Theatre in Wales

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

Audiences Laying into National Theatre

National Theatre tours “My Country”

To be effective allegorical intent must be invisible.” So said Charles Monteith, editor at Faber, to William Golding over some opening chapters to “Lord of the Flies”. The chapters explained how the boys came to the island; as a result of editorial advice they were dropped. Allegory works on canvas, less well in print and is not a good idea on stage.

Allegorical theatre has occasionally criss-crossed the venues of Wales. “I'm with the Band” was propped up by the energy of its action. “Desire Lines” had no such propellant energy to help it along. Rufus Norris is a great director. His “Cabaret” when it came to Cardiff in April 2009 won a storm of praise in review on this site. His kick-off on the South Bank “Everyman” was a winner. But “My Country”, like “I'm with the Band”, was held up by the fire of its actors. Sheer presence of the cast gave it a temporary animation to compensate for thematic and emotional poverty. But it had been weakened from the start in its conception. It also gave rise to ribald reaction as it toured the land.

The concept had daring and a sense of responsibility that is the duty of national theatre. “As a nation we think we know who we were” wrote Nicholas Hytner to Christopher Hogg before his appointment to theatre's biggest job “ but we need to find out what we're becoming.” But historically work that looks with meaning at public events of trauma does so a few years after the event. See “Journey's End” or “the Deerhunter.” Even so “My Country” could have fizzed if it had been given to a writer. Richard Bean is too ubiquitous but he would have made something of it.

As it was the makers fell to the lure of verbatim theatre. But verbatim theatre needs just as much the skill of a writer of experience. In the genre's peaks works like “the Permanent Way” or “Deep Cut” had writerly authority behind them in David Hare and Philip Ralph. One of Rufus Norris' career highs was “London Road” with Alecky Blythe's shaping hand. The scenes offstage of “My Country” were reported as being high in disorder. All the effort and cost had resulted in a piled-up mass of words; such is the consequence of rendering the dramatist dispensable.

The characters are allegorical representatives of different regions and nations. The production went to Liverpool's Everyman and offered a post-show discussion. The session was lively, to put it politely, as Liverpudlians put it that the entire North-west had been excised from a work of supposed national self-examination. The title itself, probably intended with a touch of irony, was up for attack. “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and NI, is not a “country”. I'm eternally astonished that those in the south are unaware of this fact.” The Guardian's arts sub-editors let pass the Billington line “the referendum has revealed just how fractious and divided we are as a nation.”

Dominic Cavendish was sharper. “The intent is laudable...But the effect is limp...too many antique stereotypes here...too much jaunty theatricality...Worst of all, it is old hat..We are in a different, more obviously dark condition... Old friends cannot bear to be in the same room with those who voted differently. That is the country I would like to see on stage now. This looks like a soft dodging of a painful conflict.” The personification of Britannia spoke of these “changing, feisty, funny, generous islands”. There was many a quality to these vox pops but generosity did not exactly jump out.

And the casting. A response when the show arrived in Manchester started “As a black-mixed, British person, I’d just like to say, what a load of old tripe that was! Filled with anti-black, right wing propaganda from the off – this is a concrete expression of how Britain attempts to derive its “greatness”'. That is the problem with representational characters, who gets in and who is left out. “The National Theatre team” ran this writer “who went out to conduct these interviews ‘nationwide’ clearly didn’t travel very far or rather they only ventured to a handful of Virgin train stops.” That is true. The researcher in Wales managed to travel all the way to Merthyr. The nuance to be found in the Ceredigion vote for example was a place too far away.

Exeunt vaulted as it does to a higher plane. “Brexit told us who were aren’t. We need a National Theatre that will unite us in finding out who we are, that will challenge us to be better as a nation, whatever our background, wherever we’re from...The theatre is one of the archetypal Arts of Memory, on many levels. If we turn it into a mere living newspaper we conspire in the processes by which modern man has come to feel adrift in history, without roots and without branches- galactic flotsam and jetsam. Kundera has described this phenomenon most vividly; without a past, we are children. To be grown up is to have a memory. The theatre, relentlessly trying to live in the today, this minute, has become childish.”

In the end the Exeunt cultural critic, the London broadsheet writer and the blogger were saying the same thing. National theatre, bewitched by verbatim sources, expends great effort to tell us what we know. Dominic Cavendish: “Verbatim drama can excite the imagination as much as any fiery fiction. But to do so it must bring us voices we haven’t heard before.” The Mancunian: “This play brings nothing to the table that you can’t already find on Facebook – if you need to refresh your memory, just re-add all the people you deleted when Brexit made its debut. The National Theatre needs to check itself, seriously.”

A disputatious culture is a culture in good health.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
10 December 2017


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