Theatre in Wales

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

Geography Determines the Arts

Things That Matter at the Arts of Wales

Guests sometimes turn up on television discussion shows with a label “cultural critic.” I wince more often than not. If a piece of art is worth anything at all, it is that it deserves attention. That is attention in its own right, to itself, conceived and wrought as an entity unto itself.

The drawback to being a “cultural critic” is in how it is to be a member of a richly variant, multi-cultural, mobile urban society. No one individual can sample more than a small part of the cultural array. The efforts of critics are better applied in honing their perceptual and descriptive faculties towards a deeper appreciation of the work before them.

And yet.

We are hard-wired to extrapolate, to generalise. The particular is instantaneously linked to the genus, a part of the lower brain's fight-or-flight mechanism. Erroneous extrapolation is a well-known topic in philosophy but we are servants of the drive for gestalt. A large number of reviews on this site with my name to them might well be just that. A thousand is nothing in the natural world. The thousand-plus might just be a thousand items within an ecology that is substantially larger.

But the urge to connect, to make conclusions is strong. I have more than once declared one general conclusion. It was in the opening of the submission I made to the Senedd enquiry into the arts to the effect of "a performance culture whose quality and scale belie its size. No community of three million in the world has a larger.”

But the arts are various across forms. Poetry, music, stand-up comedy hold their own on a pan-British stage and beyond. But novels from Wales do not bust onto the Booker short-list. Dramas of Wales do not jump to the unsubsidised theatre. There has been one in the last decade, but it was a play written in 1950. The most expensive canvas by a Welsh artist can be bought for around £200,000. That hardly raises an eyebrow in the art world.

The histories of Tyneside and Taff-side have more factors in common that unite than separate. But it is “Billy Elliot” that plays worldwide. Its Broadway gross is $183 million alone. There is no “Billy Evans” storming the world theatre.

There are causes to all things, even if the working of cause and effect is often misread. Propositions to remedy issues of concern are more often than not shallow. The underlying factors that shape the arts of Wales are not obvious. Human affairs are usually traceable to a governing factor; the microcosm is the macrocosm. We are watery things, sixty percent in our composition. Trace any issue back to its source and water plays its part. It takes three hours plus, on a good day, to cross England, Liverpool to Hull by rail. The historic reason is water, the rivers between the cities flow east and west. Wales is as it is because Taff and its companions flow in a different direction to the Dee.

The flow of water is made by the disposition of rock. After water, carbon is the biggest part of us, 18% of a body mass. The centrality of Wales is rock. Jan Morris phrased it inimitably and soulfully in “the Matter of Wales.”

“The substance of Welsh nature is largely rock, for some four-fifths of the surface of Wales is hard upland, where the soil is so thin that stones seem always to be forcing their way restlessly through, and it feels as though a really heavy rain-storm would wash all the turf away. The softness of the valleys, the calm of the low farm lands are only subsidiary to the character of the country: the real thing, the dominant, is hard, bare, grey and stony.”

Rock is a subject of Kyffin Williams canvases. There is an appropriateness that the artist made his craggy images without the use of a brush. The land around the Glaslyn estuary was the territory of Robert Graves. His poem “Rocky Acres” opens:

“This is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.”

R S Thomas is the true laureate of the uplands. Page 1 of the “Collected Poems” has the lines:

“The shadow of the mountain dwindles...

“Shall we follow him down, witness his swift undoing.
In the indifferent streets: the sudden disintegration
Of his soul's hardness, traditional discipline
Of flint and frost thawing in ludicrous showers
Of maudlin laughter; the limpid runnels of speech
Sullied and slurred, as the beer glass chimes the hours?”

The poem is called “Out of the Hills.” Wales is pouring out of the hills as never before. The biggest factor to hit everything, leading with government, is the decline in population. If it presents the most serious challenge to government, so too it presents a challenge to the arts, what it is about and what gets made.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
05 January 2020


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