Theatre in Wales

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

Invisible Wales?

David Adams questions the low profile of welsh theatre and its dramatists

This article first appeared in the Western Mail.....

A play about Orson Welles, Rosebud, has won a coveted Fringe First award at Edinburgh this year. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Welsh production has also won the new Carol Tamber Edinburgh-to-NewYork Award – meaning that the team will be off to the Big Apple in November for a week of showcase presentations.

It won’t be the first time playwright Mark Jenkins has made the trip. His Playing Burton this time last year ran for ten weeks off-Broadway and was applauded by no less than novelist Normal Mailer. The one-man show about the South Wales actor has in fact played all over the world to rave reviews and will be part of the inaugural season at the Wales Millennium Centre when it opens in November.

Mark who ?

Mark Jenkins has lived and worked in Wales (his mother was Welsh) for twenty-five years and currently teaches scriptwriting at the University of Glamorgan. The Scarlet Tunic, for which he wrote the screenplay, starred Simon Callow and Emma Fielding and was premiered at Cannes and opened at the Leicester Square Odeon before national release. Cardigan-based Parthian Books has just published his selected works. He has had half-a-dozen plays produced professionally – nearly all of them opening in London.

But Mark Jenkins is, as he ruefully admits, invisible in Wales.

Charlie Way, who lives in Abergavenny, won the major UK prize for children’s plays with his Red Shoes this year. He is one of the most performed playwrights in Britain and is currently working on The Last Pirate, for a joint production by his local Gwent Theatre and Cardiff’s Theatr Iolo, and has been commissioned by Sgript Cymru, Wales’s new-writing company.

He’s just finished The Dutiful Daughter for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Sechuan Peoples Arts theatre in Chengdu, and the play is currently being translated into mandarin for production in China. Merlin and the Cave of Dreams is set in Wales but opens at Manchester’s Library Theatre in November and Still Life, about the ethics of genetics and for everyone over fourteen, will open at Plymouth Theatre Royal next spring.

A very busy and successful playwright is Mr Way – but, alas, Charlie Way is also invisible in Wales.

This week there was a rare performance of The Merthyr Trilogy by Alan Osborne, now seen by many as seminal plays of the 1980s.

“As a requiem for the urban poor, of South Wales and the World, they remain unequalled,” says Gilly Adams, who as the director of Made in Wales Stage Company, first produced Bull, Rock and Nut, In Sunshine and in Shadow and The Redemption Song.

Osborne, born and educated in Merthyr Tydfil, is an accomplished teacher, composer and painter as well as playwright. An immensely gifted and charismatic man, he is all but unknown outside artistic circles.

Wales’s most acclaimed playwright Ed Thomas will have his latest play, Stone City Blues, premiered in a production directed by Terry Hands at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold next month before touring. It should be a major event – Thomas’s plays are widely performed all over Europe, his last couple were commissioned by and performed at London’s Royal Court theatre, his works are university set texts… and this is his first stage play for five years.

But it’s hardly headline news. Thomas may be Wales’s most famous playwright, but he is pretty invisible to the general public.

Cardiff’s Gary Owen burst on the scene a few years ago with Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, co-produced by Sgript Cymru, also responsible for his recent Ghost City at Chapter – but his latest, Cancer Ward, will open in London. In fact most of his plays have opened in London. Regarded as a major new theatre writing talent, he’s all but invisible in Wales

I could go on – playwrights like Lucy Gough, Greg Cullen, Dic Edwards and Ian Rowlands should all be publicly celebrated – but it isn’t just playwrights.
There is also at the moment an invasion of the prestigious Dublin Festival Fringe by no fewer than eight theatre companies from Wales. Lurking Truth, Bald and Bold, Fan Yma, Treays and Lewis, Momentum, MooCow, Scarlet Letter and Lupa may be exciting enough for our Irish neighbours but, yes, they’re invisible in Wales.
These companies are, of course, mostly new and so we have an excuse for not knowing anything about them.

But did you know that the British Council’s “hot list” of UK performance companies, widely seen as highly influential in marketing the best of British theatre, dance and live art to overseas arts promoters, has no less than twelve Wales-based acts, from Aberystwyth’s bilingual children’s group Arad Goch to Swansea’s radical Volcano Theatre ?

And in addition there are various “ex-pats” on the list, like Frantic Assembly, originally based at Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre, the actor, director and impresario Guy Masterson, great-nephew of Richard Burton and renowned for his one-man Dylan Thomas performances, actor Gareth Armstrong, former co-director of Theatre Wales who now also specialises in one-man shows, and dancer Sioned Huws, whose minimalist new media performance is more popular in Europe than in Wales, all of whom are now based outside Wales.

Performance in Profile 2004 includes long-standing companies such as Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Music Theatre Wales, Diversions Dance, puppeteers Green Ginger and dance-theatre company Earthfall, but also more cutting-edge performers like Eddie Ladd, Sean Tuan John, Marc Rees and Good Cop Bad Cop – all four linked to Chapter Arts Centre – as well as performance artist Eve Dent, who lives in Cardiff.

Quite a clutch of internationally highly-respected performers – most again, I suspect, invisible in Wales.

So why is it that Mark Jenkins has to go to Edinburgh and New York to get acclaim and Charlie Way sees his work performed not in Cardiff but in Leeds, Manchester, Plymouth and China, and many Welsh performers are recognised abroad but not in their own country ?

Simon Harris, who as director of Sgript Cymru is responsible for developing new theatre writing talent in Wales, and who as a playwright found most success when his Badfinger was produced at the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London, says that playwrights will always gravitate towards London and the Edinburgh Festival because they offer two of the biggest markets for theatre in the world.

“Given that the production of theatre in Wales is so limited and the commitment to new stage writing is so weak, who can blame them for doing so?,” he says.

“From Gwyn Thomas and Peter Gill to Gary Owen and Mark Jenkins, it’s been happening for forty years and good luck to them.

“In many ways the general position of theatre in Wales has been similar to the present crisis in the West End in London – I mean commercial theatre and not the subsidised part. Risks are barely tolerated and the return on investment must be clearly visible.

“The medium is characterised more by its capacity to entertain than elucidate. We’ve got a tension between bums on seats and the development of theatre as an artform, as well as tension between those who are keen to reflect new circumstances in their work and those who believe in the tried and tested. Some of this is understandable in Wales, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t make for an environment in which new plays can prosper. Government subsidy can bring all this into balance and therefore effect real change.

“I can’t abide David Hare’s plays, but his new play about the Iraq war – Stuff Happens – is a huge talking point for Londoners. It’s playing to a thousand people a night at The RNT. Why? Because of subsidy. Government subsidy now and also thirty years ago when he was touring around in a van and experimenting to an audience of twenty people. It’s a long process, not a quick fix, and we need to start now.

“Welsh playwrights can make a hugely valuable contribution to our culture and do so in Wales. Sgript Cymru is committed to producing the work of our most original and distinctive playwrights – but there are two overwhelming obstacles.

“The first is simply that insufficient money is being directed towards the commissioning and presentation of contemporary drama.

“The second is that there is no seasonal or year-round repertoire of new writing that can provide a context within which the work of playwrights can be evaluated and focussed. Both issues are inter-dependent and, in my view, key to reversing a history of apparent under-achievement in Welsh drama.”

Playwright Charlie Way also feels that the problem is to do with the structure of Welsh theatre.

“Playwrights need companies who have a mandate or commitment to producing not
only new writing but also new theatre in the wider sense,” he says. “This means creating a theatre culture which will attract writes to it and allow new authors to bubble up from the base by actually putting on plays.

"Of course that culture did exist – community theatre – but we all know what happened to that.

"Clwyd Theatr Cymru is not committed to new writing in a strategic sense and Script Cymru is under-resourced. Phil Clark at the Sherman has sustained a new writing policy and his shows for younger audiences are internationally recognised, but not given much praise in Wales.

"The YPT companies once again have carried the flag but the work is often invisible - the literary community in Wales is much more geared towards poets and novelists with the underlying notion that perhaps plays are not actually literature.

"A playwright in Wales will need to work across the media, in tv and radio, to sustain a career because theatre pay has reached a critical low point and will not
attract anyone.

"I have decided to stay in theatre and work for adults and children - so I have to go outside Wales, recently accepting a commission from America but which I hope will find its way to the Sherman before long.

"But I think my best piece of unseen recent work is The Long Way Home, a play about European and individual identity. I am hoping Hijinx will pick it up, but New
Perspectives (who commissioned it) are based in Mansfield do three shows to community venues a year - and Hijinx have been restricted to one. This makes it hard for them to buid an audience and to nurture and sustain writers.

"I just hope a new theatre culture will be born out of the Boyden Report."

But there is also the problem of finding audiences in Wales for any theatre, especially non-traditional work.

Swansea's Frantic Assembly left their home town when they found they had played in Egypt more times than in Wales.

"Te lack of Welsh touring was not for lack of trying,” says ex-administrator Vicki Middleton.

"I worked really hard to get shows in Wales, not just because of funding commitments but because we wanted to be perform in our home country. This was a show that won a Time Out Live award and went on to being performed in seven international countries and for a five-week West End run in 2000.

"This was at a point when the company were getting national recognition in the press, but we just could not get the dates in Wales.

"We were sad to leave the Taliesin behind us (although we still tour there now), but apart from that we never looked back."

The company is now based at Battersea Arts Centre in London.

author:David Adams

original source: The Western Mail
01 October 2004


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