Theatre in Wales

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

Situation Desperate but not Hopeless

Steve Blandford reviews 'Now You're Talking'

Now you’re Talking
Edited by Hazel Walford Davies
Parthian £9.99

There is no doubt that theatre in Wales, and its playwrights in particular, owe Hazel Walford Davies a considerable debt. Compared to Ireland or Scotland writing on theatre in Wales over the last two decades (with some obvious honourable exceptions) has been thin on the ground. What has been written has tended to focus far less on writers and more on companies working through performance that is less dependent on text. To some extent this latter tendency is understandable as the Welsh theatre and performance community is justifiably proud of the explosion of companies that worked in Wales during the last two decades of the twentieth century. An explosion which of course produced companies such as Brith Gof that developed a world-wide reputation, but which of late has gone into something of a decline as funding struggles have, sadly, become the big story to be written about theatre and performance in Wales.

Out of relatively unpromising territory, then, Hazel Walford Davies produced first State of Play, 4 Playwrights of Wales for Gomer in 1998 and now this volume which actually reproduces some of the interviews from the earlier book.

Whereas the first volume concentrated, perhaps a little arbitrarily, on what the editor saw as the key writers of a generation — Dic Edwards, Ed Thomas, Charles Way and Greg Cullen — Now You’re Talking casts the net much wider to cover fifteen writers in all (including the four from the first volume) all in the form of at least one interview, though some are interviewed three times over a ten year period.

Now You’re Talking, among many other things, reveals that there are actually women writing plays in Wales, though both of the women who are interviewed (Lucy Gough and Sian Evans) actually now devote most of their time to other media and to teaching. It is dominated by the discussion of work written in the English language (this was very much Walford Davies’s aim we are told in the introduction when she embarked on the earliest of these interviews at the behest of the Arts Council), though it includes writers who have worked in both languages such as Sion Eirian, and it aims to embrace the unashamedly populist (such as Frank Vickery) alongside “crazy surreal adventures” (Ian Rowlands’ description of his own early work). Its aim then, while explicitly discouraging the idea that the book can be truly comprehensive, is to be inclusive and to provide something of a history of English-language, text-based theatre over the last decade.

It is an aim in which it, at least partially, succeeds. Taken together these interviews do accurately represent the range of work produced in English by writers for the theatre during this period. Not only that, for good or ill it also represents all the arguments, complaints and bitterness (and the very occasional outburst of joy and optimism) that have been around in Wales during this period. The chronic under-funding, the lack of a new writing policy, the lack of venues, the appalling standard of theatre criticism, the failure of Welsh higher education to recognise the talent on its own doorstep, the National Theatre debate and many others are all tackled a number of times with different levels of insight and, sometimes, out-and-out bile and spite! Though at times this becomes repetitive there is also real value in hearing the same key issues approached just a little differently and often with real wit and insight.

The overall view though is unashamedly pessimistic. While Walford Davies does her best to make the volume a celebration of the writing of these fifteen artists the lasting impression is of disillusion. Alan Osborne, for example, when asked where he saw theatre in Wales, answers “In the hands of the administrators, gatekeepers, Welsh-concept window designers (the hidden gorsedd).” Unsurprisingly it is the administrators and the politicians who get the roughest ride throughout, particularly the Arts Council and the cultural policy makers at the Assembly who are accused, among other things, of failing to learn the lessons available from other small nations.

Again perhaps predictably there is a strong desire running through many of the interviews to be free of the “burden of (national) representation”. Ian Rowlands for example states that his work is “inherently Welsh” but is equally adamant that “As a nation we should stop bemoaning the fact that Welshness is our greatest problem and concentrate on... becoming citizens of the world.”
Despite the gloom, though, the sheer diversity of the writers working in Wales at the present time emerges very strongly from this book. This in the end is its editor’s ultimate and very important achievement. Despite many of the writers’ complaints we are currently seeing more contemporary plays published in Wales then ever before, something that is surely connected to the determination of Hazel Walford Davies (and one or two like her) to create a history where many have argued that none exists. This volume is an important addition to that history even if at times the interviewees’ understandable sense of frustration threatens to overwhelm even the most optimistic reader.

author:Steve Blandford

original source: Planet Magazine
15 September 2006


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