Theatre in Wales

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

Irreducible Diversity

Roger Owen’s recently published critical study of Welsh language theatre

Ar Wasgar (‘Dispersed’) charts the work of several Welsh-language theatre companies between 1979 and 1997, and looks at the way in which their collective efforts were defined as the manifestation of a new, disparate national theatre for Welsh-speaking Wales. Its main focus is on the relationship between theatre and community and on the role played by theatre companies and critics in the tactical re-evaluation of national identity at a time of social, cultural and historical crisis. In the book, therefore, I attempted to assess the success and significance of the theatre companies discussed in relation to the prevailing political and social circumstances of the time.

The political and social topography of the years between 1979 and 1997 will be familiar to most readers: this was a period characterized and influenced throughout by Conservative Party rule at Westminster, and by successive
crises for the Labour Party both in Wales and the UK as a whole. In its early stages, it also saw meltdown in the traditional industrial areas of Wales and the beginnings of an economic disaster for its rural communities. Later, the
prevailing theme became one of reconstruction – the economic regeneration of industrial communities, and the re-engineering of Labour as an electable government being prime examples. In both cases, reconstruction involved a
drastic alteration to the fundamental characteristics of the subject.

The fortunes of Welsh-language theatre at this time may not be as familiar, but they do display important similarities in terms of ebb and flow (albeit possibly in reverse). Defining moments in the history of Welsh language theatre during these years include the formation of Cwmni Theatr Bara Caws in 1977, whose members broke away from Cwmni Theatr Cymru – the flagship Welsh-language theatre company of the day – and became the founders of a small but significant fringe movement; the decline and eventual collapse of Cwmni Theatr Cymru between 1981 and 1984; and the growing campaign for a reintegrated, single national theatre after about 1995. As in the general history of Wales, there was at the heart of this process a substantial reconstruction, involving a radical modification of the theatre’s mode of operation – the demise of Cwmni Theatr Cymru led to a redesignation of the various fringe companies formed after 1977 as a new, dispersed national theatre. However, in this case, reconstruction was followed in the mid-1990s by further meltdown and another substantial revision of the medium’s social functioning. Having attempted a bold
reinvention of itself as a dynamically disparate enterprise, Welsh-language theatre was eventually repackaged in a more homogenous and possibly less interesting form at the turn of the millennium.

A number of the constituent companies of the dispersed national theatre of the 1980s and 1990s are discussed in Ar Wasgar. They include Bara Caws and Cwmni Theatr Gorllewin Morgannwg, which are brought together in a discussion of popular/political theatre; Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd and Theatrig, discussed as ‘mainstream’ companies created in order to inherit the national audience
fostered by Cwmni Theatr Cymru; Brith Gof and Cwmni Cyfri Tri, physical theatre companies whose work reflected the same influences but whose artistic paths diverged significantly towards the end of the 1980s; and Hwyl a
Fflag/Sgwâr Un and Dalier Sylw, discussed, along with several companies specializing in TiE (theatre in education) and theatre for young audiences, as ‘unco-ordinated’ companies whose brief required them to work in a variety
of styles and locations, and who therefore tended to defyc classification according to the inherent characteristics of their output. These new companies had relatively little in common with each other: in terms of their style and
performance techniques, they were radically different, and these differences meant that any attempt to describe them as a simple or stable homogenous unit could not be sustained. But an important common factor which brought
a degree of unity to their status as a diffuse movement was
the communitarian character of their operation. Each company, in its own way, attempted to use theatre as a means of signifying their refusal to comply with the social values of the Thatcherite economics of the mid-’80s, and of advertising a sense of solidarity with their own chosen community. The classification of this network of companies as a national institution was also thought to provide an imaginative barrier against the powerfully normative,
homogenizing force of Thatcherism by ensuring that an irreducible diversity was at the very heart of the project. In these ways at least, then, the emergence of these new companies did constitute the formation of a single and
national theatre movement, albeit one of great complexity and diversity, which forced an imaginative contextualization and disruptive questioning of traditional notions of Welshness and of nationhood.

Advocates of this dispersed model of national theatre (subsequently entitled the ‘fleet of coracles’) found a pretext for their view in the work of some major
commentators on Welsh society. Two of the most evident in this respect were the historian Gwyn A. Williams and the novelist Emyr Humphreys. Williams’
compelling description of the progress of Welsh history and identity in When Was Wales? (1985) provided a great boost to the spirits of those who, like Williams himself, feared that the progress of the Thatcher government marked ‘the elimination of Welsh peculiarities and [...] an integration into Britain more
total than anything yet experienced.’ He devised a narrative for the history of Wales which examined the Welsh people’s response to such instances of crisis and discontinuity in the past. ‘The Welsh,’ wrote Williams, ‘have danced between these giant cogwheels before. Wales has always been now. The Welsh as a people have lived by making and remaking themselves in generation after generation, usually against the odds, usually within a British context. Wales is an artefact which the Welsh produce. If they want to. It requires an act of choice.’
Although not a particularly optimistic statement in itself, this idea (or rather this reaffirmation) that Wales was created by the Welsh in their own way was an important source of hope for many, including several theatre
practitioners, since it stressed the importance of performance as a means of cultural continuity and of creative disavowal of Thatcherism. In Williams’
formulation, Wales became a matter of doing not of being: Welshness, far from being an inalterable condition, was rather a series of practices which, though many of them were rooted in tradition, could also be reinvented,
even improvised. In other words, it had strong affiliations with theatre. Similarly, in Emyr Humphreys’ discussion of Welsh cultural history, The Taliesin Tradition (1983), a comparable emphasis was placed upon performativity and transformation. Humphreys related the dynamic discontinuity in Wales’s cultural history to the influence of Taliesin as instigator of the Welsh poetic tradition. The transformational nature of the Taliesinic, argued Humphreys, has been a consistent feature of the history of Wales, and was based upon a persistent interweaving of history and myth. Thus, in effect, Welshness could be distinguished by the suddenness and thoroughness of its transformations, indeed by its implicit lack of predictable historical continuity. Such a notion was particularly welcome to those in Wales who were deeply troubled by the galloping assimilation of Wales into Britain during the early years of the Thatcher government: it suggested that the historical distinctiveness of the Welsh could be reasserted, even in the most trying of times, through
history-busting ‘self- mythologisation’. In keeping with this idea, the dispersed Welsh-language theatre of the 1980s and 1990s presented itself as a Taliesinic medium of dynamic identity and (dis)continuity at a time when the democratic political system failed to produce a government which offered a voice to its audience.

This Taliesinic effect in Welsh-language theatre showed itself in several ways. In the early work of Brith Gof and Cwmni Cyfri Tri, for example, reference to historical narrative sources (for Brith Gof, the Four Branches of the Mabinogion; for CC3, folktales and the traditional Anterliwt) was combined with production methods derived from experimental or culturally unfamiliar physical techniques. This created a powerful tension between notions of cultural ownership of narrative material and the indefinable, independent position of the actor’s body as a means of expression, a tension which tended both to remove the theatre from its specific cultural milieu while reaffirming its position within it. The same tension, it could be argued, was also present in the denuded stages of Bara Caws and Theatr Gorllewin Morgannwg in their overtly political work, and in Theatrig’s reinterpretation of classic Welsh plays according to the tenets of Brecht and the radical staging techniques of Peter Stein: in Theatrig’s epic Peer Gynt (1986), for example, the folksy simplicity of individual narrative episodes was offset by the visual density and complexity of the production’s composite staging. However, the poetic and playful freedom afforded by the Taliesinic proved increasingly difficult to maintain as the 1980s – and the Thatcher government – progressed. The advent of Thatcherism had profound implications for thec politics and culture of contemporary Wales, and challenged many of the certainties which had underpinned Welsh theatre for generations. It forced change by its total redefinition of the nature of the social good: where the previous Keynesian principles of state intervention in economic policy had stressed consensus as a pre-requisite for governance, Thatcherism’s basis in monetarism and the free market enshrined competition as he basis for social order. This was substantially at odds with the communitarian ideals which had been at the heart of Welsh-language theatre since its inception.

Nevertheless, such was the pervasiveness of Tory rule at this time that even here theatre artists and companies attempted to reimagine, redefine and reconfigure their work in order to resist its influence, their reliance on public subsidy, as well as their need to appeal to the general audience (itself facing the realities of the new hegemony of competitive practice on a daily basis), virtually forced them to yield or become trapped within irreconcilably double standards. The gradual adoption and assimilation of the prevailing Thatcherite ethos was irresistible, and was eventually reflected in the work and artistic policies of most Welsh-language theatre companies. The Taliesinic, such as it was, became enmeshed in struggles to find economically viable ways of supporting professional practice in theatre.

author:Roger Owen

original source: New Welsh Review
01 July 2004


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