Theatre in Wales

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

The Wales Millennium Centre

London has its gherkin, Sydney has its nuns’ scrum and now Cardiff has its armadillo.

London has its gherkin, Sydney has its nuns’ scrum and now Cardiff has its armadillo. Less widely known as the “computer mouse”, the “slug” and, of course, the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff’s newest landmark has already been the subject of some creative name-calling. Even its official title is not without controversy. Sited in the capital, this is the Wales Millennium Centre, not, pointedly, the Cardiff Millennium Centre — a label some living outside the region see as a politically calculated misnomer intended to disguise the fact that, yet again, huge investment has been made in the south at the expense of the rest of the country. Though the decision to locate the new flagship arts centre in Cardiff is defensible, logical even, given the population density in south Wales, it does nothing to counter the growing perception of inequality between north and south. Architect Jonathan Adams has at least shown a nominal sensitivity to this disparity by incorporating a variety of materials from across Wales in his design, including native hardwoods, glass, and that poignant relic of our industrial past, steel. Slate, installed by traditional stonemasons from Gwynedd, provides a very visible frontage to the building.

In using these home-grown construction materials, Adams has fulfilled the first part of his remit (albeit in a fairly literal way) to create something “both unmistakably Welsh and internationally remarkable”. But what of the second? Will the Millennium Centre become the unique architectural icon it is hoped? Sadly, it seems unlikely. Norman Foster’s recently-opened concert hall on the banks of the Tyne, The Sage, which also features a semi-cylindrical form and a curved, metal-clad roof, has already been dubbed “the armadillo” by the people of Gateshead.

While it remains to be seen whether the Wales Millennium Centre will become a metonym for Cardiff in the way that the Opera House, say, has become one for Sydney, there is no denying that the building itself is remarkable. The interior is, if anything, more impressive than the exterior. The voluminous 1900-seater main auditorium, the Donald Gordon Theatre, certainly has the wow factor (in case you’re wondering, Donald Gordon is the South African property tycoon who donated £20 million to the centre). There is an emphasis on organic forms, with beautifully curvaceous wooden balconies that give the space a welcoming and sensuous warmth.

The terracotta walls have the satisfying unevenness of dry stone walling and presumably act like egg boxes in absorbing the sound, a pleasing combination of form and practicality. In general, there is a commendable attention to detail in the design though, unfortunately, the overall impression of quality is marred by one or two instances of cowboy workmanship. In the main ticket hall, the metal-plated ceiling is already buckling slightly, like badly-laid laminate flooring, and the “automatic” entrance doors stand untidily ajar, struggling to open and close properly against the strong winds. But these are minor imperfections, only to be expected with a new building. On the whole they do not detract from the impressiveness of the achievement.

That’s just my opinion — what does the rest of the nation make of the new arts centre that houses our national opera company but is not, explicitly not, an opera house? Well, if you want to know what people really think, go to a chatroom. Assured of complete anonymity, visitors are free to offer views that are outspoken, uncensored and usually unrepeatable, but, most importantly, honest. On the topic of the Millennium Centre opinions are predictably mixed, though most profess to like the building itself. It’s what goes on within the building that seems to be more controversial. Characteristic of many attitudes is the suspicion of high art that was a major contributing factor in the scuppering of Zaha Hadid’s opera house design ten years ago and which resulted in the building of a sports stadium instead. In one such online debate, “LilMissHissyFit” and “Machen” voice widely held concerns over the perceived elitism of the centre. LilMiss-HissyFit asks: “How many of us Welshies will go and use it then?” to which Machen replies, “Answer: nobody I’d know! It’s not designed for the people of Wales, of course, but for the pampered elites what run our media, politics, academia and culture industries. Why don’t we get on down there for a bit of a Situationist ruckus and demand revolutionary proletarian theatre for the masses?” LilMissHissyFit responds: “Well akshewwally I’ve just booked tickets for something that looks pretty fab (Cirque Éloize, Rain) and it only cost me £20.00 for two tickets. Hardly elitist, it cost us only a teeny bit more than going to the flicks.

Maybe you don’t need to demand a proletarian theatre, we’ll just buy the cheaper seats and drop Revels on their heads.” Whether you share her viewpoint or are more inclined to join Machen for a “Situationist ruckus”, LilMissHissyFit was right about one thing: Cirque Éloize was indeed “pretty fab”.

This is not something I would have chosen to see. A French-Canadian production billed as the “new circus” (memories of new-age hippy friends into “circus skills”: juggling balls and jester hats everywhere, the constant threat of low-flying unicycles as they went spinning out of control — the horror, the horror), in which boots surreally rain down on the stage from above, did not particularly appeal. Neither am I terribly keen on the “old circus” of Billy Smart, Chipperfield and Co. However, Cirque Éloize was unlike any circus I’ve ever seen before, old or new, and certainly nothing like the freak shows I went to see as a child, with their sad, tricycle-riding chimps and whip-wielding ringmasters. The traditional circus disciplines were still there: acrobatics, juggling, contortionism, trapeze, but used in inventive new ways, unremittingly testing the limits of the human body. It was literally breathtaking. There were astounding feats of daring, triple back-flips, acts of seeming physical impossibility. Cirque Éloize has something for everyone: someone balancing on a ball while playing the accordion, fabulously fit young men in lycra, very bendy ladies. Rain was a joyous, life-affirming wet dream and I can thoroughly recommend it. And the Wales Millennium Centre makes a marvellous big-top.

author:Claire Powell

original source: Planet Magazine, 169 Feb/March 2005
08 February 2005


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