Theatre in Wales

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

Remembering the Stories

10 Years of Reviewing Theatre in Wales

As a year in which to start, by chance, to write about the theatre of Wales 2007 was a good one. It was significant on two counts. As in every year the curtain fell on some companies and it rose on others. In the first quarter Sgript Cymru departed the stage on a highpoint. On December 7th the Western Mail published an interview with a member of a new company. In fact the company only had one member. Phil George had held the role of Chair of the National Theatre of Wales for four days.

The announcement of the appointment by Dai Smith on December 3rd had its genesis in events of the spring. The election of May 3rd for the Senedd had produced no clear result for a new government. On June 27th Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones were joint signatories to a 43-page document. Page 35 had a section of twelve pledges under the heading “Promoting Arts and Culture.” The second pledge read “We will establish a National English-language Theatre.”

The national story had always provided material for dramatisation. Theatre's modern era can be dated back to the pageant of 1909. Theatre companies had previously staged the Frongoch camp, the Merthyr Rising, the Rebecca Riots. Greg Cullen had dramatised an encounter between a Welsh soldier and a Patagonian conscript in conflict in the Falkland War. By coincidence the pledge of the two party leaders that June coincided with a significant premiere at the Eisteddfod.

Manon Eames compressed a huge range of material into Tim Baker's production of “Porth y Byddar”. “The action moves at speed, from smoke-filled clubrooms to council meetings, chapel to the House of Lords, children fishing by the riverbank to interrogations by bewigged QC's” ran my review. “It is all here; the ejection of Gwynfor Evans from a council session, the relative indifference in nearby Bala, the heated debates within Plaid Cymru, the pusillanimity of local councils, the ambivalent role that the local police is obliged to perform.”

“Porth y Byddar” appeared again as “Drowned Out” the following year. In its first year across Wales it was seen by six and a half thousand.

Art evolves but does not progress. Every year is its own cultural landscape. The subsequent years have been different but none has been better. In particular “Porth y Byddar” was one of three productions conceived on a big scale on national subjects.

Greg Cullen led the National Youth Theatre of Wales for his last year. “There are productions more chiselled than “Café Cariad” but there won’t be anything bigger or bolder on a Welsh stage this year” I wrote “There is an unbroken moral seriousness at its core- a brother and sister falteringly seek a place in a strange land while at home a brother is gradually lost to his mother. There are episodes of redemption- the most moving piece of music is a four-part, two male, two female, plea for forgiveness.”

These productions had ambition to them, an ambition underpinned by scale. “Porth y Byddar” had Rhian Blythe, Betsan Llywd, Sara Lloyd, Siôn Pritchard, Simon Watts, Llion Williams and another six actors. At Clwyd that autumn Philip Breen directed Jordan Bernarde, Brendan Charleson, Steven Elliott, Siân Howard, Simon Nehan, Dean Rehman and six others in a script that spanned eight centuries of a village's history. “The dramatist fires off a visual coup in scene five that elicits a gasp from the audience” was how my review started. Meredydd Barker’s play “is discursive and open-ended, aburst with themes, whether it be history- “deeds and names misremembered, half-remembered or forgotten completely”- civic politicking, art or heritage.”

Two Princes” is the only script to have looked at the tension of heritage versus modernity. The social geographers have stated it. Tourism is implicated in the future of the Welsh language. Both are government policy and are antithetical to each other. That is nothing unusual. The state has multiple goals and compatibility is difficult. But it is the responsibility of art to explore the fault-lines. If the Arts Council is set as a vehicle for government policy, for which other departments hold accountability anyhow, then there is only one victim. Culture is weakened and the nation left unaddressed.

The lifeblood of culture is the blending of continuity with innovation. Innovation is entirely different from novelty. In 2007 Caryl Morgan toured in the role of Thomasina in a fine production of “Arcadia.” In 2017 she dropped her voice several octaves to play Rachel Crabbe in an effervescent “One Man Two Guvnors.” Music Theatre Wales toured “Y Tŵr” in 2017 and in 2007 it was “Miss Julie”. “An intense, crisp production” ran the review of its Aberystwyth performance “intelligently acted, soaringly sung.”

Resilience is everything. In February 2007 the critic in Wales for the Guardian hailed “Acqua Nero”: “scenes...played out in this intimate space only inches from the audience, are claustrophobic, intense and entirely riveting in this finely written drama that seethes with bitter secrets right to the very end.” “Nye and Jennie”, with Geinor Styles directing, is contender to be the year's biggest box office draw of 2018. Simon Harris was director of the play the Guardian acclaimed. In 2017 his “Little Wolf” was the touring production of the most intense emotionality.

When this past summer the Senedd Committee looked for information I supplied a view from the stalls. “Wales has a theatre of a quality and a scale that belies its size. No community of three million in the world has a larger. It is a record in which all concerned should take pride.”

I have been a reader of reviews for far more years than their writer. I saw when young what happens. Reviewing is a narrow activity. When Sheridan Morley died an obituarist quoted reviews from productions of “the Deep Blue Sea” that were years apart. The critic had used the same phrase the commentator noted, in a tone of disfavour. But he misunderstood the way the mind works. The mind works on the principle of parsimony. The phrases that came to Morley would have been the ones that fitted.

Reviewers become repetitive. When the Times axed Benedict Nightingale he was at the peak of his abilities. It looked harsh and it was harsh. But in retrospect it is better to be done with before repetitive becomes predictable becomes boring.

I had had in mind the intention to make ten years the finishing point. But it is too abrupt to break completely; I give it another six to nine months.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
26 December 2017


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