Theatre in Wales

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

Theatre, cultural identity and the critic in the n

David Adams gazes into the collective navel....

As the arts in Wales, notably theatre, are prepared for radical reorganisation, there seems to me to be something still missing. We hear about excellence, accessibility, provision, development, and so on, that hotchpotch of New Labour, nationalist and marketing terminology. But we hear very little about criticism and the role of the critic not simply to evaluate theatre but to raise the profile, to relate it to real life, to insist on its cultural necessity. I suspect - indeed, I know - that the critic is not seen as an essential part of the arts in Wales. And yet have we not learned a lesson from the fiasco of the drama strategy ?

Several times recently I have had the opportunity to talk about theatre criticism with a range of audiences outside the UK, where theatre criticism is taken seriously. In Zagreb, for example, I was one of a dozen or so critics from around the world exchanging perspectives on the state of criticism in our own countries.

Wales, of course, is not very known in Europe, although Ed Thomas's plays and the work of Volcano, Earthfall, Brith Gof and Frantic Assembly have all been well received. The night I arrived in Croatia I turned on the television in my hotel room - and saw a Manic Street Preachers live concert. So I told my audience about the rise of "Cool Cymru".

This, I suggested, was essentially a construct of the British popular media, since particularly in popular culture, and especially in popular music, the industry and the media collude in packaging trends. Forty years ago it was the Mersey Beat, riding on the back of The Beatles. Today it is Cool Cymru, thanks mainly to the Manic Street Preachers. Groups like Catatonia, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals and Stereophonics do at least get some attention thanks to the Cool Cymru construct, but the phenomenon succeeds because pop music does not rely on a specific cultural or geographic location for its performance - you can buy a Manics CD anywhere.

Within this hype, where is theatre ? Nowhere.

I also alluded to another cultural phenomenon occupying the British media at that time, the surprising attention in Britain paid to the centenary of the death of that eminent Victorian man of letters John Ruskin, art critic, social reformer, political campaigner, religious zealot and many other things. Ruskin was a complex man, very much a product of his time, but he represents a tradition of what I termed "the critic as national conscience". While none us at that Zagreb conference would like to be thought pompous enough to call ourselves that, in all the hype about Ruskin that position, the critic as national conscience, is one that many find interesting and distinctive.

So, mixing with academics, journalists, students, practitioners and audiences at that international critics' conference, it seemed to me that the conjunction of these two rather different, even opposing, representations of cultural concern begged a question that I find particularly taxing, in my situation as a theatre critic writing and lecturing in Wales (where theatre is undergoing a major crisis), but one that I suspect was common to many of us in Zagreb: in brief, in the postmodern market-led society is the critic not only not the national conscience but actually redundant ?

With that question hanging in the air, what interests me is the connection between theatre practice and provision, cultural identity and criticism and how this seemed to be so very relevant over the past few months.

The critic is often denigrated, especially the newspaper critic who has to engage in a discourse determined by the medium and its audience - in Wales both exclusively populist. Elsewhere in the world, criticism has a higher status, commands more space in the media and deals less in personal opinion and more in evaluation. But regardless of quality or of purpose here, what is its subject matter ? In the national media theatre criticism is almost exclusively of work that is produced in England and especially London (and, of course, Stratford). This has become increasingly the case over the past few years - hence the irony of that Cool Cymru tag. Only a handful of Welsh theatre work was reviewed in all the national newspapers over the past year - generally when a production made it to London, where it was often reviewed with that kind of curious, contemptuous attitude to "The Other" adopted by the English; indigenous Welsh-based theatre is generally ignored.

But I have to say the Welsh media are little better. There is no theatre magazine in Wales. The national newspaper of Wales, The Western Mail, covers what it considers the more "important" productions - but with reviews that must not exceed 300 words. The broadcasting media have no regular arts programmes. Welsh-language critical coverage is, by all accounts, poor: with the exception of Barn, there is no regular criticism. I am one of only two professional theatre critics (both English-medium) in the whole of Wales; a limited amount of criticism is written by academics for New Welsh Review and Planet but otherwise reviews are often written by journalists with no specialist knowledge. (Interestingly, this the opposite of the case with sports coverage, which gets several pages in the Western Mail every day written by full-time experts on rugby and association football....but that is another debate !)

One problem is the general cultural one of Wales being more or less invisible or downgraded within Britain, especially in London; another is the historical one of a lack of a continuous theatre tradition such as can be found in the rest of Britain. Before Welsh theatre was officially invented in the 1960s by the arts council apparently there was no indigenous Welsh professional theatre practice, the main reasons cited being the lack of an affluent middle-class audience, no royal patronage and no major centres of population. This does, of course, beg the question of what we mean by "theatre". If we use a more open word, "performance", we might have another picture. Another reason there was no visible theatre practice in Wales was the nature of the culture - an essentially oral tradition, and of course one in a tongue that few people of importance outside Wales could speak. But there is evidence of a rich tradition of performance, dramatic, mimetic activity that was to "degenerate" into folk custom. Records of traditions still practised in the twentieth century in rural Wales reveal complex formalised rituals that many of us would regard today as performance. This performance tradition, if it was perpetuated throughout the ages and managed to escape the strictures of the church that destroyed so much other popular activity, remains only dimly perceived, if not invisible. It was, after all. a participatory kind of performance, not one made for audiences, much less critics.

Any theatre practice, especially non-literary performance, and especially that of a subdominant culture such as Wales's in relation to England, does becomes invisible if it is not recorded. It is in general the critic that gives an ephemeral cultural practice a real place in history. Regardless of the qualities of the product and regardless, indeed, of the perspectives of the critic, the very fact of a performance happening is otherwise only manifest through such evidence as a ticket, a programme, a poster - promises of a performance rather than a record of one. In an ideal world today all theatre events would at least be videotaped - but even this is a record of just one part of the theatrical event, the production, rather than the shared experience, the transaction that is the total experience. If there is no review of a show, it is like claiming that the menu is evidence of a meal rather than the record of the enjoyment of the meal itself.

It is ironic that even in recent times in Wales, with a fairly high level of theatre activity and a handful of internationally-renowned companies, theatre productions can disappear almost without trace and frequently without any (or very little) critical coverage. For example Earthfall's Rococo Blood, which the company felt got relatively a lot of critical coverage, was reviewed in NWR and Planet but otherwise just one in the rest of the Welsh popular media; Volcano's Moments of Madness, the latest show from Wales's major theatrical export, was reviewed in the Western Mail, Swansea Evening Post, New Welsh Review, but hardly in the depth you'd expect for a work that toured (and is still touring) the world; the latest play by Wales's leading playwright, Ed Thomas, Gas Station Angel, played London and was a hit in Europe (a German colleague said he thought it the best play from Britain - including work by such as Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane), but I am told got just two reviews in the Welsh popular media; Chapter's ambitious Twelve Days of Risk festival in May featured 22 different shows, 31 performances, three afternoons of talks and got virtually no critical media coverage at all. Theatr Iolo's Marcos has been praised all over the world, yet the only notice it has had in Wales was when I urged the Western Mail to run a brief review.

Does this really matter? Does the quality of the work, the nature of the provision, the amount of funding really change if criticism is taken more seriously ?

What do we have today in Wales ? A mess. But in the mid-1990s we had a heterogeneous practice delivering theatre to a wide range of audiences. We could identify four different strands: experimental work which, though undoubtedly based in its early days on Grotowski and European physical theatre, has become a distinct form, in some cases allied to traditional Welsh dance and folklore, such as with Sioned Huws and Eddie Ladd; community and young people's theatre, rooted in the idea of accessibility, local concerns and the educative value of theatre; mainstream work, where some of those community-theatre techniques and values have been transcribed to the main stage or where the playwright can have a louder voice, as in recent productions of new plays at The Sherman Theatre or adaptations of the popular historical novels of Alexander Cordell at Theatr Clwyd ; and in what I term "syncretic" theatre, borrowing from the writings of New Zealand critic Chris Balme, who shows how Maori drama adopts the language and culture of a powerful colonising nation to fashion a new form of theatre - the process of abrogation and re-possession we see in many postcolonial cultures. The Arts Council of Wales supported around thirty companies and individuals, with established groups getting what is called "revenue" funding and new work receiving one-off "project" funding - with a total budget of around 3million.

All that was to change with the now infamous arts council drama strategy. Questions were asked: Who decides what companies will be the beneficiaries of public funding ? Who decided that the provision - which companies would be funded to do what work - would change ? What checks and balances were there in place to monitor this process ? How was quality measured ? How accountable was this cultural power elite ?

It is noticeable when talking to colleagues in the new nations to have emerged from under the umbrella of Soviet and Soviet-style socialism that they understandably dismiss everything that went with those oppressive regimes - including, and sometimes especially, state funding of the arts. (Interestingly, just before leaving for Zagreb I got a document from Michael Bogdanov, the Welsh director who has worked all over the world, in which he declared "many of us would give our right arm for the facilities that existed under the old eastern bloc.") In Britain, theatre is funded by both public money, distributed by the arts council or local councils, and private enterprise, from sponsorship and commercial entrepreneurs. On the surface this mixed economy may seem attractive, free as it might be of total state control or total free-enterprise commercialism. The public purse is held by bodies - the arts council and local councils - who ostensibly operate an "arm's length" approach from central government. In fact theatre provision is as part of the ideological structure as it is in socialist states. The arts council is a body whose members are all unelected government appointees; local council spending is increasingly subject to control from central government.

Whether the funding invested in theatre comes from a commercial organisation, from the local council, from business sponsors or from the arts council, it will be given only if it meets approval, if it fits in with cultural hegemony. The decisions are made by those with cultural capital. We must remember that theatre in the "free Western democracies" is as constrained by ideology as anywhere - all the more pernicious because of the illusion of freedom.

Part of the ideology at work in Wales is about cultural identity and nationalism. Cultural identity is a phrase glibly used, and one that has great force, and one that critics as well as proselytisers use. I, like many of us, am deeply suspicious of the notion of cultural identity. Is it in reality an ideological construct and as critics are we guilty in contributing to a particular way of representing ourselves that is rooted in far from disinterested discourses? (In Croatia, of course, my hosts were only too aware of how the notion of cultural identity, especially when allied to racial identity, can be harnessed.) Such ideas of a fixed identity are as dangerous and as problematic as questions of personal, sexual and social identity. It is, nevertheless, only too easy as a critic to be complicit in this mythmaking.

That said, Welsh theatre matured in the last decades of the last century, and the outstanding works were ones that addressed, directly or obliquely, the question of identity. Earlier playwrights unknown outside Wales, like J O Francis and Kitchener Davies, as well as more populist writers like Dylan Thomas and Emlyn Williams, had taken Welshness as their main theme, as did dozens of lesser dramatists. Now the bilingual experimental work of Brith Gof in the 1980s and 90s was also dedicated to an exploration of Welshness. Leading playwrights such as Ed Thomas (whose House of America has become a classic treatise on the need for Wales to reinvent itself and reject both stereotyped mythology and Americanisation), writing mainly in English, and Gareth Miles (with a more political critique of vulgar nationalism), in Welsh, challenged the platitudes of politicians and patriots while making the case for nation and nationhood. Ian Rowlands examined domination and appropriation through the metaphor of sexual relationships. And so on.

Cultural identity, then, has been inevitably a feature of Welsh theatre. Nationalism has on the whole not, which is why the various moves to promote a national theatre have fallen flat: practitioners have found the concept at best irrelevant, at worst a potential drain on funding resources.

The Assembly is again addressing the question of a national theatre, within the context of a radical reorganisation of the arts and of a broader strategy of "branding" Wales, of redefining culture and "Welshness" - what cynics have labelled the Wales.com vision. Arts and Culture Advisor Ceri Sherlock's report talks about a Creu Cymru among whose responsibilities will be "to stimulate a deeper understanding of Culture and its role in society"; and although the committee considering the arts and culture review does not in fact refer to critical debate, at the top of the report's bullet-points is "critical debate and discussion" and "better and more informed debate in the media". But the advice (even if it is heeded) only comes after five years of escalating chaos has this startlingly obvious need been identified.

Five years ago, it became fairly certain that Wales would by the year 2000 achieve a degree of autonomy from London and that the campaign for devolution would result in a National Assembly.

Five years ago the ex-artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Terry Hands, an Englishman, came to Theatr Clwyd, Wales's largest theatre company and reinforced its reputation as a mainstream company catering mainly to English audiences (it is only a few miles from the border and draws its audiences mainly from Chester, Manchester and the Liverpool area) with a diet of familiar classics.

Five years ago the Welsh arts council decided to review its drama policy, apparently in the face of less funding from central government and the economic restraints on local councils.

And so we had the mess of the drama strategy, the Assembly investigation, the arts council's complete lack of credibility, and so on, familiar to us all. In brief (though the longer story still needs to be told) what happened included a clandestine operation, supported by a conservative nationalism scenting change, to persuade the arts council to use the arrival of the prestigious Terry Hands to turn Theatr Clwyd into the national theatre of Wales and so, it was believd, create an institution that would help legitimise the New Wales. To do this would require transference of funds from the smaller theatre companies to Theatr Clwyd - which is just what happened. The operation was cloaked by the arts council as a new drama strategy with the mantra "fewer but better". I strongly suspect Assembly members today regard Terry Hands's appointment with less enthusiasm.

The unholy alliance of market imperatives and simplistic nationalism (or cultural identity) has taken much indigenous Welsh theatre to the edge of destruction. Experimental theatre, community and young people's theatre, new writing and "project" work is all under threat and will at best survive in a diminished form.

How did this happen with no opposition? It was clear five years ago what the agenda was - but few objected. It is true that this year the media has at last shown an interest in the effects of the arts council's disastrous new drama strategy - but too late. Typically, it is reported as news stories about the detritus. Five years ago, the media was silent on the plans or supported the apparently quasi-nationalist agenda.

And the critics? As I said at the beginning, what critics? The low status and near-invisibility of theatre practice in Wales meant that theatre was not high on the agenda of the media, and hence the public, and a new drama strategy that would destroy indigenous theatre was deemed of no interest.

The critic was not, and still is not, a respected voice in the media and those of us that raised our voices five years ago were ignored; and the editors were perhaps right, because for years they had made our concerns peripheral to Wales's struggle for autonomy, consigned us to a few column centimetres in the middle of newspapers or to dead viewing times on television.

Maybe criticism is impossible in this postmodernist age. I suggest that in a world of hyperreality, with the triumph of form over content, where everyone believes that what you see is what you get, with the conflation of evaluation into "opinion", with the suspicion of objectivity, then the whole ethic, purpose and relevance of criticism is dubious. We live in a world where reality is mediated, where all we see are signifiers and not the signified, where hegemony rules. What space is there for criticism in this condition?

Criticism as an arena for debate, criticism as a vehicle for a plurality of views, criticism as a forensic tool, criticism as a document of record, criticism as an exposure of ideology, criticism as a search for meaning ... if there is no meaning, who needs criticism?

While we may not all bemoan the time when a critic like John Ruskin could be seen as "the national conscience", could a greater respect for the critic have prevented the dismantling of Welsh theatre? How do we as critics, theatre practitioners-but-not-practitioners and dependent as we are on those who own, control and edit the newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations, how do we pursue our claims to be, if not the national conscience then professionals who by the nature of the work should be essential commentators, recorders and interventionists in the culture, and so at least accorded a voice?

Theatre is vital to society. So is criticism.

Good criticism is so much more than simply one person's opinion about a show. It raises issues, it puts the art into social context, it says "this is important to our lives".

The point here is that maybe, just maybe, if Wales had recognised its contemporary theatre scene, if productions were reviewed as much as sports events, if critical voices were a familiar discourse in our media, if theatre was very simply on the agenda of our newspapers and broadcasters, things would be different. I cannot believe that if the people of Wales had been allowed to participate in an ongoing debate about their culture and were given the opportunity to hear the arguments of those who regard theatre as an integral part of social existence, as a part of any supposed cultural identity, if they then came to care about their theatre, then the powerful elite who make the ideological and financial decisions would perhaps not have succeeded so easily in destroying, ironically, one of the real cultural forms that explored those urgent and topical questions of "cultural identity" and "Welshness".

If the Assembly wants to democratise the arts (and it clearly does), it must ensure that they become what they are in other parts of Europe - an integral, everyday part of life (or "Culture"). We get pages and pages of sports coverage in the Western Mail every day - then why not pages and pages of arts coverage (such as I found in Croatia, for example, a country roughly the same size as Wales) - and not just personalities and promotional features ? Put "cultural debate and discussion, as Ceri Sherlock recommends, into our lives.

author:David Adams

original source: New Welsh Review
10 October 2000

 

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