Theatre in Wales

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

Year One of National Theatre: Impact & Innovation

National Theatre of Wales Productions 1-13

November 5th 2009 seems another age. Aberystwyth Arts Centre even laid on cake to mark the launch that day of the National Theatre of Wales. As production after production, location after location, was unfurled the sheer scale of it became too much to take in. Someone was half-way up a mountain, although it seemed more to boast the capabilities of technology than to serve any theatrical purpose. There was a wry joke on the lines of “I never expected I’d be announcing a John Osborne premiere.”

By coincidence Rhodri Morgan gave his valedictory lecture the following day. The first task of the Assembly, he said, had been no more than to establish its legitimacy. The outcome of the March referendum has been his vindication. So it is with any new institution. After the first night in Blackwood I wrote “The first season of any new company is a test. If it succeeds in being fresh and challenging that is more than sufficient.”

In Scotland there are voices to be heard, even if only amongst the bile of internet comment, which challenge the right of their National Theatre even to exist. Whatever the judgements on individual productions here it is a rare voice, if any, that would say the same of the National Theatre of Wales.

In August last year the organisers at the Welsh Venue Thirteen in Edinburgh left newspapers in the garden for their waiting audiences to read. To pick up a copy of the “Times” on a random day and to see the words “Theatre” and “Wales” and a national critic in ecstasy may have happened before but, if so, it was a while back.

Sifting through the words of my own engendered by National Theatre of Wales’ productions these are just a few: “masterly”, “perfectly judged”, “as technically demanding a piece of breath control as it comes”, “vibrancy of language”, “significant”, “novel and unexpected”, “meticulousness of the production”, “sublime Dionysiac theatricality”, “dazzling production”, “quirky, original, fresh and distinctive”, “spirit and good humour”, “joyful, enthralling and unexpected”, “sheer grace and delicacy”, “radiates joy”, “moments of wonder”, “beauty”.

The point of the first year was breadth, different things happening in different places. If there was a connecting theme maybe it was accidental. The collection of artists seemed to cluster on parents and their children. “A Good Night Out in the Valleys” has four sets of fathers and sons. The whole situation is driven by Kyle’s mission to pay back the treatment received by his father. In the Osborne the young Huw Prosser has a terrifying father to deal with. On Mynydd Epynt Xerxes faces his father Darius on a giant screen. In Bridgend a mother grieves for a lost son. In Butetown a son goes in search of a father.

Aleks Sierz’s recent book “Rewriting the Nation” celebrates theatre of the last decade but also makes room for what was left out. Summer holiday kept me from “The Beach” and winter weather, ironically, from “The Weather Factory”. Trustworthy voices report that, like “Outdoors”, neither were theatre. So, of the ten pieces of theatre six were outstanding. Two were good enough but had similar flaws in their process. Two did not work. That is a good enough hit rate.

With “The Passion” soulfully gone, eyes turn to year two. It is worth remembering three things. It is difficult enough for any organisation to fulfil a primary mission. When secondary functions start muddying management’s time and focus, the results are manifest. It does not help if a consultant or non-executive is in there spouting about satisfying different stakeholder groups. There is nothing wrong with secondary activities, and they are quite legitimate, as long as they are both contingent upon and consequent to the primary activity.

But education institutions are being harnessed to fulfil goals of “social justice”. A credit card company sends out a mass promotion involving the Olympics in which the athletes, the fulcrum of the thing, are mentioned as a third group. Increasingly the focus shifts towards whether the ceremonial part will be “better” than in China. Similarly, waving semaphore flags on top of a hill for a small group is nice to have but the real thing is production in front of an audience. My “Good Night Out” in Aberdare ended with “the cast received a mighty applause. They deserved it.” That is it. Nothing else need get in the way.

Second, drama. The drama in year one was written by dramatists who died in 1994 and 455 BCE. This is not a plea for Chekhov-on-the-Taff, as a Welsh dramatist phrased it. Post-narrative theatre is a strand but not the whole of performance. Personally my enthusiasm for new forms is usually greater than that of others. But new form is excuse neither for emotional stultification nor intellectual banality.

Too often dramatic conflict descends to a generalised “they.” Con in “A Good Night Out in the Valleys” ends up with a world of “us” and “them”, the “them” being a generalised mix of the ironmasters, the NCB and its successors. The spikiest theatre from elsewhere is specific and is not shy of providing a rich diet of fraudsters, psychopaths, delusionists. Philip Breen, late of Mold, has a hit with a revival of “The Hard Man.” Look at ”Shameless”, “The Slab Boys”, “The Boys from the Blackstuff” and popularity is not a disqualifier of quality.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
27 April 2011


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