Theatre in Wales

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

History and Comfort Blanket Theatre

A Lack of Historical Representation

The article in the “Summing It Up” series of 31st January, below, dealt with history as treated in print and television by Martin Johnes. Johnes called for an end to the projection of Wales as perennial victim. There is a corollary. The theatre of Wales is slim in historical drama. It takes some reaching back to find examples. “Siwan” dates from 1956. In the last period few stand out. “Franco's Bastard” in 2002 raised theatre to the status of a news item. “Cafe Cariad” from 2007 by Greg Cullen and Tim Price was about the Italian cafes, families divided in allegiance and opposition to Fascism, the mass internments and the loss of life on the “Arandora Star.”

In short, these plays were about things that mattered. The thinness of representation of Wales is nothing new. From previously, February 2019:

“The invisibility of Wales is a long-standing theme of Ed Thomas, declared with gusto at many a a public forum. The same word occurs in the Showcasing Report. “When asking about the shortcomings in Wales, the most commonly cited failing was its invisibility in the field.” Nick Stradling wrote for Nation Cymru on 11th February an article on film that had the headline “While Wales remains invisible on the silver screen no one will know who we are.”

Gareth Leaman wrote for Wales Arts Review 26th January about “a perfect summation of “official Welsh culture” at present: no real representation of ourselves on screen; a superficial idealisation of the natural landscape; exploitation of crumbling socio-political structures. Wales as a hyper-real netherworld in which decaying infrastructure can only be used as props to tell other people’s stories.”

In 2014 Rona Munro wrote for the National Theatre of Scotland a trilogy of plays about Scottish history. It was a co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain. It wowed Edinburgh. I saw the first of the trilogy on the biggest stage there is, the Olivier. The scale was needed for a stunning set and a company of eighteen. There are two facets to this. Firstly, there is not an equivalent to Rona Monro in Wales. I saw her debut play “Bold Girls” in 1990 and she has been in work ever since.

Secondly, Wales does not do a large-scale drama of history. The National Theatre of Wales does not do co-productions with the National Theatre of Great Britain. The plays of history in general tend not to do history. They do pageantry. The point about Rona Munro's plays is that they were about Scottish monarchs and Scottish politics. They mingled good with bad. England featured but there was no interest in displacement of responsibility. It was theatre about Scots in power with fiefdom over their own troubled territory.

Look by contrast at the theatre which commemorated the 150th year of the sailing of the Mimosa. The overwhelming motive was to project virtue. As a motive for theatre it has precedent. It was common in East Germany. But as an animating spirit for theatre with any popular following it is a non-starter. It also presents a tricky difficulty. In the state culture colonialism is BAD. When the Welsh do colonisation they are GOOD. That is the problem with pageantry. Proper history and proper art breathe contradiction, because that it is the way of the world. And it is truth.

The summing-up article of 29th February, below, puzzled over the issue of confidence. Theatre is an aesthetic phenomenon. The location of this lack of confidence goes back to the article 9th February, below. Its conclusion was that nation is strong because it is old. State is weak because it is young. But it manifests its own lack of confidence, in its unsureness, in its requirement that the arts deliver anaesthesia. Wales has good reason to be proud of its historians. One of its leaders said it: “History is not a comfort blanket.” Theatre that seeks to offer comfort defeats its own purpose.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
23 March 2020

 

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