Theatre in Wales

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

Ever present mirage of Welsh National Theatre

Carl Tighe: New Writing in Wales (7)

Carl Tighe was active in Welsh theatre as writer and commentator from 1969-1987.

In the winter of 1982-1983 the magazine "Arcade" circulated a questionnaire. Its results provided Carl Tighe with material and quotations for a substantial article on new writing in Wales. Its first version was published in "Platform" issue number 5, Spring 1983 under the title "From Tremadoc to Sketty Hall."

The article ran to 9300 words. The seventh part continued with theatre policy.

The Welsh Arts Council, through the Arts Council of Great Britain’s magazine Arts in Action 1983, has expressed its concern at the unwillingness of the Welsh main-stage companies to perform and commission new work. This unwillingness is probably the most difficult barrier to overcome. Undoubtedly theatre is the most social of the arts and therefore the most socially sensitive of the arts. So what does this reluctance mean? And what significance does it have for the playwright in Wales?3

Both The Torch and Theatre Clwyd see themselves as serving geographical areas. They perceive very little demand for new work in those areas, and this late in the day, it is unrealistic to expect them to manufacture such an audience overnight. Audiences brought up on a diet of classics, West End successes and examination texts cannot be expected to rush to new plays unless those plays are presented as competent, relevant, exciting and legitimate. Sadly the hesitancy of the theatres communicates itself very effectively.

There is a place for showing Welsh experience through or against the experiences of the classics; there is a place for works which are relevant to Wales through some intermediate subject (e.g. Irish and Scottish history) and there must be a place for the conduct of a theatrical debate about Wales – past, present and future – through images, dialogue and characters constructed by the people who live in Wales.

There must be a space for recognition, challenge and interpretation without the classical ‘filter’ to put it all at one safe remove from the people who comprise the audience. That is to make it terribly safe, and while it makes fine, steady box-office, it does little to help playwrights find an audience. The refusal to allow playwrights into the creative process is quite literally the refusal to let Welsh theatre into the mainstream of Welsh cultural life. In this connection it is worth pondering the links between the failures of Welsh theatre in general and the decision of 1 March 1979. One thing is clear: it is not possible to lead a debate about Wales with the classics and West End hits.

Theatre is embedded in the social context. It responds to social, political and linguistic pressures in ways that the other arts do not, and, with this in mind, it may be that the failure of Welsh theatre to produce theatre writing talent is in itself a subtle form of self-censorship and conformity, a very precise indication of a deep-seated uncertainty about the Anglo-Welsh in the scheme of things.

Perhaps there is no unique and individual Welsh theatre because the Anglo-Welsh find themselves sandwiched between a language which is strange to them and a culture to which they are still alien. The word ‘Welsh’ is after all the Anglo Saxon word for ‘alien’, and it can hardly be an accident that while playwrights in Wales struggle to get their words on stage, experimental theatre, often making no use of words at all, flourishes. Likewise it can be no accident that no overtly political theatre company like 7:84, Joint Stock or Red Ladder, has developed in Wales.

And this brings me to the distant but ever present mirage of the Welsh National Theatre – a topic that has caused tempers to fray over the last decade and which looks as if it will continue to do so. Wales has a network of companies and venues; it has directors of note and droves of talented actors. Yet, somehow the realisation of a National Theatre slips away at the decisive moment. Perhaps the time has come to be brutally honest. A National Theatre is not just a building; not just a company; not just a spectacular season; not just a grant earmarked at the Welsh Arts Council; not just a West End transfer; nor is it ‘star’ names on billboards, not TV interviews, nor press launches, nor even tours abroad. It is all these things and much more.

In the 1970s the factor that the planners and campaigners for Welsh theatre left out of the calculations was what exactly would go into these buildings. And that is precisely the factor that is missing from all talk of a Welsh National Theatre. A National Theatre must have something distinctive to say for itself – preferably something that is unique. A National Theatre must have good quality writing. Without playwrights there can be no Welsh National Theatre.

Look at Brecht in Germany. Look at Yeats in Ireland. Look at Shakespeare in England. To name a company or a building ‘The Welsh National Theatre’ without first fostering talent among theatre writers to make it live, is simply to build a vain and pointless folly. The development of Welsh theatre, such as it is, has been conducted over the last few years by the Welsh Arts Council, local government and by theatre managements. No matter how well intentioned, these bodies are ill suited to an initiative and interpretive social role.

The consequences of leaving further development in their hands alone will be enormous, not just for playwrights, or even for the theatrical profession, but ultimately for the cultural life of Wales as a whole.

In many ways the developments of the future lie with the writers of Wales. Doubtless they are drawing their own conclusions about theatre in Wales and the possibilities of ever seeing their work on stage in Wales. The lesson for them is clear. If they wish to prosper, they must forsake the garret and become active sales representatives for their work; they must insinuate themselves into every crevice of Welsh theatre and make loud rude noises at anything which threatens to hinder their progress. To protect their professional interests and to offer guidance to the administrators, they must band together either as a pressure group or as a union. They must begin to take themselves and their work seriously.

On balance the last four years have seen some improvement in the Welsh theatre scene, and in the position of playwrights. It is still far from thriving though. The continued existence of Made in Wales Theatre Company must now be judges essential, if only since in their workshops, surgeries and rehearsed readings they are slowly creating the kind of environment where playwrights can improve and prosper. Made in Wales now accounts for between a quarter and a third of all the commissions in Wales.

It is not a brilliant record; it is not even a good record: there has been a slight improvement, yes, but it has been sluggish and certainly no cause for euphoria. In order to put these figures into perspective it is necessary to remember that they represent the sum total of new work by playwrights in Wales, and it is useful to compare these figures with those from England during the same period. According to recent Theatre Writers Union findings in 1981 alone the Liverpool Everyman staged no less than 10 new plays. Between 1980 and 1983 Derby, Stoke and Coventry Repertory Theatres offered no less than 18 new plays. And in less than 3 seasons Birmingham Rep offered 13 new plays. Let us hope that Welsh companies can be encouraged to make similar efforts."

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
07 June 2020

 

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