Theatre in Wales

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

2012: Creative Scotland, "Three Kingdoms" et al

Viewers & Critics in England & Scotland

Nate Silver is the forecaster who gets the US elections results dead right. Humanity, he says, is now generating a quintillion of data a day. That is a one followed by eighteen zeros. Theatre and performance may occupy the tiniest of fractions of this giga-tsunami but the outpouring in Britain alone is now well beyond the capacity of any one observer. Nonetheless theatre comment has a few particular features.

The first is its quantity. Television attracts comment within minutes of a programme's ending. Sarah Lund's climactic solution to a criminal evading prosecution was fiercely debated in terms of narrative, probability and psychology. But the quantity pales beside a theatre production like “Three Kingdoms”. The comment on one site alone, although probably the central one, runs to the accumulated word count of Julian Barnes’ 2011 Man Booker winner. That is one lot of comment for a play that lasted a few weeks.

Theatre comment differs from other blogosphere effusions in a second way. Professionals pitch in, not the norm in other areas. It ranges from the purely subjective. An audience member finds “Three Kingdoms” treatment of its theme “at best thin, at worst exploitative”. The writer concludes“ I didn't learn anything or have any new thoughts/ perspectives or insights into sex-trafficking but I was knocked senseless with the possibilities of what theatre can/should look like.”

Harshness of language is a blogosphere regular. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus links it to the inauthenticity that anonymity confers. “Three Kingdoms” is thus “pretentious, cynic, [sic], gratuitously vulgar and, most of all, unbearably boring, due to the authors' narcissism.” Another: “the text of Three Kingdoms, which was dull, with the usual sententious, stiff dialogue, lots of oh-so daring swearing, Simon Stephens working through his tickbox list of modern horrors.”

In an editor-free landscape uncertainty of style is the norm. A writer who has earned that description said that she’ll believe in the concept of “citizen journalist” the day she walks into hospital to be treated by a “citizen surgeon”. In the case of “Three Kingdoms”, description of the work lurches over into private address. To the dramatist: “You're very lucky to have latched onto the well-funded European circuit…your sense of entitlement, while very zeitgeisty, is rather presumptious - unless you feel you're critic-proof, and, er, as good as you think you are...Do you have any sense of your own ridiculousness?…You're so establishment you don't even recognise it.”

Some commentators claimed to discern a gap, for the first time, between critics, on a publisher’s payroll, and those at home, broadly split between “against” and “for.” As a distinction it does not really stand up. Many an audience member adores “We Will Rock You.” The critics convey something more than “me.” A reader may or may not agree with the veteran who writes “The plot is made harder to follow by Nübling's grossly self-advertising production, in which everything is overstated and overheated. No one exits through a door if they can possibly leap through a window…Actors in mid-sentence suddenly bark and go brick-red with violence. It's as if the more manic moments in “Faulty Towers” had been choreographed by Pina Bausch.” Had I seen the production I suspect I would have disagreed. But it does convey what it looked like as a piece of theatre. It is not that bloggers do not convey what a piece of theatre is like, they barely begin to.

In this ũber-welter of comment Wales provided two good comments from a director and a writer, both possessed of insight. John McGrath: “It's got just about every cliche of German theatre in it - and it's brilliant!…It was particularly exciting to see that kind of bold, almost flashily irreverent directing with a new English-language play.”

Meredydd Barker saw beneath the surface of animal masks and “headless, bewigged, gyrating, dildo-wearing” actors. He discerned a piece of theatre rooted in German tradition, that of Beckmann, Grosz and the Weimar-era Neue Sachlichkeit. In both cases it is commentary that opens up the experience.

Theatre comment wallows in as much generality, imprecision and semantic muddle as any other area of human endeavour. Let us pray that the use of “iconic” in 2013 may finally fall away as an adjective in critical discourse. Once it denoted an object in which the divinity fused with materiality; now it can be used of anyone who had a hit song in the 1980’s. The new clichés of 2012 were “visceral” and “muscular”; over-use deadened both of them.

Scotland’s 2012 may have been good for politics but it was not a good year for the arts. The winter was thick with corporate bodies hurtling through the arts funder’s exit door. All situations are more complicated than is apparent to the outsider, but there is one factor that did not help Creative Scotland. (There is an illuminating PhD waiting to be done on what happens to public bodies when they abandon their descriptive title for a snazzy title put forward by an Identity Consultancy- see examination boards, Whitehall departments and a host of others.)

It is not just that a cultural figure like David Greig and a critic like Joyce McMillan can articulate their stance by virtue of their craft. But they have earned the right over decades to be heard in a way that no manager, however gifted- and there is both skill and gift to management- has not. The protest of the artists is in the public domain ( and Joyce McMillan wordpress 7th December). It uses language that boils over. “A blather of mind-numbing policy-speak… mutton-headed bureaucrats” may or may not be objectionable in its own terms but it is language that is not being used to serve the purpose at hand.

The rancour in Scotland does, however, contain a couple of serious points. The first is the mission of an arts quango. That mission is quite clear: “the agency charged with supporting and promoting Scotland’s cultural and creative life.” The critique was stinging: “the organisation finds itself in the hands of a leadership which refers to the allocation of funds as the “boring bit” of its job.”

That allocation of capital is tough enough on its own account for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the supply of capital can never meet demand, but then that is true for all organisations. The developmental psychologist D W Winnicott devised the concept of the “good enough” parent. Arts funding can be good but never perfect; better to aspire just to be a “good enough” funding body.

But the second factor is that it is in the nature of artistic endeavour to be complex and ambiguous, hence not susceptible to easy standards of judgement. Spartacus Chetwynd’s inclusion in the Turner Prize met with a reaction from an art critic, for whom I have great respect, that was wholly at odds with my own response. That is all the more reason for the capital-allocators to focus on the task at hand.

The managers, ran the claim of Scotland’s artists, wanted to do “advocacy, social strategy and business development… demonstrably none of its business.” This last has to do with the seductive notion of the “creative industries.” I have never been convinced by this concept. Write a jingle for a seasonal advertising campaign and it’s creative; write some code for a CNC-machine tool and it’s somehow not. I have always suspected the notion was a very Anglo-American post hoc facto justification for an out-of-kilter economy weak in capital-intensive sectors.

The other critical point is artistically serious. The nudge to project funding has obvious managerial attractions. But all projects are filled with contingency, serendipity and the unexpected, a factory no less than a work of theatre. At the Critics Round Table in Cardiff in November Tim Price spoke of his work for National Theatre of Wales. John McGrath stated that it was the kind of collaboration that could not, would not, have come about in a project-funded environment.

And the message for other funding bodies? From a consumer point of view ACW did an exemplary job in 2012. A greater array of performance happens in my county of seventy thousand population, by far, than in the two-million-population cities in England and Europe where I have lived. But that kind of vitality depends on several things; a fearless inquisition as to quality, a fine balance between revenue and project support. Reshaping and culling, irrespective of location, form or language, is miserable for the artists but essential for the overall art landscape. But then no-one ever went into the arts for security. Unpleasant things happen, just like the collective turning to flat screens doomed the staff at the Bridgend television plant. None of this is easy in a community where all know all. But then no-one ever went into arts management for a simple life. And, ACW, never change your name.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
02 January 2013


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