Theatre in Wales

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

My Year of Theatre 2017 (1)

"The arts, the sector for which Welsh Government shows least respect"

My preferred option is a night out a week with a live performance. In 2017 I did just that, seeing fifty-two productions spanning Wales, Manchester and London. (It is the nature of the geography that a train from Aberystwyth reaches Manchester fifteen minutes earlier and Euston forty minutes later than Cardiff.) The best of England has a useful effect in throwing the theatre of Wales into relief. But the first event of the year, the Wales Theatre Awards, did what it should do. It cast a light back on a performance landscape that is its own distinctive territory. In particular it remembered events which had attracted small attention from big media.

Thus the nominations for lighting, for instance, included “Swansea’s Three Night Blitz” from Swansea Grand Theatre & Joio, “Hogia Ni – Yma o Hyd” by Theatr Bara Caws and “Play/ Silence” at the Other Room.

My first theatre of the year, pantomime apart, was “My Body Welsh”, an unclassifiable solo show. “It is the national story explored by theatre-makers who are insiders” was the view here. It had boldness too, the first performance to even dare mention June 23rd 2016. “You don't know what you want” said Steffan Donnelly “So you vote for what you know you don't want. And what you get is something you never wanted in the first place.” That the theatre culture in Cardiff has yet to even make mention of the recent political choices of the Valleys and the northern shore is a strong signal.

Boldness too was on display in “Pink Mist”, my second time seeing it. Owen Sheers has taken a brave course as a writer that is both distinctive and admirable. A thematic continuity runs from the theatre piece “the Two Worlds of Charlie F” through novel and verse. That “Pink Mist” went from page to stage via a Bristol producing company ought to be cause for thought.

The revenue-funded producing theatres did good things in 2017. The Sherman brought about its first-ever co-production with the Royal Court and “Killology” pleased the critics at both ends of the M4. Ever since the retirement of John Peter Theatr Clwyd has been under-reported critically. (The Guardian's arts policy has now given up on regular reporting of Mold in favour of its narrow coverage of Wales.) Theatr Clwyd and the Other Room joined forces for “Sinners' Club”, yet another production with the wow-factor that made it good enough for a prime London venue.

Theatr Clwyd's first part of 2017 peaked with its trio of plays with the same cast that went down well- among a whole host of productions- at the Fringe. It was a co-producing troika as well with Paines Plough and the Orange Tree. As indicator that the entrepreneurial flair of Wales cannot be kept down Flying Bridge, Dirty Protest and the Other Room were at the Fringe. In fact Flying Bridge in 2017 was everywhere, in Adelaide in February and ending in New York City in December. These companies have a name. The Edinburgh reviewers also hailed an entirely new and unknown name in the form of No Boundaries Theatre/ Theatr dim Ffiniau.

A dash of polemic is bracing and writing in Wales could do with more of it. Reading Daniel Evans is a tonic. Gary Raymond was in Edinburgh to file a report “the Vitality of Wales in Edinburgh”. “Scotland has done a far better job of separating itself from London than Wales has” was his assertive opening. It is true in part because Scotland has a politics with red meat to it. I saw in 2017 Ruth Davidson in person holding a young London audience spellbound for two hours. The insights her public performance offered into the fire of public life in Scotland were deep.

That fire extends into cultural life. Not so long ago arts professionals and Creative Scotland were at each others' throats. The issue was salaries-and-pensions for administrators with project funding for the country's most recognised creators. Here it is a long time ago- the last century in fact- since a coffin was carried to the doors of the Arts Council for its all"eged murdering of drama. It does not mean that it may not happen again but the array of good theatre and music is indicator of a job being done well enough.

Raymond took a swipe at government itself. “Ironically, it is in the arts, the sector for which Welsh Government shows least respect, that Welsh identity is most maturely discussed and interpreted.” But even the fiery critic Raymond saw the arts bodies working well. “Wales’ artists now are given an important spotlight by the joint efforts of the British Council and Wales Arts International (the international wing of Arts Council Wales.) The standard on display is extremely high, and it is because of the initial profile-raising of the eight shows included that they have reached the audiences they have.”

“...all eight shows this year are of a very high quality, and they showcase not just talent, but a diverse range of Welsh companies, from the tiny, DIY-style Fringe show to small independent theatre companies to the national companies. But the Wales in Edinburgh badge brings them is its artists who keep flying the flag, and with the support of the Arts Council and others, they have flown it with real class on the world stage at this year’s Fringe.” Since Raymond is an uncowed voice that thumbs-up is good going.

But from occasional utterances- there are not many of them- government and Arts Council seem to be whittling away at the arms-length relationship in small measure. The Arts are supposed to reflect the priorities of government. The phrasing is evasive but if that is to be a criterion then go for a fully open Culture Ministry. The role of a vital culture is not to suck up to power. It is challenger to the status quo, not its flag-bearer.

When Dominic Dromgoole wrote about his time at the Globe he noted that theatre was so defensive “..always looking to find virtuous and socio-political reasons to justify its own existence.” In any case performance seems to be picked on in a way that other art forms are not. Artes Mundi for instance gives no signal that it is expected to be a supplement for other state agencies. The regime at the Glynn Vivyan for instance has removed all the paintings of Evan Walter from public view. The Arts Council does not appear bothered.

Nicholas Hytner published in 2017 an account of his time on the bridge. “There is a real danger in a relentless and exclusive focus on the nature of our audience” he wrote. If funders worry about arts expenditure not reaching the least privileged that is good and right. But policy then deprives such communities of the very things that would attract them. The motives mix hauteur with a dash of puritanism and and probably a lack of capability. “As it becomes less exclusive”- Hytner again- “the theatre re-enters the cultural bloodstream. I no longer wanted to make theatre for people, like me, who were part of the club.”

The full text of Gary Raymond in Edinburgh is at:

The Wales Theatre Awards for 2017 are at:

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
31 December 2017


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