Theatre in Wales

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

Looking Back at 2010-2015

National Theatre of Wales: the First Chapter

National Theatre, like love, is hard to define, difficult to pin down quite what it is. But when it’s there, it’s obvious, there’s no arguing about it. Some nations have it easier. Germany as instance has its great historical overflow; Schiller, Kleist, Hebbel, Von Hoffmannsthal, Schnitzler, Wedekind are a feast to return to again and again. Maybe J O Francis is worth the seeing, but the likelihood is that if he truly were a director would have rediscovered him. “There is no canon in Wales” declared Tim Baker emphatically at a symposium in Aberystwyth on National Theatre in October 2007.

Wales has two national theatres. When the memoirs are written, the official documents admitted to the public domain, one may well be have been midwife to the revitalisation of the other. That “Y Bont” and “the Passion” appeared so close together in the great stream of the years must be indicative of something.

The idea of National Theatre was a long time a-hatching. It was topic for a consultative paper in 1995 written by Phil Clark and Michael Bogdanov. In 1996 David Adams wrote about it in “Stage Welsh- Nation, Nationalism and Theatre: The Search for Cultural Identity.” He took a snapshot of a single week in Wales and reported on a landscape peopled by Dalier Sylw, Volcano, Brith Gof, Hijinx among others.

His conclusion was that Welsh national theatre in small letters was in a robust and varied good health. From that view he saw a Welsh National Theatre, capital letters, with some apprehension. But, eleven years on, page thirty-five of “One Wales”, the joint agreement of 27th June from the Labour and Plaid Cymru Groups in the Assembly, read “We will establish a National English-language Theatre.”

Any company anywhere is bigger than its products or the sum of all it does. The legacy of John McGrath is that the company has an identity. Its second artistic director comes to an institution that not only has a track record but one that is interesting and itself. That does not mean that its all and every action need be divinely brilliant, no more than those of a human being need be. But the company is there, to be wondered at, to be applauded more often than not, to be argued over at times. As for the work itself, the forty productions and the string of ancillary activities, that looks to a separate appraisal elsewhere.

Any new manager anywhere faces one of two scenarios. There is the case of the place that has drifted, dissipated its first spark and sense of purpose. When a magnet is passed over a loose mess of iron filings it makes pattern, order and symmetry out of muddle. In this scenario the people who are left yearn for order, stability, direction. It is the scenario which more or less looked recently to be the case at Senghenydd Road.

The second scenario is the one where the leader departs in a halo of glory. That was the situation with the two Nicks, Hytner and Starr, ascending from the South Bank. The new arrival has the advantage that she has an organisational machine that hums with cohesion, full power and enthusiasm. The hazard is that a culture of nostalgia soon sets in, how things were better in the days gone by.

The antidote is rapid action, self-assertion. The estimable and reliable Dominic Cavendish was at Patrick Marber’s adaptation of “Three Days in the Country” in July. He raised his head from the production at hand to make some more general comments. His time of writing “roughly marks the hundred day point of the new regime at the National Theatre under Rufus Norris. While it’s still a honeymoon period, it’s time to observe just how well it’s going. I had feared the programming might take a…lurch…lots of thrown-together, trendy stuff that spoke to no one outside inner London. But the mood of the revamped building is welcoming. The choices are intelligent and alert to the richness of the repertoire – we’ll get DH Lawrence and Harley Granville-Barker in the autumn. And with Norris having a rare handle on the virtues of the Olivier auditorium, the Dorfman now a dream of a studio space and Marber’s modern-minded if period-dressed production here making the Lyttelton look a lot less like the strait-laced middle-child, the place is firing on all cylinders.” That kind of response- see the “Everyman” reviewed here in July- means that the temptation for nostalgia has been kicked into touch.

There is not a management job anywhere that is not a challenge albeit in different ways. But the toughest of all is to create an organisation from scratch. On one hand the options are wide open but on the other, even if the maker has that wholly blank sheet of paper, nothing comes without context or expectation.

In the case of the National Theatre of Wales the challenge is double. The first, as above, is that the very notion of what constitutes national theatre is a hazy one. The second is the nature of theatre itself; knock out the Christmas shows and pantomime and it’s a minority activity. From a three million population theatre visitors of any regularity might possibly hit a half percent proportion. But those who do participate care and care a lot. So the eyes on a new national institution may be tiny in number but they are eyes that look hard.

History will deliver its own verdict. But there was many an on-the-spot observation that came from this viewer. In 2010: “The artistic accomplishment of his production is to tease out points of history, caught not just with sincerity and affection also in their sorrow and fragility…the last location is spectacular and host to a climax that is…joyful, enthralling and unexpected.” In 2011: “...bubbles with youthful zest. It got itself a raucous audience in Neath, a cheering one in Aberaeron. The company has another winner on its hands.” 2012: “There is a touch of fable to this thrilling production… physically wild and ecstatic, thematically jagged and amoral, aesthetically iconoclastic and compelling.” 2014: “… high points of directorial and design bravura that audibly draw the audience’s breath…epic in conception and scale, doing what only national theatre can, and should, do.”

Comment on theatre is pretty much the shadow in Plato’s cave. The blogosphere delivers comment that is trite and curt, polarised between adulation and abuse. The view from the Academy is more often than not laborious, from a puritan culture that does not even like theatre that much. The view from a camera is a feeble simulacrum. At the end of the day something happened at a particular place and for a short time. And when it works it leaves an impact for a lifetime. I am glad that that coalition in the Assembly came about eight years ago for one reason. The National Theatre of Wales has brightened my life.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
08 September 2015

 

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