Theatre in Wales

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

Theatre Criticism in Wales? Where is it?

Theatre criticism, whatever else it may be, is confirmation of the existence of a particular cultural product and is often the only evidence we have that it happened. There may be playbills and programmes but only a review confirms that the promise of performance was fulfilled. It gives permanence to something that could be no more than a palimpsest. In other words, without theatre criticism theatre itself will exist only for those present at a performance. Theatre criticism, whether it is favourable or
unfavourable, descriptive or analytic, subjective or objective, is proof of life. At key points in the history and development of theatre in Wales it is only when the work is publicly discussed that it starts contributing to a broader cultural debate and the practice itself starts developing.

The quality of the criticism also becomes important, too, and one of the causes of the lack of visibility of theatre (or, indeed, of visual and plastic arts, for example) in Wales is the absence of any developed popular critical practice – in fact, it is the presence of commentary that is lacking in accepted critical objectivity and judgement that can also account for poor standards of production. Sycophantic and partisan reviews can actually harm the development of theatre practice.

I could not be so immodest, but theatre practitioners have suggested that when I started reviewing for The Guardian in 1980 as its Wales arts correspondent, those notices in a UK national newspaper suddenly gave Welsh theatre practice a status it had not enjoyed hitherto; and it acted as encouragement, that status of being taken seriously, which definitely impacted on indigenous theatre development. I am not saying my criticism was of any particular standard but simply that having the work criticised in a respected newspaper like The Guardian was an important factor in the development of Welsh theatre in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, other nationals like The Times, The Independent, FT, The Observer, and so on, should also have been sitting up and taking notice of work from the likes of Brith Gof, Moving Being, Ed Thomas, Ian Rowlands, Volcano, Eddie Ladd and more parochial work from Theatr Powys, Arad Goch, Bara Caws etc., but only TheGuardian had a name for being non-Londoncentric. Both the BBC and ITV also latched on to the new work, feeding off it and feeding into it. But times have changed. Let us take a week at random, or rather the week immediately prior to my deadline for this article. Despite the time of year (the run-up to Christmas, a particularly lean cultural period), according to the (selective) GuardianGuide, throughout Wales there were around eighty events worthy of note, in classical, dance, exhibitions, jazz, rock and pop and theatre.

So what was the standard of work, what was the quality, what was it like? Our extraterrestrial culture-vulture or assiduous researcher from the future would find during that week that the national newspaper of Wales, The Western Mail, carried just one review, of a comedy show, written by the staff arts correspondent. This was not on any designated arts pages but in a regular daily feature called Coffee Break:that one review, then, was implicitly a throwaway piece of light reading to be skimmed over with a latte and chocolate digestive biscuit. TheWestern Mail scrapped its weekly reviews round-up in the summer of 2008. In fact, I am told by one major theatre company that they hardly bother to persuade The Western Mail to review shows and spend their energy instead on getting preview material into the paper.

Thus theatre is seen by both producers and the media as a commodity to be sold rather than a cultural practice. The new kid on the media block, the give-away daily Cardiff Metro, arguably offers a better coverage of the arts than The Western Mail and, despite being written and edited in Bristol, is committed to reviewing anything other than one-nighters. In the week in question they had four reviews, albeit fairly short. English-language Welsh television and radio had not reviewed anything because there are no arts programmes in the broadcast media in Wales.

Then, there is the theatre-waleswebsite. Five new reviews appeared on the site that week: one opera, one panto, one dance, two theatre. The great value of this site is that it is fairly comprehensive. As for everything else – well, that depends on your attitude to the blogosphere in general. It is very loosely regulated and there is no quality control, which means that most reviews posted are, at best, enthusiastically amateur or, at worst, partisan. If you are a wholehearted supporter of cultural democracy, it is invaluable; if you want measured, informed and objective criticism you will be disappointed.

So why are the arts ignored by the media, print, broadcast and internet, or at least not taken seriously? To be more precise, why is there so little critical commentary? In the case of the theatre-wales website, it is managed by someone who believes, passionately I am sure, in letting everyone have a voice. The established media is a different matter. In the 1980s and 1990s I was filing maybe three reviews a week for The Guardian(the one national daily that had any sort of arts coverage outside London), but they more or less withdrew from Wales (and other parts of the UK) ten years or so ago when economic determinacy kicked in. The Guardian arts desk told me that as far as reviews were concerned every centimetre in the paper had to be ‘revenue-generating’: in other words, there had to be a payback in terms of advertising sales or increased circulation, neither likely in terms of the scale of Welsh theatre. With the introduction of the ‘star’ rating system at around the same time, this, in retrospect, was just another lurch towards the commodification of criticism within the media.

The Western Mail, to be fair, became more cost-conscious a little later and its rationale I take to be similar. Less than a year ago the paper’s weekly Box Office section carried at least two pages of reviews, mostly by established critics, but while the arts desk has always had to work within a very tight budget it now relies more than ever on staff members offering to cover occasional arts events for the Coffee Break page. And if neither Trinity Mirror (owners of The Western Mail) nor theatre marketing people
show any great concern for expert assessment, then criticism becomes just another bit of the newspaper furniture. I do also believe that the arts desk considers it is covering the arts with Coffee Break previews and the Box Office ‘arts and entertainments’ section, now albeit consisting of scarcely re-written publicity blurbs and enthusiastic celeb interviews. Except that this publication is branded as ‘The national newspaper of Wales’ and you might expect some sense of responsibility to examine the culture of Wales to the same extent as The Scotsman, The Herald, The IrishTimes, Sunday Tribune and so on. Perhaps, even, a recognition that the arts might be as integral to Welsh identity as rugby: sport regularly gets anything from nine to twenty pages! But the arts are not on the agenda for The Western Mail any more than for BBC Wales. If they are not on the agenda of the mass media, they are not on the public agenda: thus, the arts are not deemed important in Wales.

However, it is not simply the media who are to blame. In the latest Arts Council Wales (ACW) strategy on ‘Theatre and Drama’, criticism warrants just one sentence, and that is pretty vague: ‘As in other arts sectors, the vehicles, channels and protagonists in critical debate in theatre can sometimes feel narrow or claustrophobic within Wales and achieving broader comparative critical debate and contexts for discussion of the work along with exposure is seen as a positive goal and one that needs facilitating.’

Phew! A sentence so clumsily written needs unpacking... But I don’t think it’s worth it.

Essentially, it seems as if ACW goes along with the idea that criticism is a kind of optional add-on. What they should have said is that regular, informed, accessible criticism is crucial (and I mean crucial, not desirable, not a bonus, but crucial) for theatre development. Why do England, Scotland and Ireland have healthier theatre scenes than Wales? In part, because they have more active critical debate. Scotland, for example, has at least four professional theatre critics (using membership of the UK Critics Circle as evidence) and comprehensive critical coverage in its media; Wales has one (me) and not even a reviews section in the national newspaper.

‘Develop critical coverage of Theatre and Drama from Wales’ is listed in the document as a priority – eleventh in a list of eleven. This is translated in terms of strategic steps as ‘working with Wales Arts International and Academi to expand critical writing on the theatre in Wales and new perspectives for those working in theatre in Wales’, another convoluted and unclear sentence that misses the point altogether. ACW must take steps to facilitate more critical debate in a range of forums, from discussion groups to the popular media, from online criticism to the educational curriculum. Within this document there seems to me to be no strategy for developing the public interest in theatre which should be at the heart of any cultural aspiration. Doing something about involving audiences (existing and potential) in critical engagement, both directly in a participatory way and offering a healthy pluralist professional critical practice in the media, must be an essential part of any arts strategy. Theatre practice does not exist in a vacuum. It needs audiences and it needs critical engagement. I fear that when that extraterrestrial visitor returns in a decade his suspicions may, in fact, be confirmed: there will be no thriving contemporary performance culture in Wales.

David Adams is a is a freelance writer and has also edited newspapers and magazines in London, Oxford, Hereford, Newport and Cardiff. He was a film critic in London but concentrated on theatre criticism when he moved to Wales, becoming The Guardian arts correspondent for twenty years and a regular reviewer for The Western Mail. He is on the executive of the International Association of Theatre Critics and has acted as an advisor to various arts organisations. He lectures in Wales and internationally, including at the universities of Zagreb, Tehran, Almaty, Istanbul and Moscow

author:David Adams

original source: new welsh review 93
21 May 2009


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