Theatre in Wales

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

Treasure Trove from Wales' Critical Past

All Must Change In Order That It May Remain the Same

Public expenditure is contentious. But then all human activity is contentious. Expenditure on health and crime is alike in contention. Balanced choices over treatment or detection are set against campaigns to prevent treatment or detection in the first place. In London this Easter weekend very large numbers from the Met are not detecting crime at all. They are gathered from far and wide at Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge.

The Extinction Rebellion numbers are not large but the atmosphere is remarkable. Wales is present, a red dragon flag being waved with vigour by the pair of visitors from Blaenau Ffestiniog. The scenes are a tribute to the civil in civil society. But civil society entails trade-offs; some crime will be going unpursued.

Human activity is contentious, and necessarily so. Out of the billion species only humans follow a path of collective self-amelioration. Amelioration requires change and change entails instability. So too the arts; contention is baked in, contention is necessary. Otherwise, it becomes the burnishing of craft of the kind Orhan Pamuk wrote about in “My Name is Red.”

Public subsidy was contentious when it all kicked off in 1940 and has remained so ever since. “The UK is the only country in Europe that has this unaccountable body dispensing public money to the arts.” That was Michael Bogdanov writing in the last century. He pointed the finger at Keynes who “parachuted in his supporters, wealthy or privileged members of the British class elite to become the ACGB. The parachuting has never stopped and the system remains open to abuse as long as there is no public accountability.”

But that is the point. The arts belong to civil society, albeit bathed in contradiction. T S Eliot of all people pinpointed it back in 1948 with his view on culture “recognised both as an instrument of policy, and as something socially desirable which it is the business of the State to promote.”

The arm's length principle is just that, to be beyond account to the paymaster. “Why do we keep on giving money to ghastly people like Peter Hall?” demanded an angry Premier of her latest Arts Minister. At the time the Arts portfolio was as much a revolving ministerial door as Transport was to become in this century. The answer was that Sir Peter- for all his personal qualities- was able to direct a play. For all the power in Number 10 it had its limits on the arts.

Attempts have been regular to corral the free spirits of the arts. A Council Chair was put in “who not only lacked “any particular affection for artists but...regarded them as members of the community who could be dealt with on a summary basis.” Thus Raymond Williams wrote about the late Lord Eccles (1904-1999). Would that a Raymond Williams were with us still to cast his sharp eye upon Wales two decades after devolution.

The arts both change but persist. “There should be little cause for gloom in the arts community in Wales at present...real movement...” Not 2018, a high-water mark for awards and out-of-Wales theatre, but Geraint Talfan Davies writing for Arts News 1st December 2000. Optimism was high: "the visual arts are thriving, while the consensus in favour of a new gallery devoted to Welsh art widens. There is increasing hope that our unhappy track record in large architectural projects will be erased by a long delayed start on Wales Millennium Centre in the first half of 2001.”

And yet. “Yet it is difficult to detect a wholesale lifting of the spirit...The collapse of the Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff provided a big dip in the roller-coaster life of the arts in Wales.” It is a far-off memory now, unknown to a new generation, but it asked to fail.

Official policy in the last century adored generalities, with its “high aspirations for a truly creative society.” And, Talfan Davies observed “It defines the arts too much in terms of social engineering, and while acknowledging the work of the "national remit" companies, seems to do so with little enthusiasm. Those working in particular arts fields will be disappointed if they look for a thorough evaluation of and recommendations for their particular patch.”

Yet another report had recently been published. “It is theatre that will probably have the biggest cause for complaint, since the report demonstrates how difficult it is to achieve a consensus in the area of the ACW's most public failure. In effect, the committee passes the buck back to the ACW asking it to produce a strategy. "Text-based theatre" gets short shrift, on the basis of a questionable assumption that small-scale experimental theatre, in which Wales has a pretty good record, is somehow less "elitist" than mainstream theatre and more "appropriate for Wales".

Audiences in Wales are no different than anywhere else. They go out to things that matter. “We all want a “Black Watch” declared an arts grandee at a public conference in 2007. “Black Watch” was a play written by a playwright. It included a Scots politician in furious contention with a Labour Secretary of State. That will never ever occur in a production of Wales. "Black Watch" occupies a pride of place on the top floor of the Museum of Scotland.

The production was seen by tens of thousands from Sydney to Los Angeles. That too will never happen for a production from Wales. Contention is a sign of cultural good health. The heart that beats without arrhythmia is one that is destined for trouble.

The article from “Arts News, The Magazine of the National Campaign for the Arts” can be read at

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
22 April 2019


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