Theatre in Wales

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

Sgript Cymru at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

A report on the final perfromance of Crazy Gary, and on the 'Boundaries' conference

Last Saturday saw the final performance in the tour of Sgript Cymru’s co-production with Paines Plough of Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco by Gary Owen at The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, as well as Sgript Cymru’s participation in Boundaries – the first in a year-long season of platforms at The Traverse to look at “changing boundaries in the 21st century examining the plays emerging from our new and old worlds.”

The Boundaries year at the Traverse takes as its starting point the way in which map-lines around the world have been re-drawn, languages re-claimed, and political landscapes changed beyond recognition. Sgript Cymru was invited by The Traverse to join them in launching the Boundaries year by looking at the recently devolved nations within Great Britain, and also at the different languages that exist. Under the title FK: UK (Fragmented Kingdom: United Kingdom), the questions were raised, “How united is our kingdom?” and “What is your nation and what does it mean to you?” Emphasising the idea that it’s not just Europe that is re-defining its idea of nationality, there were readings of plays by Iain Finlay MacLeod and Meic Povey.

First in the afternoon, The Traverse Theatre presented a script development workshop of their work-in-progress Homers by leading Gaelic playwright Iain Finlay MacLeod. Directed by Artistic Director of The Traverse, Philip Howard, the play was based on the story of two teenagers from a Glaswegian children’s home who were sent to live on the Isle of Lewis and in a predominantly Gaelic-speaking community. The workshop explored different ways of using the Gaelic and English languages alongside each other in the same text. One of the features of MacLeod’s work is experimentation with a hybrid mix of Gaelic and English to create his own theatrical and inclusive language, which, in Iain Macrae’s performance, proved to be the highpoint of the presentation.

This was followed by a reading of a new version of Meic Povey’s play Tair, performed by a Scottish cast and directed by Sgript Cymru’s Artistic Director Bethan Jones. Presented under the title of Three Women and working from a new translation by the company’s Associate Director Simon Harris, the play mines Meic Povey’s thematic interest in inheritance and cultural identity through an exploration of women from different generations of the same family. Exhibiting a pared down and lean style, the play is very much a chamber piece that contains depth and complexity within its apparently minimal presentation. Easy categorisation of the characters of Nain, Mother and Daughter into symbols of repressive non-conformist history and a rebellious and amoral present soon breaks down as all the women are shown to have contradictory histories, demonstrating that the links that bind them are as significant as the circumstances that separate them. Delicately performed by Eileen Macallum, Ann Lacey and Vicki Liddell, Philip Howard described the reading as “brilliantly written and directed.”

Boundaries 1 concluded with a short performance and a discussion chaired by Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of Paines Plough, featuring Meic Povey, Bethan Jones, Simon Harris and Philip Howard. The performance element was of an extract in Welsh by the original cast of Tair – Lisabeth Miles, Betsan Llwyd and Catrin Powell. Having seen the play in translation, the non-Welsh speakers in the audience were even better placed to appreciate the clarity and integrity of this beautifully performed extract, which was very warmly received by The Traverse audience.

Philip Howard then began the discussion by explaining his commitment, as an English director at The Traverse, to Gaelic stage writing. He touched on the history of this work and explained that some traditionalists had felt that the development of a specialist company for Gaelic playwrights – Tosg – was not a natural or workable evolution. The reason for this might appear familiar to some in Wales in that the Gaelic tradition was held to be one based in elements of performance – the ceilidh, singing, communal celebration – that were not “aligned” to the use of text. However, despite this conservative opposition, Tosg has developed into an important component of the Scottish theatre scene.

Meic Povey and Bethan Jones then talked about their difficulty with conceiving Tair in English. The problem for Meic was of “hearing it” in a different language and it was not until it was in the mouths of the Scottish cast that his work became organic to him again. The importance of this distance was also emphasised by Bethan Jones, who felt that much of the resonance and technical delight of the language was lost in translation. The discussion broadened into the question of bilingualism and the difficulty of whether there was an audience for bilingual work. Bethan Jones explained the difficulty she had experienced with Dalier Sylw in marketing The Language of Heaven to audiences in Wales. The play had put off Welsh speakers because 80% of it was in English and put off monoglot English speakers because 20% was in Welsh. She wondered whether there was less hostility across the language divide in Scotland because Gaelic, as an endangered language, was viewed as perhaps less threatening. Philip Howard offered the most controversial point of the discussion, venturing that it was sometimes possible to sense the quality of writing whether you understood it or not. However, Gary Owen argued back strongly from the floor that this was a patronising viewpoint that risked romanticising minority languages. Finally, Simon Harris and Vicky Featherstone both argued for the importance of a willingness to embrace experimentation in form throughout all the language communities of Britain and that the starting point needed to be with the integrity of the writer’s vision, rather than with an idealised view of what was required.

All week Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco had played in Traverse 1 to a near capacity audience of 300, predominantly consisting of young people in their twenties who were clearly appreciative of Gary Owen’s innovative voice, combining a baroque storytelling style with crazed humour and cumulative emotional power. It was encouraging to see how confident the actors had become in handling the language during the tour and how much their work had grown. Potentially, four months is a long time to be working on the same text, but rather than becoming stale, the play was, in fact, still deepening and growing - David Rees Talbot’s Gary had become less evidently brutal and instead more pathetic and self-deluding, Steve Meo’s Matthew had discovered an astringent edge to his performance making his character seem more psychotic and floundering, rather than charming and endearing, and Richard Mylan lent a revelatory depth of pent-up emotion and existential paralysis to the tragic character of Russell.

Without wanting to revisit the controversy that surrounded this play in Wales, this performance made it all the more clear that Crazy Gary is not a play purveying misogyny and homophobia, nor a play that glorifies violence. On the contrary, it is a deeply felt play that can be seen to explore, experientially, the emotions of both sides on the powerful equation of victimhood. Perhaps Welsh audiences are more comfortable with sentimentalised versions of “the victim” that can be put into more obvious categories of social oppression. However, the honesty inherent within this play is that it refuses to be reductive and attempts to explore the symbiosis of an abusive power relationship that speaks to the heart of the crisis that exists within post-industrial masculinity. That it does so in a thought-provoking, strikingly immediate and – yes – entertaining way should be a matter of pride in our theatre culture. Nevertheless, the Scottish audience lapped it up.

author:Simon Harris - Sgript Cymru

original source: Sgript Cymru
17 May 2001


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