Theatre in Wales

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

Staging the Brand

Roger Owen reflects on Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru

On a fine morning in May this year, I was invited up to the back garden of Planet’s Associate Editor to be interviewed for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, a television documentary series by the independent company Tonfedd Eryri, examining the progress and various achievements of the (still relatively) new national Welsh-language theatre company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. I had seen a number of the company’s productions during the first two years of its active life, and — like many others, I believe, and certainly like the other two who were also being interviewed on Dafydd’s lawn that morning — I felt pretty ambivalent toward its general success thus far.

After waiting in line for a short while, I was (lightly) grilled by the series producer, who asked me various questions relating to the company’s status and main achievements to date, namely: Was there a need for a single national theatre company along these lines? What did I think of the general artistic policy? And, (most contentiously) did I think the right Artistic Director was at the helm?
Just for the record, I answered the producer’s questions by saying that the company, at least, had defined a need for itself as a means of attracting a significant audience back to the theatre — whether or not that was a sufficient criterion was, of course, ever open to debate. Secondly, I noted that its artistic policy was comparatively conservative, probably deliberately so, given its commitment to attract an audience increasingly characterised as reticent and suspicious of theatre. And thirdly, I answered by — well, largely by fudging the issue. Basically, I said that it wasn’t difficult to see why the Board had opted for Cefin Roberts, given (again) their stated mission of repopularising Welsh theatre, but that, personally and ideally, I would prefer to see it operate in a different way under a different Artistic Director, namely Ceri Sherlock. To which I also had to add that that wasn’t going to happen.

I mention all this for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I left the interview feeling that I had crossed some kind of a line. Unlike metropolitan English culture, where criticism is often very cheap and savagely entertaining, it isn’t always easy to allow oneself to indulge in an “unsupportive” rhetoric when discussing Welsh-language culture (this is particularly true if you want to continue to write about the subject and have access to those whose work you’re criticising). And this isn’t — I like to think — just a self-serving, nepotistic reflex; it isn’t about merely supporting one’s own kind. Rather, it’s about striking the appropriate diplomatic note somewhere between the often unappetising truth as you see it about a case in point, and the refutation of any implication that the whole project of Welsh-language culture is thus fatally undermined and in a state of disintegration. You can’t just stick the boot in and expect to be admired for it.
I mention it also because, as a result of the general obliqueness of my reply, my answer wasn’t broadcast (unlike the trenchant, direct criticism expressed by the Associate Editor of Planet). I had said my piece, but had been portrayed as one whose kinship with the fence was, if not quite exhaustive, then at least pretty intimate. After watching Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru itself, I felt something of a fraud. And a grateful fraud at that, because I had presupposed that a series looking at the national theatre company would reveal, or possibly even fabricate, a powerfully engaged web of embedded interests, a sense of an inherent network of support at and beyond directorial level, a generally chummy sort of sense of the company’s own institutional inevitability. The very kind of thing, in fact, which would have your average right-thinking radical (and such beasts may be in very short supply) preparing ThGC for a vigorous kicking all for its own good. Instead, however, what was mostly evident here was the terrible fragility of the whole arrangement, its desperate contingency and susceptibility to administrative whim. ThGC was projected by the documentary as both an important and necessary galvanising force for Welsh-language theatre and culture, and as an almost indefensible, rootless sham.

Of course, this alienating transformation from all-encompassing world of possibility to strutting and fretting idiocy is, in one sense, all part of theatre. It is the signature effect of a form which, beyond almost all others, is characterised by its own material evaporation: great moments in the theatre come, assume dimensions in the imagination which seem miraculous and impossible, and are then gone for good. But that hardly alleviates the disquieting sense produced by this documentary series of an Oz-like subterfuge by which the principal members of the company — the Chairman, Artistic Director, and probably the Marketing Director too — tried to convince the public (and themselves) that here was a Grand National Institution.

The root cause of this sense of a great fake is the pressure placed on ThGC to embody a national theatre brand. Regardless of the success or failure of its productions, contemporary political wisdom demands that this company continue to project an image of its own success at all times (rather like Buddy Kane — The Real Estate King in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, whose mantra to this effect perfectly expressed the mechanistic banality of his own aspiration). The brand was the grand myth hanging, boom-like, just outside each shot in Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. It was that almost unquantifiable but instantly recognisable quality which I was expecting to see at every turn: and the performance under interview of the various players and stakeholders within ThGC suggested that they were trying to project the selfsame thing too.

This isn’t altogether surprising. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru arose, albeit indirectly, out of the restructuring of the arts following the Arts Council of Wales’s 1999-2000 Drama Strategy, which proposed a series of WNPACs (Welsh National Performing Arts Companies) as flame-bearers of Welsh culture. This was the prototype idea for the more recent Welsh Assembly Government attempt to fund directly a number of leading performing arts organisations, including a number of the original WNPACs. The whole idea is that a high public profile for these organisations, coupled with a generous resource allocation and their reclassification as “national” institutions, will guarantee an audience for their output. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too much to state that this arrangement is intended to replace the essential relationship with the audience as the primary focus for the company’s existence. As Naomi Klein puts it in No Logo, these companies’ chief role is to project the “image of their brand”. And while this, of course, involves the basic promotion of the company’s mat-erial product, the quality of that product isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all.
This was a point eloquently, if not altogether intentionally, made by the documentary. Focusing on the company’s somewhat tenuous existence in its early days (its appointment and training of a number of young actors as a developmental core, and its lack of an adequate purpose-built base), it managed to be a revealing study not because it laid bare the internal relationships within ThGC, but because it so glossed them over. It allowed the company to stage manage its presentation of itself thoroughly, and treat the whole series as a PR exercise. Where the company’s productions had been relatively successful, as in its inaugural extended version of Meic Povey’s Yn Debyg Iawn i Ti a Fi, or its revival of Gwenlyn Parry’s Ty ar y Tywod, all was well. But when it came to the more problematic examples of the company’s work, such as its unfortunately disastrous Romeo a Juliet, the studied air of serendipitous self-advancement became seriously oppressive.

The criticism which followed Romeo a Juliet must have caused a good deal of soul-searching within ThGC. It certainly shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise: this was a production which lacked any sense of direction, and whose conceptual treatment of the material, as well as J.T. Jones’s grossly outdated translation, seemed to have bewildered the actors into a state of torpor. The most outspoken in his deprecation of the production was the aforementioned Ceri Sherlock, who questioned the choice of the play and the aptitude of the director for a national job. But the undoubtable turmoil which this criticism must have engendered did not make itself evident in the series at all. All that was seen in the company’s defence was the director and the chairman, Lyn T. Jones, commenting to camera that there were positive aspects to the production, not everyone thought it was bad, and the show must go on etc. Now, I don’t require blood on the carpet to keep me entertained, but the sense of a very corporate, passive-aggressive, “brave face” being put on things was aggravating. No one was saying what they really thought anymore. They were speaking as their public budget demanded of them.

I don’t wish to prolong anyone’s agony over Romeo a Juliet: it was a depressing experience precisely because, as with all botched theatre projects, the theoretical plausibility of its approach shone through the wreckage. Moreover, theatre companies have the right to fail, and fail spectacularly, if their intentions are honourable. My main point is that ThGC’s response to it tells us much about the way in which theatre and culture operates in this new Wales of ours. Back in the 1980s, Mike Pearson tried to argue that what distinguished Welsh theatre from that in many other societies was that its relationship with its audience was a binding and very personal one. As a theatre practitioner, he said, he had to accommodate himself to the fact that his audience was not a faceless mass, but a human fellowship. Its support of Welsh-language culture was not predicated on consumer choice, but on a political commitment. Of course, his views were expressed at a time which was — as far as Welsh theatre was concerned — still largely pre-Thatcherite; but I believe that the truth of his sentiments still holds today. The contemporary Welsh-language audience is still a tight-knit social group; and there is a latent understanding among them that one’s role in attending and supporting work in the Welsh language is far more than just that of an end user. But the effect of branding is to negate the importance of this commitment, and to create a greater conceptual distance between the audience and the company — a space where myth can operate. The audience ceases to be a fellowship and is forced instead into the role of a “general populace”, a sample slice of a potentially much larger mass of customers for whom the ThGC brand is the natural choice. Hence the company’s continued need to announce its success in attracting a significant new audience to its productions — more than 25,000 in total for all performances between April 2004 and May 2006.

Hence also, I believe, my reticence in criticising ThGC in that interview, and the relief I felt when my views were not aired. Because I know, and following Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, everybody else knows, that the company as it currently stands cannot embody the brand identity which history and economic circumstance has created for it. The creative human frailties of those in the driving seat surely cannot be glossed over to the extent that they end up becoming what they have to publicly project. Let’s hope not at least.


Roger Owen is a Lecturer at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is the author of Ar Wasgar: Theatr a Chenedligrwydd yn y Gymru Gymraeg 1979-97 (UWP, 2003).

author:Roger Owen

original source: Planet Magazine
10 December 2006


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