Theatre in Wales

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

Regions of unlikeness: the spaces of Welsh theatre

JENI WILLIAMS reviews some recent productions

This is Mrs Maria's house.
Nobody has entered the house since... the tragedy there used to be rose-bushes all around and music and singing corning through every day
(From Cybermama, Firenza Guidi)

Firenza Guidi's words to Cybermama (Penrhys, Rhondda, 19/11/99) provide an appropriate introduction to the current situation with Welsh Drama. 'Mrs Maria's house' is the ordinary house of theatre, the place of creativity and visitors and we're in danger of losing the roses and songs. It's December 1999 and theatre in Wales lurches through yet more crises as the millennium approaches. Cuts to experimental companies like Brith Gof and the Magdalena Project happened without a popular outcry, and even the new writing debacle - leading to the incipient demise of Made in Wales and Dalier Sylw - did not produce a co-ordinated front. As one of the more virulent (and fascinating) strands on Keith Morris's website suggests, this seems a policy of 'divide and rule'. But the when schools, colleges and communities are affected - as witnessed in the powerful campaigns for Gwent and, to a lesser extent, Powys and the community wing of Clwyd Theatre Cymru - the community kicks in. This uproar has provided the focus furs strategic attack on the ACW drama strategy per Se.

Stressing that Gwent Theatre's quarrel was 'with the Arts Council and not with fellow practitioners , Gary Meredith's plea for sanity and solidarity among the companies affected by ACW reorganisation is very necessary. Theatre lob (who, let us remember, only applied for a franchise) are just as caught up in ACW game as anyone else - and it's a game that no one can really win. What chance a deep-rooted "community" theatre on three-year franchise bids? And what would those who 'benefit' from the strategy do if it were to be rescinded? The whole situation is an appalling mess, made worse because the cuts that were imposed upon ACW (90,000 lost to new writing alone) have been sugared as the sweet nothings of a phantasmagoric brighter future. In the process a bad situation deteriorates, trust haemorrhages from the margins and still more money disappears pears as hard-pressed local authorities see no reason to fund new ventures in whose inceptions they were denied a voice. The house closes down.

Going back for the past two years (at least) such unstable conditions have provided the context for Welsh productions and feed, as much as the twin concerns with the millennium and the new Wales, into their characteristic desires to clarify, to separate out, mark territory and to confront the past. I've see 17 productions in the past few months, most of them interesting, some of them wonderful, almost all Welsh. Most, I'm sorry to say, because of work and lack of transport, in South Wales, but I did venture up to Mold to see Clwyd Theatr Cymru's Macbeth on their home ground. Almost every production was an original piece of work. Something to be proud of - for the moment at least...

For me the season started with the production cancelled when Gerald Tyler broke a rib: Earthfall's Roccoco Blood (Cardiff, Chapter, 24/9/99). As to be expected from Earthfall, the production seas visually arresting. Four performers, two musicians - and a ravishing set. The action takes place on and around a large square representing stylised boxing ring, a masculine fascination with violence evident in the opening warm-ups and feints of the boxer (Tyler). Slowed down to a dreamy rhythm, the training session floated into dance, a danger- ous dance with another man. Longing and violence as a potent mix. Jeeringly imputing that any compassion or feeling was unmanly, the boxer's movements grew increasingly aggressive, speeding up into the broken rhythms of fighting.

As dance drama, the play relied on a physical and visual rhythm rather than straightforward narrative: the use of colour for example was striking. Large transparent panels in crimson frames made up the square, underlit with white light and overlit with an intense blue. Repeated in the clothing, these colours acquired the status of codes - passion and coolness, violence and grace, masculine and feminine. The boxer, who physically dominated the stage, score a loose black suit and red T-shirt, the young man and woman in red trousers/ blue top and blue trousers/red top respectively.The fourth figure, an androgynous woman, wore some green - a jarring note, assuaged only by her appearance, in the closing moments of the show, in a black backless dress with elaborate red and blue patterning. The sense of completion was pal- pable. The four figures moved around and across this gorgeous source of light and colour, testifying to the magnetic attraction of violence, the necessary balance of the poised fighter, or a complex pattern of checks and balances between the individuals and couples. The absence of violence, for example, as significant as its presence: the boxer dominated the mike, spinning packs of lies, viciously sentimental about his father and uncles as fighters, but although both the young man and the androgynous woman spoke, the young woman was silent throughout. Masculine verbosity on the one hand and feminine passivity; on the other: the extreme poles of constructed gender positions, both equally damaging. Intelligent and beautiful together, this was a deeply satisfying performance.

Unfortunately I couldn't say the same about Patrick Jones's new play, Unprotected Sex, (Cardiff, Sherman, 20/10/99). The play is equally concerned with masculine violence but it was far cruder and certainly less visually satisfying. Misogyny takes many forms and among them is the classic reduction of the female to an object of desire or exchange. I am sure that Jones is concerned about the objectification of women but the contrast of sensitive victim and macho sufferer, playing out their exchanges over the dead 'body' of the future, doesn't leave room here for any depiction of woman other than as, in Everything Must Go, failed mother. Making her a sociology student doesn't make her more real. The strengths of Everything Must Go (the big stage with its crude spatial divisions, the agit-prop rants and pounding bodies counterpointing the agonised small scale exchanges), were missing but the writing style was the same - and it didn't work in the more intimate space of the Sherman studio. Both language and characters were cliche'd in the extreme. More subtlety or more unreality.

From men to women. The end of October saw the end of the Magdalena Project - in its birth- place, Wales, anyway. A week to use up the last of the money in commissioned work, a final day to exchange ideas and then the end. Three performers from Wales (Sioned Huws, Mike Brookes and Gerald Tyler) were matched with artists from Poland (Jolanta Krukowska), Norway (Geddy Aniksdal) and New Zealand (Madeline McNamarra) respectively, and commissioned to work together in Chapter for a week accompanied by groups of 'silent witnesses' - supposed to ensure that the performers worked in a vacuum (Gerald Tyler and Madeline McNamarra cheated here). The br/leeding ground, investigated the role of art in relation to political oppression. As Jill Greenhalgh pointed out, both individual performers and intentionally recognised companies dealing with such issues have lost funding through an AC policy which seeks to tie performers more closely to populist models of 'excellence' and sees them as voices of the emerging nation. It is immensely sad that these questions as to the purpose and function of art should be so readily dismissed in discussions about Value for money and (that vile phrase) bums on seats: a context in which is seen only as entertainment.

Saturday (30/10/99) was the day for visitors, debate and performance. The opening talks included a showing of the splendid Shoes (a short play by New Zealand Magdalena women), a meditation on theatre and atrocity by writer and lecturer Susanne Greenhalgh (Roehampton Intstitute ), and personal statements by Maja Mitic (Dali Teatr, Belgrade) and the playwright and therapist, Raite O'Reillv. Performances were works in progress rather than finished products, seeking through theatre to construct a connective language of body and rhythm to counterpoint national, linguistic and gender difference. Sioned Huws and Jolanta Krkowska worked together with such delicate mutual respect and sympathy that I was astonished to find myself thinking at one point that the performance was getting a little slow and could do with something like a cartwheel - and they did one! Gerald Tyler and Madeline McNamarra spliced monologues together to produce a kind of cabaret. Others examined binary oppositions such as writing and speech, light and dark, activity and passivity. Work in progress is always stimulating, especially, as here, in the context of a series of shared questions. The event closed with 5 Open Forum presentations and performances by those individuals who, it seems, seem less and less likely to get funding for their committed, occasionally bizarre but distinctive work. And now even less likely.

Stranded up a mountain and cut off from the mainstream facilities of the Rhondda Valley, Penrhys seems the perfect place to locate an international venture that seeks to find a common theatrical language 'which unifies without abolishing differences or erasing identity'. ELAN's Cybermama was the third of three performances in the Europe-backed Marginalia project, which sets out to explore issues of marginalisation due to poverty, isolation and lack of resources. Like Magdalena, ELAN seeks to create connections of mutual respect accross boundaries of class, gender, nation and language, producing site-specific work through performance-montage. In the case of Cybermama, Welsh performers worked with artists from Spain and Italy, collaborating with local residents in each of these countries. The performance started in a tiny darkened room where a taped speech spoken by a local boy introduced us to the magic of the ordinary, the 'heroes, giants, fairies or beasts' hidden within a shuttered house. Shunted into the next room, the audience (which including very excited children) was confronted by three suited men and two teenage boys standing up, leaning against and slipping off and around each other in two sleeping groups. In aside-room transformed to a mirrored cupboard, a frozen woman sat beside a sleeping fairytale bride. And then a room with human statutes sprawled in a pool table, and on, finally, into the fully lit hall where three young women sat at children's desks in leather jackets, tight trousers and brilliant green, red and blue acrylic wigs in identical sharp bobs. They moved jerkily, uncomfortably around the desks, stuffing books into unsuitable handbags. These, one presumed, were the 'cybermamas', figures emerging from the confines of the ordinary house. The men stalked around the room like Mafiosi on stilts, engaging in mock fights over the fainting bride. The children joined in, slinging each other over shoulders and between legs as The Razor Fish (a local band) played heavy metal. Those kids will remember this project for the rest of their lives - they were so excited that they crossed the stage to make their bows too early and we lost the last image of the performance. The show dissolved into dancing with performers and audience joining in. This may not have put lots of bums on seats but it won't be forgotten quickly. The children hung around Firenza Guidi asking if she was coming back soon. I hope so: to produce yet more loose, alive and memorable images.

Because l hardly ever watch television, I wasn't the target audience for Made in Wales's Killing Kangaroos (Swansea, Taliesin, 22/10/99), and it took me some time to work out just how clever it was. Roger Williams's play was written in Australia as part of the New Wales in New South Wales project organised by the British Council, Wales Arts International and the Ministry for the Arts, New South Wales. Its remit is to promote modern images of Wales in Australia and vice versa. And, following Shelley's dictum that one must recognise slavery before freedom, Killing Kangaroos starts by aping the familiar soaps with their wall-to-wall white faces, lack of money problems , model beauties and perpetual leisure for surfing. Then, slowly, the whole edifice is dismantled: the boy is a surfing failure, the sister,a drunken out of work actor, the father, a racist bankrupt who lies to his family, and the mother has a dark secret. The unravelling occurs with the intrusion of three visitors from home - a nephew, his girlfriend and a friend. They too have secrets: the nephew is gay but in denial and neither of his 'friends' wants to talk to him. His (nosy ex-) girlfriend seduces the surfer but drops him on discovering his racism. The friend is a black Cardiffian who is obsessed with soaps and flattered by the attentions of the drunken sister - and who sets her father's racist teeth on edge. Yet in fairy soap style everything works out by the end and the three friends, now reconciled to their selves, each other and the Australian family, leave for home. The Australians cheerily start to sell their house and their kids get good solid jobs. It's a sharp piece of writing; first summoning up the candy-floss of Neighbours and Home and Away with a cardboard set flat, over- bright colours and wooden characters - and then slashing the ground from under their feet. As with all Made in Wales projects, there's an attempt to find a new audience, one who can recognise the issues of parody and critique. 'Staging' television foregrounds and questions preconceptions - the play deals with ideas of perception and identity in an artificial world, of translation and what is lost in the move from one space to another (though I thought the Welsh elements in the programme glossary were a bit tame). Sadly, this was the last Made in Wales project and it was one with particular pertinence for a young audience in a new Wales.

Theatr y Byd, Spectacle and Hijinx all focused on that consuming topic: the definition of a Welsh identity. I don't know' if Ian Rowlands has changed his script from the one that disappointed David Adams in Edinburgh but I liked the New South Wales I saw in the Sherman studio (11/11/99). As Claire Powell has pointed out in Planet Rowlands's concern with a new life in Australia deliberately turns its back on America, the magnetic centre of Ed Thomas's plays, freeing the imagination for a return to the homeland. In this play Rowlands wants to achieve a real new world, not the mythical one celebrated in earlier pieces, such as Blue Heron in the Womb. The plot is simple: a Welsh traveller apparently returning from Australia, hails a taxi in Paddington and arrives home as the dawn rises on the day of the Assembly vote. The set is equally simple: a skeleton taxi cab within which the older driver throws confidences and stories about his life over his shoulder to his younger, uninterested passenger. The set starts dark with occasional car lights and gradually lightens as the cab approaches the dawn of a new Wales. A break by a sandy road, and the monologue switches to the young man who tells the incredulous driver the truth: he has never been to Australia and only left Wales the previous day. The play closes as young man gets out of the cab for the second time and the backdrop flushes with sunrise. The driver would like to be in a Kerouac novel or a road movie but he never got the chance. Instead he studies maps and journeys imaginatively. Caught by the dream of movement and excited at getting out of London, he reveals more than he should, hiding behind chauvenist kokes but revealing his inadequacy as a father and his present loneliness, living in a bedsit after leaving his wife. It is appropriate, given the play's fascination with boundaries and maps, that the stage should locate meaning around the interior and exterior of the car: that symbol of travel that breaks down community as much as it frees the individual. Paradoxically the driver is trapped in his taxi: never arriving at his own destination but driving others to theirs. It is only when he stops that he can meet his passenger face to face and talk more personally and less guardedly - and he wants dreams to live by. Although, in the young man's case it was a false alarm, the two are linked by the common experience of unexpected paternity. Both were changed: the taxi driver losing the escape route of a university degree and the young man, his travels in Australia. This concern with fatherhood is a common theme in Rowlands's work, articulating the desire for a new kind of man for his beloved new Wales. Changes of attitude, not stirring events, are what drives this play. Understated and intelligent, beautifully crafted and modulated - and the use of space encloses and releases the monologues in relation to the release of the new future of the imagined nation of Wales.

Then of course, there was Spectacle Theatre with Dic Edwards's play Over Milk Wood. Hardly anyone turned up the night I saw it in Swansea's Dylan Thomas Centre (25/11/99): apparently it clashed with a production of A Child's Christmas in Wales in the Grand. Yet it was mischievously splendid. The play was an ironic love story with Huw Pugh, the would-be wife-poisoner, fleeing Wales after the first transmission of Under Milk Wood. Hidden behind a screen, a witch shadow-puppet figured the awful wife, leaping about enraged until she fell to her death from the bed. He meets his new wife on the boat to America: she's Irish but as soon as they arrive at New York she gains a rasping American accent, throwing away her past in her desire for a new identity. The figure of How Pugh, attempting to escape from the prison house of Thomas's words, cannot be free of his creator's voice. It invades his speech in delightful parodies and takes over his days as he works in a Welsh gift shop in New York, living in the Bronx. The third member of the cast swops identities with bewildering and hugely amusing ease. His appearance as a mad housewife (complete with lipstick and beard) is complemented by a wonderful appearance as a Jewish stereotype complaining about the noise.

Uncomfortable moments disrupt the slapstick however: when Huw re-encounters Sinead, ordering nineteen whiskies in the bar where Thomas drank eighteen, and later, when he attacks his wife and the couple risk losing their child. The echoes of Thomas and of Thomas's life (Irish wife, drunkenness, the passion of language, a sense of entrapment) focus on the essential interrelation of stories and life. No playwright in Wales can avoid the shadow of Milk Wood,or the shadow of its poet - a shadow projected onto the screen at this play's close while 'his' voice boomed out in sonorous sorrow that he died too soon and had never meant to leave the poisoning bit in, pleading majestically for readers to 'Shut the hook and read the poems'

The interrelation of stories and life forms the subject of Greg Cullen's play for Hijinx, Paul Robesen Knew My Father. Believing the father he has never met to be a dead war-hero, a young boy (played captivatingly by a mature Mark Howell East) seizes on the one exciting thing that he has been told about him: that he knew Paul Robeson - or, to be more precise, that Robeson knew him. The mother, Sandra, works in a factory and is having an inconclusive affair with her married boss when a black engineer arrives in town and the young boy, Gethsy, is convinced that he is Paul Robeson. More than anything, this play is about fathers. The spiteful Ron loathes the boy but, because of his own experience of an unsympathetic father, George recognises that Gethyn's obsession with Robeson speaks his desire for love and protection. Robeson thus doesn't figure a 'blackman' but a gentle and courageous ideal - for George who has to learn to sing as much as for Gethyn and the lonely Sandra. Singing, art as a medium of expression and community; overarching race and class. Although predictable, the closing moment when Gethyn describes a singing George as his 'dad' was very moving.

To conclude with two performances by Clwyd Theatr Cymru: Twelfth Night and Macbeth. I leave these to the last because they were so very different from the other productions I've discussed. Two Shakespeares, two large scale performances, classically hare stages and strong individualised characterisation: the theatre of authority. I was not keen on Twelfth Night (Cardiff's New Theatre, 10/11/99). The set was quite beautiful: thin, narrow branches making a woodland scene that changed over the interval from the snow, the black backcloth and the sobriety of winter to the new life, white light and flowers of spring. A magical space therefore: the space (since we are dealing with Shakespeare here) of transformation and art, and of rigorous exclusions and vicious humour - focused of course in the transgressive figure of Malvolio. I'm not sure that this came across -the ground between Orsino and Olivia seemed dead land, not a contested space between two poles; there were moments when actors seemed to clutter up the stage and I would have liked Feste's final song to have been sung (as in the Text) totally alone to demonstrate the wintry losses that underlie the play's happy conclusion. Still, I love Shakespeare and it was certainly rapturously received.

In Mold on the Saturday (13/11/99), CTC's Macbeth was a different matter. The claustrophobia of the play was increased by the intimacy of the studio space - which I had not visited before and thought very impressive. Smoke filled light literalised the abiding image of the play: the breakdown of divisions between good and bad when the 'light turns milky' and 'fair is foul'. The black space of the studio and the apron stage drew the audience into the mesmerising dark centre of the play. The boundaries of the playing space disappeared into shadow and the divisions of normality slid away with them, revealing a site of fetid fantasy in which the figures moved in and out of smoky spotlights, unsure of their ground. Compared to Volcano's sensuous, sinuously 'feminine' version of the play (Swansea Grand, 8/11/99) this was a very masculine Macbeth, one with a real sense of both the political history and its effects on future generations, a sense of individual fates (I was so moved when Macduff was told of his family's murder that I wept). The figures came over like giants: Owen Teale was an increasingly commanding Macbeth, Vivien Parry, an impassioned Lady Macbeth. This was an uncompromising performance which cast aside the triviality of so many determinedly 'relevant' performances of Shakespeare - its lighting, set and acting were tight, professional and, although I could wish that they didn't shout quite so much, there was a deeply satisfying sense that you were expected, not only to hear the words, but to understand them - and to hear them thrill with Welsh accents.

All these performances, all different. As we know in Wales when a language dies a world disappears. Watch out for the ACW appeal process, in a locality near you.

author:Jeni Williams

original source: New Welsh Review # 47 Winter 1999/2000
01 January 2000


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