Theatre in Wales

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

Reclaiming Roald Dahl for Wales

Looking Back at "City of the Unexpected"

Six months have passed since a very large number of people were brought into the centre of Cardiff. A claim was made on its behalf that it set a record for the largest attendance at an arts event of Wales. It is unverifiable, and perhaps not important, but it reads as though the boosters have not looked into history.

The pageant of 1909 had over 5,000 participants over two weeks and the viewers included 90,000 children who came to watch the dress rehearsals. At least another 90,000 were in attendance from all points.

A noticeable aspect of what was, by any measure, a very large event is the thinness of the digital footprint left in its wake. A search at this interval of time indicates how much of an official event it was. The sites are British Council, Visit Cardiff, the BBC, Museum Wales, Visit Wales, Cardiff University.

Although there is a little micro-blogging it has been remarkable in leaving hardly any critical imprint. (The absence on this site of any reviews by myself between August and October was due to taking up a thirty-year invitation to visit college friends far away.) No broadsheets came and even the perky Wales Arts Review kept silent.

The one review, at 730 words, came from an improbable source, a political think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs. We should be grateful for its existence. It is descriptive and informal in composition, the word “I” featuring 16 times. Nonetheless, it evokes the flavour very well. The first sentence reads: “the events this Saturday were a mix of fantabulous, acrobatic, incredible and ridiculous.”

As for the content: “I was overtaken by Fantastic Mr Fox on a unicycle, followed by some angry looking farmers. I then spotted a giant peach...ginormous and surrounded by protesters. Following the crowds...outside the castle, watching as, first James, then Mr Grasshopper, Mrs Spider and Mrs Ladybird, were rescued by firemen from inside the peach...Mr and Mrs Fox, whose antics entertained the crowds...An aeroplane flew past with a welcome banner flying behind. Things were a little slow at this point, and there were some Welsh songs. I caught sight of people in fluorescent jackets, telling the crowd to move along. They were from the Ministry of the Predictable.

“The following hours involved getting a little sunburnt as well as being covered in snow (as Scott of the Antarctic passed by), catching site of a few Witches in wigs and gloves, a surreal acrobatics display of balancing books, a look at George’s Marvellous Medicine Machine, and the most incredible feat – Fantastic Mr Fox walking across a tightrope, suspended above Duke Street.

“The grand finale was set for 8pm...the wedding of Mrs Spider and the Fireman, at City Hall. This last part of the day’s events was certainly the most spectacular. We were encouraged to dance, and the bridal party processed from the National Museum, with ballet dancers and wedding guests.

"That’s when things really got interesting. Suddenly two singers appeared on the roof of City Hall, the wedding took place, and James floated by, suspended from his peach above the crowd. Fantastic Mr Fox began DJ-ing, encouraging everyone to dance, and a magnificent chocolate factory projection was shown on the façade of City Hall.”

The event, with no entry charge, attracted an unexpectedly large number of visitors. The build-up included free television advertising. But the reviewer homes in right at her start on the major demerit. “How do you know where to go and what time to be there?...I arrived in town to find a crowd of expectant families waiting outside Cardiff Castle, unsure what would be happening, or where, or when.”

The show came with no printed programme. The lack of a professional communications strategy was an overwhelming message on social media, or at least one strand. Many people had a great time but on a Sunday morning in Sydney my social media was awash with expressions of disappointment, irritation and frustration.

The complainants were in the main parents who were frustrated at having no programme. The National Theatre must take responsibility for the bodged communications. It must, however, be remembered that it is in line with company tradition. The care of audiences does not take high priority. The infatuation with technology is incurable. The app that was inaccessible is also a tool of social exclusion. Smartphone penetration is about 75% of the population. So the National Theatre deliberately leaves a quarter of the population unaddressed. This should not be the case.

There was an aftermath. The weekend failed to make any short-listing for the year's theatre awards. “The Good Earth”, “Wonderman”, “Meet Fred” and “Taming of the Shrew” were considered by the critics to be stronger ensemble events in the true sense.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
17 March 2017


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