theatre on the largest scale. He says the only theatre large enough to accommodate such a company is the Grand Theatre in Swansea. "It's a superb refurbishment of a Victorian theatre, and as the costs of upgrading have already been met, it makes sense to base a major producing company there."

The Welsh Theatre Company is funded by Swansea city council, but has links with Bogdanov's Shakespeare productions at the Ludlow festival, which are cast only with Welsh actors. His plans include back-to-back Welsh and English language productions of Hamlet; and a production of Under Milk Wood, marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Dylan Thomas, is currently touring the UK.

Yet could there be a third solution to the absence of a large theatre in south Wales? In November, Welsh National Opera vacates the Cardiff New Theatre to take up residence at the Millennium Centre on Cardiff Bay. The New Theatre, an antiquated 1,000-seat touring house, seems increasingly unloved and unaccounted for and is in danger of being left high and dry as the axis of the new Cardiff shifts towards the docks.

Gill has fond memories of taking walk-on parts at the New Theatre, and believes it may be possible to rejuvenate the venue. "The New has a reputation as an unforgiving place to play," he says, "but it ought to be possible to humanise the auditorium, do something about its tatty outlook, and preserve something that represents the best of the old Cardiff."

There is no shortage of ideas for how the theatrical landscape of Wales might be shaped and Boyden will present his initial findings to the Welsh Arts Council at the end of May. "There is no reason why the variously proposed solutions should be mutually exclusive. Welsh theatre has been in opposition to itself for too long. We may at last be looking at a situation where there is the will, the money and the desire to ensure that all the best elements of Welsh theatre, from grass-roots touring companies to building-based flagships, may harmoniously exist together."

Yn debyg iawn I ti a fi is at the Arts Centre, Anerystwyth (01970 623232),on Thursday and Friday. Then touring until May 29.

author:Alfred Hickling

original source: The Guardian on line
05 May 2004


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