Theatre in Wales

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

My Year of Theatre 2017 (3)

"Official theatre has so little interest in history"

Reviewing theatre in Wales is great but not easy. The touring seasons bunch into two peak periods. Take a week off at the October half-term and that is two productions missed. In mid-November I had press releases for five productions over a space of three days. If “Nye and Jennie” is returning in 2018 that means that “Tiger Bay” gets preference. But my last six weeks of 2017 were as good as any. I would never normally get to see the maker of Wales' best album of the year. But there live on a Sunday night, thanks to Angharad Lee, was Rufus Musafa in full flow in Aberystwyth's studio space.

Theatre is a broad church. The journey from forty-five performers on the vast WMC stage to St Margaret’s Church Hall in Mountain Ash could not be greater. “It is a commonplace that Welsh theatre has a scant theatrical canon.” That was how I wrote it three years ago. “But 2014 saw an admiring monograph on J O Francis written by Alyce von Rothkirch of Swansea University.” It was the same year that Blanche McIntyre made her superb production of Emlyn Williams’ “Accolade”.

There is an irony in that the historians of Wales are so good but that the official theatre has so little interest in history. It is in part the lure of heritage. Heritage's best anatomist is Richard Lowenthal. Heritage's first feature is comfort, he says, and that is not a good basis for art. Had it not been for Llafur, the history group, I would not have met the historian Mary Owen in Mountain Ash. Had it not been for that I would not have learned how popular J O Francis remains among the grass-roots of community performance.

“Granton Street” could not be described as a production close to the polish and finish of the revenue-funded companies. Its budget was miniscule and its appearance at all in the hands of an outlier company remarkable. But then that is also symptomatic. A serious reviewer in the form of Lewis Davies was present for its final performance for Wales Arts Review. The size of readership that the reviews attracted was massively greater than the audience numbers who actually saw it. Philip Burton's play manifestly touched a nerve in the culture that made it an event of 2017.

The Lottery pot has shrunk and the contraction of touring is to the loss of audiences in the West. Of the productions I failed to see the whole lot that stormed the Fringe would come first on a retrospective wish-list. In Cardiff the productions would be “Killology”, “the Mountaintop” and Alan Harris' “How My Light is Spent.” “P.A.R.A.D.E.” was cause for a particular sense of what was missing. The television coverage, reviewed in November, was an achievement. Its edited version conveyed a strong impression of what the live audience was experiencing. Equally so to see it from a sofa in a partial form was to be left knowing well what was being missed.

Whittling down the array of 2017 to a personal top half-dozen is as tough as any year- and probably just as questionable. The result looks as diverse as any mini-list might be, thematically and conceptually. The have scenes that are set in Dresden and Butetown, a Soho at its raffish peak and a Bala thirty years in the future. As varied as any half-dozen might be they hold three things in common.

Each one forged a palpable rapport between players and audience who came in good numbers. In the scenes of quiet confidences between Sonya and Yelena in “Uncle Vanya” the attention from the audience to Tamara Harvey's production was total. Seiriol Davies and his two companions were booked for an October night in Aberystwyth's Studio. In the event the booking had to be quadrupled to meet demand. The woman who sat beside me for “Sinners Club” rocked and swayed more or less throughout. At the close she, a stranger, felt impelled to share her delight. Strangers talk to one another. That is the impact of liveness.

The second connector is that all had form, pattern, pattern-within-pattern, the foundation stones for aesthetic experience. Those are a couple of long words for giving audiences what they have always wanted ever since they gathered in an open-air Athenian arena. Theatre in London had two peak productions with a documentary base. But both “Oslo” and “Ink” had authors at work manipulating the drip-drip episodes of life into the rhythm and form of drama. Simon Stephens, giving the public address at the Bruntwood Prize a while back, told his audience never to forget the “wright” in “playwright.” Craft precedes art. James Graham and J T Rogers are dramatists but they are also craftspeople.

But then as John Mullan wrote intellectualism has moved on to graze on other values. “Plot has lost its prestige” writes Mullan “In fact, a good plot is one of the highest arts. If we doubted the intellectual challenge of a complex plot we should perhaps notice the problems that writers have getting their plots to work...Not a sequence of connected is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design.”

Structure is the basis for audience just as it was five thousand years ago. Those who cannot deliver form have not just lost the will. They have not put in the graft to acquire the skill.

Lastly culture is vital when it conflates past with present in dynamic re-rendering. Daily human life after all is present action based on past experience. Clwyd put on Chekhov in the round. Simon Harris took the intensity of Ibsen's family situation and transmuted it into twenty-first century Nordic. “Tiger Bay” took on a great cross-section of Cardiff's history in all its peak wealth and poverty. “How to Win Against History” retrieved a small piece of the history of Wales which all concerned had done their utmost at the time to erase.

Ten years means repetitiveness but sometimes what was said once still holds. Three years ago to the day I wrote “There was hardly a week in 2014 when I was not cheered by actors and singers, singly or in a group, and I am grateful to all of you. These were the six that went the deepest.”

Knock out the “4” and replace it with a “7” and it remains true.

My personal crop for 2017:

“How to Win Against History”

“Little Wolf”

“Sinners Club”

“Tiger Bay”

“Uncle Vanya”

“Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
02 January 2018


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