Theatre in Wales

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

Welsh Theatre in Edinburgh

this article first appeared in Planet magazine, October 2004

New productions, new writing, new thinking: as a snapshot of what’s happening in theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe is about far more than individual success. That’s why it was so exciting to see the Welsh shows there. I saw nine productions in just over two days, five of them at the “Welsh venue”, Venue 13. And as festival and carnival go together, it seems fitting that I also discuss a “new circus” show — NoFit State’s stunning ImMortal, directed by ELAN’s Firenza Guidi.

Venue 13 has been run by Welsh College of Music and Drama students (Postgraduate Diploma in Stage Management) at the Edinburgh Festival for thirteen years. Donna Taylor, one of this year’s Front of House managers, explained how valuable it was to work with professional Welsh companies, not only for postgraduate stage managers, but for student performers. Of course there’s the sheer stimulus of Edinburgh. It’s good for the professionals too. Three years ago Susanne Proctor was Polly in Lesley Ross’s The Jolly Folly of Polly the Scottish Trolley Dolly (*****, The Guardian) and she praised the supportive atmosphere at Venue 13.

This year Ross’s Ripley Theatre celebrated “13 years at venue 13” with three more of his one-act plays in “The International Festival of Lilliput.” I saw Mad Margaret’s Revenge, a two-hander bearing his trademark fascination with storytelling and fantasy. Jane Hill was magnificent as Margaret, a Hollywood director (and supermarket supervisor) manqué, fantasising endless film versions of her life and blaming all on being told she was too fat to be a Christmas angel in an infant school play. Sophie Hobson was a soft, eager Gemma, perpetually slapped down for joining in and elaborating the stories. Dreamy, witty and self-mocking by turns: they had the audience eating out of their hands.

The exuberant Welsh College productions, Cooking with Elvis and I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant, by Lee Hall and Jim Cartwright respectively, shared an exaggerated, cartoon-like quality. In Cooking with Elvis, the Elvis-obsessed Dad (Robert Vernon) is a paralysed vegetable in a wheelchair, the lonely anorexic Mam (Emily Evans) pulls much younger men, desperate to prove her life isn’t over at 38, the plump 14-year-old daughter, Gilly (a slim Zarha Amandi) pours her need for love and attention into cooking elaborate meals that no one eats. Stew (Dan Green), the supermarket cakeman bullied into moving into the house as the mother’s lover, seems a rather inane innocent. The play also included under-age sex, and cannibalism. Excellent, vigorous delivery, brilliant timing — for example, those moments when the rigid father dressed as Elvis leapt up, gyrated to a classic number, then snapped back into his wheelchair paralysis. It ends happily — at least for two of the characters.

I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant is another black comedy, sketching a world of loneliness, abandonment, theft, pimps, drugs, violence and dirt — with a happy ending. Lanky deadpan Craig Gazey was the befuddled “Man,” his eyes flicking shyly into the auditorium as he watched a strip show, pocketing a shabby white bra and sneaking furtive licks on stolen deodorant. Ffion Williams’s twitchy, strapping “Slag” enters his sad life and he ends up living under her bed among the balls of fluff, used condoms and the snowflakes of Uncle Crack, where “she pokes me and I sing to her”. Sparkling dialogue delivered with aplomb.

More sombre because more human, the Dylan Thomas Centre’s bleak Dylan in America relates the story of the writing of Under Milk Wood, drawing on Thomas’s letters home as his life falls apart on tour in the States. Peter Reid created a puzzled, disorientated poet plodding round the stage in a dreary circle (“of hell”). Dylan’s self-deprecating words are wonderfully expressive and Reid spoke them beautifully.

Football, Lewis Davies’s sharp new play for Made in Wales, seems a light social comedy but there are dark undercurrents below its witty surface. Martin Cole was suave as Jason, a celebrity chef who, having spent 175 Euros on Sir David Beckham’s shirt, invites two old university friends round for dinner. Suzanne Proctor plays the uptight Kate, now Sports editor of a major daily and Hywel Morgan was splendid as the embittered drunk Clive. The evening does not go well, these “friends” have nothing in common, only meet for old times’ sake and even the shirt — the pretext for the meeting — symbolises totally different things to each of them. The dialogue consists of three sets of combative one-line exchanges, each replaying the same scene from a different angle after a monologue. Using Clive as a probe, the play questions the nature of authenticity, trust and friendship, the meaning of style, celebrity and charity when subject to the distorting influence of the market.

The human cost of things dominated Jonathan Lichtenstein’s The Pull of Negative Gravity at the Traverse; inspired by the revelation that “more soldiers commit suicide during and after a conflict than are killed by enemy action during the conflict itself.” He set it on a Welsh hill farm destroyed by government mismanagement of the foot and mouth crisis. Before the play opens the debt-ridden father has committed suicide and one of the two sons, Dai, joins up to save the farm. He returns from Iraq physically and mentally crippled.

Brought up in Llandrindod Wells, Lichtenstein has the voices just right and the superb Welsh cast revel in their rhythms. Louise Collins is Dai’s hysterical fiancée, Bethan, Joanne Howarth is the mother, Vi, bitterly stuffing envelopes with healthcare insurance fliers. Daniel Hawksford is heartbreakingly eager as Rhys, in love with his brother’s fiancée and denied his mother’s love. Lee Haven-Jones brilliantly evokes the supple Dai of the past and the twisted inarticulate wreck that returns. The insistent refrain of “hold me... hold me tight” resonates through the play. Family and selves fall apart, the farm is sold as a holiday place — I was not the only one weeping at the end.

The Pull of Negative Gravity has attracted excellent reviews but, being a sizeable production, it’s unlikely to get a major run. As venues programme for one, two, even more years in advance, such success is increasingly restricted to more economic, portable shows. Twelve years ago Mark Jenkins’s monologue Playing Burton was one. It got ecstatic reviews and has been playing almost continuously ever since. This year he returned to the Assembly rooms with his elegant Rosebud: the Lives of Orson Welles. Alastair Sooke’s Daily Telegraph review is one example of its enthusiastic reception. He concludes with a sigh of pleasure: “This is exactly the kind of satisfying fare you want to find at the fringe. Here’s hoping that a transfer elsewhere is in the offing.” Jenkins launched Rosebud in Edinburgh aiming for a British tour and, better, an American one. It looks as if he’ll get both. The play won two major awards: a prestigious Fringe First for new writing and the new Carol Tambor Award which flies the production out to New York and showcases it for promoters. The writing
incorporates chunks of filmscripts, letters and reports, Shakespeare and romantic poetry into a sophisticated screen of information that tells you little of the private man — symbolised by the elusive “rosebud”. Christian McKay is captivating as the multifaceted Welles to whom he bears an extraordinary resemblance.

I met Mark Jenkins in Chapter the week before Edinburgh and he talked about his work. Jenkins has an odd relationship with Wales. Born in London of Welsh and Irish parents, he has lived in Wales since 1980. He is a successful, respected playwright who teaches scriptwriting part-time at Glamorgan University. He publishes with Parthian and his most successful play so far has been about a Welsh icon. Yet despite these multiple associations he has never received any funding from a public body in Wales and has never opened here. Indeed, Rosebud was only possible because of the individual input of David Hughes — a business man with a devotion to the arts — who put £5000 up front. It’s time his spectacular achievement was more valued.

Cardiff-based NoFit State have an international reputation as cutting edge “new circus,” though they aren’t as generally well known in Wales as they should be. Their ImMortal show has been touring to ecstatic reviews throughout Britain. I saw it in Pembroke Dock in late August.

They have a magnificent big top which looks from afar like a silver space ship. It’s as exciting inside. NoFit State Circus is the real thing — circus as carnival, vivid and intense. They have no authoritarian ringmaster to keep danger, and the audience, at a distance. The performers moved through the crowd; we saw one of the women, twelve feet above us, gripping the rope with her toes, and heard, through a mike, a woman’s laboured breathing as she swung up into the roof. Then, out of this seeming chaos, a flight of black-coated figures floated up on ropes like demonic angels. The figures coiled and twisted on the ropes as if air were water and they were swimming in it. One bright-eyed little girl next to me gazed up at a tumbling woman and breathed “Oh, she’s brave”. Equally awestruck, her friend whispered back: “I wouldn’t do that” — but I think she would have liked to.

author:Jeni Williams

original source: Planet Magazine
17 October 2004


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