Theatre in Wales

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

National Theatre: 25 Years Ago

David Adams at "Stage Welsh"

The article of 15th April on the critical view from 2003 ended by noting that David Adams had a book to his name. “Stage Welsh” is slim and taut, has no equal in historical scope and is robustly incisive in its conclusions. It closes on a note of grace, its last phrase speaking to the “theatre professionals in Wales whom I respect more than they can ever know.”

The lines that precede are a roll-call of names that have a lineage on this site; Gilly Adams, Phil Clark, Greg Cullen, Dic Edwards, Charles Way, Hazel Walford Davies are among them. The first page too has a mirror list of names to recall. The subtitle to “Stage Welsh” is “Nation, Nationalism and Theatre: The Search for Cultural Identity.” Michael Bogdanov at the time of writing, October 1995, was the most vocal of advocates for a national theatre. But he joined a line of predecessors who took in Shaw, Lord Howard de Walden, Harley Granville Barker, Lloyd George, Saunders Lewis, Richard Burton. Adams' enquiry is into a subject whose roots run deep.

His very first page has a heading in black type “Its back: the Great Welsh National Theatre Debate”. “The Welsh theatre world is divided”, runs the first paragraph, “The public, probably couldn't care less.” One of those is true for 2019. Adams' spicy unrolling sees a context. “The Great National Theatre Debate is really about more than theatre. It is about the state of Wales, about cultural identity, about nationalism and internationalism.”

He then launches into arguments from history. Some of the cast have left the stage and some endure. Kinnock, the elder, and Dafydd Elis-Thomas were on board in 1995 for national theatre. The Controller of the BBC called a meeting which was “snubbed by the great and the good, who were invited, and condemned by theatre practitioners, who weren't.” These read as being lively days.

Adams is sceptical about there being the writers, the directors, the punters even. Cardiff, he says, is a capital the size of the capitals of Slovakia or Albania. He is an enthusiast for the small. He looks at a single flourish of a week at his time of writing. Greg Cullen is on radio, Volcano is in London, Made in Wales is staging a festival of new writing, Y Cwmni is in Aberystwyth heading for the Royal Court. Frantic Theatre is at Taliesin, Dalier Sylw has a satire- an unknown genre ever since devolution. Brith Gof is making riveting television on S4C. And there is more, Adams summarising it all as “new, innovatory, different, Welsh or Welsh-flavoured and despite the “scandal” of the failure to create a National Theatre.”

Adams moves to his underlying argument. Nation gets its scrutiny on a route that goes through wealas, Silures, Ordovices, Cornovii, Decangli, Demetae. But he is forthright. “We need, then, to challenge the myth of a cohesive “cultural identity” just as much as “nationalism” and to ask, why, and in whose interests it was created.” He wades into the thorny thickets of colonisation and decolonisation. On theatre's history he identifies the first Welsh play as a version of “Troilus and Cressida” around 1600. Twm o'r Nant (1738-1810) was the first author to be acknowledged as such, his form the untranslatable anterliwt. At a penny a head Twm and his company could earn a good thirty shillings a night.

A century on, at the time of the founding of the University College in Aberystwyth, companies in England were touring theatre with titles like “Llewellyn, Last of the Princes”, “the Last of the Welsh Bards” and “the Maid of Cefn Ydfa.” A century on once again and Adams is present for the performances of Paupers Carnival, Magdalena Project, Moving Being, Dalier Sylw, Cardiff Lab, Brith Gof, Theatr y Byd.

Critically he places this efflorescence as taxonomically distinct from elsewhere. “A theatre genealogy was started...which has developed into this identifiable Welsh theatre.” From there it is just a step to “a Welsh National Theatre does not feature within this theatre genealogy.”

It is a view of a time argued with some force. The names have changed. The arc of creativity- Clwyd to Franwen, Bara Caws, Opra Cymru, Bold, Scriptography and southward- would be the analogue in 2019. But Adams concludes of the scene of which he is history's only witness: “All these companies- and the other fifty or so that work in Wales- seem to me to constitute a kind of national theatre.”

I diverge. But then agreement is over-valued. In fact it is undesirable in a culture with any bounce to it. And these times are different from when Adams was writing. A border both connects and divides. It is important that art of Wales competes with that beyond Dee and Severn. It is good not just for the performers themselves but for audiences at home as well. The biggest jolt in the time between now and then is the politics. Adams probes with some deliciousness the interlocking memberships of the quangos, all owing fealty and patronage to the Welsh Office. That has morphed into the issue of today; state and nation are assumed to be the same. They are not, but the error, undiscussed and undiscussable, inhibits the culture.

Adams is a vivid voice from a quarter of a century back. His is the voice of the true critic. It is not just that he can frame a sentence and pitch an argument. It is more than that. He cares. About theatre; for itself.

Some of the argument of “Stage Welsh” is encapsulated in pages 17-21 of New Welsh Review 63.

A PDF copy is archived on this site at:

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
26 April 2019


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