Theatre in Wales

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

My Year of Theatre 2011

A Year That Felt Special

British theatre is living off its past” declares London’s most senior critic of the past year. It is a part of the allure of theatre that no single person can ever quite know what theatre is. The overall critical view is as much a collective effort as theatre itself is collaborative endeavour. The hardest-working reviewer might get to see two hundred pieces in mainstream venues. The truly driven, adding in six a day for three weeks in Edinburgh, might notch it up to three hundred in a year. There is no tally for the totality of theatre in any one year. In any case, in a vibrant culture there is no clear boundary line between theatre and other hybrid art forms. The most that one person might aspire to witness is, maybe, twenty percent of what has been made available.

“Wales is a culture in fracture” declares a dramatist from the floor of Cardiff’s gleaming new Dora Stoutzker Hall on October 1st. “Theatre criticism is in a state of sickness” asserts a speaker on the stage “and it reflects a theatre in a state of sickness.” It is a statement of sufficient drama and provocation enough to be quoted in Barn and on the Guardian’s website.

As metaphors they catch the ear. But, like all metaphors, whether they are a proper description is a personal judgement. Every person holds their view of what theatre is, or isn’t, or ought to be. The same playwright in the Dora Stoutzker Hall goes on to condemn the resistance of Wales’ theatre establishment to gay-themed plays. This is a puzzler. The week before I have been at Cardigan’s Theatr Mwldan. My last view has been of Simon Watts, Paul Morgans and the rest of the cast passing round pints of Brains to make the good the torrent of physical and emotional energy that has been “Llwyth.”

“Llwyth” had a stormingly good Edinburgh. In that setting no-one cares what language it comes in. It is just another European language; all that matters is whether it lives on stage or not. But then Wales had a stormingly good Edinburgh overall. There have been hits before but it is a long time, and certainly before my time, since the weight of shows warranted a social get-together at the artistic fulcrum that is the Traverse.

It is in human nature that every person, everywhere, thinks their time and their place is the most special of all. It’s not. But 2011 did feel different. “Llwyth” turned out to be one London newspaper writer’s top show of the Festival. “The Passion” was another critic’s show of the year. National Theatre of Wales in the view of the Observer is “one of the best things to happen to the stage in the past five years.”

When Fair Play came to Aberystwyth in October I remarked that “no-one ever embarked on a life in the theatre in the expectation that it will be easy or indeed fair.” Theatr Powys bowed out in 2011 with a last show that was bitter-sweet and completely original. New companies formed and got their productions out on the road. As well as Fair Play, Waking Exploits made the trip to Aber and was personally much appreciated.

“Bred In Heaven” and “The Wizard, the Goat and the Man Who Won the War” were popular hits. Both had deep cultural roots and deserved the applause. Many would say that not much on earth is as important as rugby and politics. Frapetsus, in particular, reached out to a new audience for theatre. They earned standing ovations at the New Theatre and could have stayed a lot longer. “The Wizard…” will be back in 2012 at those venues which missed out on the first tour.

The growth of new venues continued unabated. Merthyr’s Theatr Soar opened in the Spring, Cardiff’s Richard Burton Theatre to a fanfare in June. The Sherman’s new self kicks off early 2012 and the scaffolding comes off Llanelli’s Y Ffwrness in November. Welsh theatre has acquired a lot more overhead.

I read, and reviewed, Mike Bradwell’s “The Reluctant Escapologist” in the summer. It is in many ways an annoying read, but it is also a cry of protest against theatre’s raw making being swamped with erroneous cost. The Sherman took on a tone of slight apology for its “Raw/Amrwd” productions. Since one of them was among my productions of the year, I saw small artistic justification for reverting to any other model. So venues abound, and there are any number of cool new spaces for a cappuccino. But Cardiff does not have the leaky, rough, sixty-seater where new voices can see their work first tested out.

A keynote speaker at an Arts Marketing conference in Mold on November 17th suggested provocatively that everyone had been getting it wrong for a long time. I am on the receiving end of the promo and it isn’t working as well as it should. In Autumn, I went searching for the venues for a tour by a funded company. The company’s website failed to mention any production beyond that of 2010.

Same month, I found the box office of a venue for a show that evening locked and deserted. On enquiry direct to the company it transpired the show had been cancelled two weeks before, but still featured on the venue’s web diary.

I moaned at the time about Mappa Mundi’s omission of the cast’s names. The company in that case has built itself a powerful brand name. But there is a lot of muddle in arts marketing between medium and message. The basics for advertising are unaltered, the same for theatre as any other product. At the very least, state in plain language what it is, what are the main sales points, and who is it for.

David Edgar delivered a tour de force of a lecture at the National Library’s Drwm on September 17th. He made mention of his best theatre book of the year, Aleks Sierz “Rewriting the Nation.” My review in April ended with “the sheer profusion that Sierz describes, its scale, its irreverence, its probing fearlessness left me cheered and not a little awed.” Wales had its theatre heroes in 2011, artists who just wanted to make it happen. They stretched their credit cards to the limit. Forget overdrafts these days from the banks. Get a loan, and you sign your home over as collateral. It happened. We, in the audience, are the beneficiaries.

The funded companies produced work at their best fit to hit the world. But they also produced theatre, or bits of theatre, that sat there like suet. I know the symptoms. The eyes wander, they run around the venue’s architecture, they start watching other members of the audience to see if they are absorbed or not. There’s no favouritism here. Theatr Clwyd Cymru, the Sherman, the Torch, Volcano, National Theatre of Wales, the National Youth Theatre, they all produced stuff that hung heavy. Theatr Genedlaethol didn’t, but they are undergoing their review and did not produce that much.

The right to fail is paramount. But when it doesn’t work, a common factor is detectable. The professional writer is the disposable member of the creative team. It can be done for a number of reasons, economy (false- how about sacking the lighting director for once?), aesthetic ideology (misguided), fashion (we’re all susceptible to fashion trends), hubris (no comment.)

“The fetishization of the figure of an absent but despotically controlling eye... masterminding every inch, every second” is a fashion statement. It’s a view, but I just don’t believe it. A director, actors, a writer, a designer, others assemble in some dreary rehearsal space. Each new creation is a nerve-inducing, collective leap into making something new. The melodramatic “fetishization” just doesn’t smack of the real thing, of a witness who has been there.

There is a honourable record of actors turning themselves into masterly writers. Hywel John’s “Pieces” in 2010 received an enthusiastic reception. The odd writer, within limits, has done a decent job in directing a show. But I am just unconvinced by directors who extend themselves into writing. It doesn’t happen in England or Scotland. Late in the year came a piece of heavyweight support. “Writing of any kind”, says John Caird in his monument of a book “Theatre Craft” “requires a measure of untroubled space and time, both commodities in short supply for a Director.”

I wasn’t at Edinburgh. I didn’t see “Fragments of Ash”, “Muscle”, “Richard Parker”, “Barber of Seville”, “Katya Kabanova”, “Salsa” and many others. Of the touring shows I saw “Woyzeck on the Highveldt” and Analogue Theatre but missed “the Container”, Forced Entertainment, and a lot else. I was absent from ninety-five percent of “the Passion.” Seventy-five seconds of television time were given over to the ghosts beneath the pillars of the M4. The images looked superb and emotive. Members of the audience wept. Personally, I prefer a Christ who is divine rather than loosely allegorical. The corporations that truly oppress tend not to carry clubs and guns, but to be soothingly telling us that everything is all for our own good. But that’s art. It hits in all kinds of different ways and I was only present for a few hours. The rest is the memory of others.

Richard Eyre in “Utopia and Other Places” wrote of “the “untranslatable” element in the theatre, the part that isn’t a surrogate for television, that isn’t prose to be read standing up, the part that can’t be translated from stage to screen; the part that is, in a word, theatrical...the unique properties of the medium- its use of space, of light, of speech, of story-telling; its theatreness.”

In the performances spaces of Wales in 2011 that untranslatable quality took on many a form. It was Anthony Hunt’s rubber-limbed Benny Southstreet. It was director Mathilde Lopez having a Latin American mineral magnate come on stage as a sinewy creeping jaguar. It was Volcano and the Clarks staging cosmetic surgeons in the practice of their dark art. It was an opera where the hero’s opening line, addressed to the conductor, was “What the f*** are you looking at?” That was Music Theatre Wales and “Greek” which collected an Outstanding Achievement in Opera award. It was the band playing tinkly music as Oliver Wood, in a seven year old’s party frock, sits down, then breaks all audience expectations with a deep pitched tenor.

The best of the year? It is a mix. Originality, vision, accomplishment, feeling are all in there, along with a good dose of pure personal preference. If I had the chance to see the work of 2011 all over again, my first five, alphabetical order only, would be:

Mess up the Mess: “Click” directed by Sarah Jones

Mid-Wales Opera: “Madam Butterfly” directed by Stephen Barlow

National Theatre of Wales: “the Village Social” directed by Ben Lewis

Sherman Cymru: “The Sanger” directed by Amy Hodge

Theatr Clwyd Cymru: “the Taming of the Shrew” directed by Terry Hands

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
31 December 2011


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