Theatre in Wales

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

Reading the Nation

The 2006 sessions of director Michael Kelligan’s drama project On the Edge took place in Cardiff last autumn. Here Owain Wilkins gives his impressions

Last autumn, Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff hosted a series of rehearsed readings of plays chosen for the light they throw on the question of Welsh identity. Funded by the Arts Council of Wales and sponsored by Parthian Books, the readings were part of Cardiff-based actor and director Michael Kelligan’s On the Edge project, which has been running at Chapter since September 2004, and which seeks to present plays that would not otherwise be performed in or outside Wales. For the first time, however, somebody other than Kelligan had been responsible for choosing the plays, and for the first time there was a distinct ideological agenda. When Kelligan invited him to curate a season of rehearsed readings, Western Mail theatre critic David Adams was already involved in researching the possibility of a canon of English-language Welsh theatre. He saw it as a valuable opportunity to “test the texts” he had been studying, and the six plays he chose for the series, subtitled State of the Nation, reflect a wide range of work from Welsh writers throughout the twentieth century. They were, in chronological order: Change (1913) by J.O. Francis, Taffy (1923) by Caradoc Evans, The Keep (1960) by Gwyn Thomas, House of America (1987) by Ed Thomas, Sleeping with Mickey (1992) by Frank Vickery, and Everything Must Go (1999) by Patrick Jones. Adams invited non-Welsh directors to direct the readings (apart from Michael Kelligan who directed Everything Must Go) as he felt they would offer a fresh take on the plays. Furthermore, Adams produced the informative programme notes for each session, detailing the social and cultural context of the plays, and also led post-show discussions with the audience.

Rehearsed readings might best be described as theatre at its most raw: props and costumes are kept to a minimum, as are movements on stage as the actors are so heavily dependent on the scripts in their hands. All things considered, the casts — which included established actors such as Huw Garmon and Gwyn Vaughan-Jones, as well as up-and-coming, performers such as Gareth John Bale and Lisa Zahra — fared remarkably well. There were, however, some unavoidable downsides to the format. In The Keep, for instance, the actors — under Anglo-Welshman Simon West’s direction — seemed to struggle with Gwyn Thomas’s wordiness and stumbled over their words, the script hindering them more than it helped. And in a particularly highly-charged and violent scene towards the end of House of America, stage directions were read out rather than performed by the actors, inevitably diminishing the dramatic effect and highlighting the limitations of the rehearsed reading concept. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles, for the State of the Nation series was generally a success as theatre, and raised interesting and important questions concerning the relationship between English-language theatre in Wales and national identity.

Historian Gwyn Alf Williams’s ideas concerning Welsh identity were a touchstone for Adams when he selected the plays, especially the notion that Wales has been consistently invented and reinvented by the Welsh. Indeed, the desire to reinvent Wales was evident in the majority of plays on offer. In Taffy, for instance, Caradoc Evans (in his first and only play) continues where he left off in the classic short stories of My People (1915) and Capel Sion (1916) by satirising the popular Liberal Welsh-Nonconformist image of Wales as a land of uncorrupted rural volk, the gwerin. The play centres on the attempts by three of Capel Sion’s deacons (or “Big Heads” as Evans calls them) to coerce their new young preacher, Spurgeon Evans, into agreeing to the building of a new chapel. They will provide Sion with their own land — at a hefty price of course — in order to erect this new place of worship. We are thus presented with the usual Caradocian themes, among them hypocrisy posing as worthiness and the superficiality of Welsh Liberal-Nonconformity. The play itself lacks the bite of Evans’s best short fiction. The Big Heads — Josi Stonemason, Essec Carpenter and Rhys Shop — for instance, are figures of fun rather than the Machiavellian manipulators (such as My People’s Sadrach Danyrefail) of Evans’s early work. This is also true of Ben Watkins, the elderly minister competing with Spurgeon for the ministry of Sion, who is a world away from the terrifying Godfathers Manteg, Davydd Bern-Davydd and Josiah Bryn-Bevan of My People.

The cast — directed by Englishman Stephen Fisher — handled Evans’s hybrid Anglo-Welsh idiom extremely well, especially Owen Garmon as Ben Watkins who wittily “sang” his lines (those familiar with Evans’s work will know his ministers to be “singers” whose eloquent sermons have no substance to them). Nevertheless, the reading failed to save the play from itself: though it was provocative in its day (its first performance in 1923 drew protests from a London-Welsh audience offended by its criticisms of Welsh society), it is poorly written and constructed. Even so, an important social comment is made towards the end of the play, as Spurgeon — urged on by his romantic interest Marged, the play’s moral centre capable of seeing through Sion’s superficiality — discards his preacher’s garments in favour of the whipcord breeches and shirtsleeves of a working man. This reflects Evans’s (rare and uncharacteristic) optimism in the potential reinvention of Wales through the rise of the Labour Party, suggesting that the nation need no longer be in thrall to Liberal-Nonconformity. However, another play from around the same period — Change by J.O. Francis — explores the ramifications of this shift much more thoroughly and successfully than Taffy.

Labelled “Wales’s first State of the Nation drama” by David Adams, Change is set in the fictional Glamorgan coal-mining village of Aberpandy at the turn of the twentieth century. It focuses on the Price family, which consists of John — a Nonconformist traditionalist — and his wife Gwen, and their three sons: the sensitive and consumptive Gwilym; Lewis, a radical firebrand leading a strike at the colliery nearby; and John Henry, a disillusioned student of theology. The tensions inherent in early-twentieth-century Wales as Socialism challenged Liberalism as the predominant political value-system are played out in the microcosm of the family. This is especially true of the relationship between John Price and Lewis, the former at a loss with the ways of the younger generation, and the latter bitterly critical of his elders’ complacency: “You’re prisoners of the past.” J.O. Francis proves to be an astute analyst of Welsh society, showing the destructive consequences of a clash of cultures and social change on one family. The Price clan is torn apart by a series of events, including John Henry’s loss of faith (they had dreamt of him becoming their local chapel’s next minister), and the final straw comes when the innocent Gwilym is tragically caught up in a stand-off between protesting colliers and blacklegs at the strike. This scene, in which Gwen and her niece Lizzie Ann describe the action offstage, was expertly executed by Anglo-Italian-Scot director Sarah Argent and her cast, the tension ratcheted up gradually until we felt the full force of events and their dreadful effect on Gwen, who was brilliantly played by Anwen Williams. At the play’s conclusion the audience found themselves stunned into silence.

Adams argues convincingly that Gwen is an emblematic “Mam Cymru” (Dame Wales) figure. She stands back as the men of the family argue themselves into self-destruction, but is the one who suffers most as she ultimately finds herself abandoned. She thus comes to represent a Wales ravaged by religion and politics. Change — though guilty at times of being melodramatic — is clearly an important piece of Welsh theatre neglected. In fact, it was the major surprise and success story of the State of the Nation readings. Some commentators — most notably M. Wynn Thomas — have suggested J.O. Francis is a rival to Caradoc Evans for the title of “father of Anglo-Welsh literature”. At the moment, Change is seen as a significant companion piece to Evans’s work, but if it were to be performed more often — as it cries out to be — Francis’s stock would surely rise. At the very least, the play needs to be republished for a modern readership.

Not every play in the series was as successful as Change in expressing a sense of Welshness. This was particularly true of Adams’s most controversial choice of plays, Sleeping with Mickey by Frank Vickery. The play is a monologue in which fifty-something Eileen narrates her life story. She was abandoned by her first husband, Ted, a couple of years after the birth of their daughter Linda, who suffered from Downs’ syndrome. Following Linda’s death at the age of 28, Eileen — then in her forties — decided to travel to Disney World in Florida on holiday. Here she met and had a brief fling with Carlton, a 26 year old waiter who also worked as Mickey Mouse at the Disney resort. Upon her return home, Eileen discovered she was pregnant with Carlton’s baby, and had a termination. Even so, it is her memory of Carlton that keeps her going through her humdrum and lonely existence. We discover by the end of the play that Eileen has attempted suicide twice and is currently awaiting trial for attempting to abduct another woman’s baby. Sleeping with Mickey is a desperately poignant play and Christine Pritchard — directed by Australian-born D.J. Britton — handled the role of Eileen sensitively and convincingly in performance.

The strength of the play lies in its construction. Eileen gradually feeds us information (or is it misinformation?) about herself and her past but, rather than enlightening the audience, she leaves us with more questions than answers. Is she providing us with her memories, or is she fantasising about her past? What really happened between her and Carlton? Might he, for instance, have been a young lothario who simply saw the opportunity for an easy lay?

Adams cites Eileen’s apparent desire to create an alternative history for herself as evidence of “an identity crisis that personifies Wales.” In fact, he goes so far as to state that Vickery’s character is “one of the most eloquent embodiments of the problematic national psyche in all of Welsh theatre.” This is a bold statement but the arguments that underpin it are unconvincing. Adams suggests, for example, that Eileen’s first baby Linda (with first husband and Englishman Ted) is the result of a “marriage” between Wales and England, the second (aborted) baby a product of an affair with America, and the third (stolen) child a pessimistic view of Wales following the failed referendum of 1979. These links are certainly inventive on the critic’s part, but seem to me to be tenuous at best. Admittedly, many of Sleeping with Mickey’s themes — such as abandonment, loneliness and the need to reinvent — are similar to those in the season’s other plays, but Adams’s hypothesis that Eileen is an embodiment of Wales (in other words, another “Mam Cymru” figure) was not borne out in performance. Indeed, the play seems closer in essence to works like Willie Russell’s Shirley Valentine (Adams himself notes the parallels between the two works), as both plays centre on downtrodden women attempting to redefine their personal histories.

Nevertheless, it is remarkable the number of times Wales is represented as a suffering female in these plays. Even in Everything Must Go, Patrick Jones’s tale of post-industrial disillusionment in south-east Wales, the female character Cindy appears at one point in national costume as a bloodied and drug-addled “Mam Cymru”. Michael Kelligan’s production of the work was perfectly fine although it was unable to disguise the play’s deep-rooted problems. Everything Must Go would be better described as a long uncontrolled scream of anger against the iniquities of late-twentieth-century Britain than as a piece of meaningful theatre and, what’s more, it tends to get caught up in its own fury, offering very little that’s constructive to the audience. We are never quite sure, for example, what we are meant to make of the play’s law-breaking, drug-taking, heavy-drinking and self-harming characters. What the play does have going for it is its unquestionable energy and passion; but David Adams probably overstates his case when he calls it “a critical piece of close-of-the-century drama.”

Ed Thomas’s House of America is a much more effective portrayal of disaffected youth in south Wales. Like Everything Must Go, this is a play bustling with energy but, crucially, it also has something to say. Indeed, Adams claims that “Ed’s plays to me are Gwyn Alf’s ideas put on the stage.” The action centres on three siblings — Sid, Gwenny and Boyo — and their mother, all living together in the same house. Unemployed and without prospects, Sid and Gwenny dream of following in the footsteps of their mysteriously absent father Clem who, their mother says, has run away to America. Brother and sister steadily withdraw into a disturbing fantasy world based on On the Road in which they play out the roles of Jack Kerouac and his lover Joyce Johnson. But their American dream turns into a Welsh nightmare as the open cast mine nearby unearths a part of the past their mother would rather have kept quiet. Boyo the realist attempts to keep the family together but with the mother’s sanity failing (she appears at one stage as — you guessed it — a senile “Mam Cymru” complete with Welsh hat and daffodil) and Sid and Gwenny’s increasingly erratic behaviour, events accelerate towards their inevitably bleak end. Underlying the action is a sense that the myths that once sustained Wales are no longer relevant: “Huh, this house is full of lies,” says Mother, “but I suppose it’s kept us together.” Furthermore, Wales is presented as a nation without any meaningful leaders (as indicated by the play’s absent father). Sid complains: “Look at Wales, where’s its kings, where’s our heroes?... one answer, mate, we haven’t got any. I mean let’s face it, Boyo, Harry Secombe isn’t a bloke I’d stand in the rain for, is he?”

House of America differed from the other readings in that it also formed part of another of David Adams current projects joint with Theatr Iolo, namely Identity Exchange, which aims to explore the question of national identity with a range of partners from the Balkans. The reading’s director was Dean Damjanovsky from Macedonia, a nation which is itself struggling to reassert its voice at the present time. His production was certainly a success, not because he understood the play’s specific references to Welsh culture, but because he was able to read in it “the matrix of the ancient Greek tragedy — murder of a husband, a brother, incest,” and thus tease out its universal qualities. In the context of Welsh identity, however, House of America is a powerful product of the 1980s calling for the reinvention of Wales following the failed referendum of 1979 and in its appeal for leadership and courage it seems just as relevant today.

Gwyn Thomas’s The Keep is another play in which an absent figure dominates the main characters’ thoughts. The memory of Dinah May is used by her self-promoting son Con Morton — who yearns to become town clerk in the fictional village of Belmont — to blackmail his father and siblings into believing that their future wellbeing depends on his success. The community of Belmont, however, is a source of misery and tedium, and Con’s brothers — Russell, Wallace, Oswald and Alvin — yearn to escape its narrow confines. The Keep is a typically witty offering from Gwyn Thomas — “Principles should be like skirts;” claims Con, “up or down according to the moral atmosphere, with what a man wants at a particular moment” — reflecting his disillusionment with Socialism in post-war Wales. Its major theme is escape and entrapment (the word “keep” can, of course, mean “prison”) which ran through many of the season’s other plays. Indeed, David Adams persuasively draws a line from State of the Nation’s earliest plays through to the works of more recent Welsh writers: “Gwyn Thomas was part of a dramatic tradition that started with J.O. Francis and Change, Caradoc Evans with Taffy, Dylan Thomas with Under Milk Wood, and was to continue with Ed Thomas, Ian Rowlands, Alan Osborne, Patrick Jones, Brith Gof and Eddie Ladd. All examine through theatre ideas of national identity, what it is to be Welsh in times of social change, madness, entrapment and escape, idealism and despair, religion and politics... the defining characteristics of Welsh theatre.”

Following the success of the State of the Nation season — every single reading was well attended — Adams says that he would be keen to curate another series of similar plays: he mentions Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, for instance, as well as works by Jack Jones, Richard Hughes and Ian Rowlands. He would also — quite rightly — like to see full theatre productions of some of the plays, particularly Change, but admits that the politics of theatre in Wales will probably leave us disappointed: “Most theatre companies in Wales are very small and want to do their own thing so they’ll either do well-known classics — Shakespeare plays, for example — or they’ll do new writing, which is fine. But who is there who will put on these neglected plays? These are seminal Welsh plays, which should be part of the repertoire of any theatre company in Wales.” As I write, the latest series of On the Edge rehearsed readings — subtitled Now You’re Talking and curated by Michael Kelligan — is in full swing. This season is based on work by writers featured in Hazel Walford Davies’s Now You’re Talking: Drama in Conversation (Parthian, 2005), and there have already been readings of Alan Osborne’s In Sunshine and Shadow (1985) and Mark Jenkins’s Strindberg Knew My Father (1992). We can only hope that the current series proves to be as invigorating and thought-provoking as State of the Nation.

Owain Wilkins is a freelance writer and lives in Cardiff.
This article first appeared in Planet: The Welsh Internationalist 182 (April/May 2007).

author:Owain Wilkins

original source: Planet Magazine
02 July 2007


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