Theatre in Wales

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

Theatre- a nation is responsible for itself

Carl Tighe- New Theatre Writing In Wales (9)

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 article concluded on the perceived deficiencies.

Much of what has passed across the stage in Wales in the fifteen years has been frankly irrelevant to the lives of the people who live here- although of course a great deal more relevant to their ambitions. At worst it has been a parade of West End rehashes, examination set texts and amnesiac froth. One thing is certain though: the next fifteen years will be different. Political and economic changes are set to test the integrity of the theatre. In some ways the process has already begun. In 1984 the Wales Arts Council's proposals to abolish all touring companies to fund two “mainstream” companies two “mainstream” companies united theatre practitioners of all kinds, English and Welsh, in a storm of protest and demonstration. Even five years ago it would be hard to imagine such a commonality of purpose, direction and mutual support. The Welsh Association of Performing Arts, Theatre Writers Union and Equity are all stronger, better organised and better informed than they ever have been, and that brings with it a level of understanding such as the Welsh Arts Council and theatre managements have not had to deal with.

The Welsh Arts Council now faces an Inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. Kim Howells, the Research Officer of the NUM, has soundly berated the writers of Wales for their failure to engage with the issues of the Miners' strike. Cwmni Theatr Cymru is bankrupt for the second time in five years, and the small scale touring companies are expressing increasing concern at the effects the plush ghetto of S4C is having on their audiences. As a conference hosted by Brith Gof in September 1985 the question was openly asked: “why is it that Poland can produce such spirited, engaged and inventive work, while Wales cannot?” Meanwhile in its “keystone” opening production of “the Winter's Tale” the new Sherman Theatre Company has clearly grasped the milk-cow firmly by the udders and gone for decadence of style and content.

It is clear that Welsh theatre is in a transitional phase and it is highly likely that the changes will make it even more politically aware business in future. All concerned will have to be acutely aware of who they are playing to and why, and the obligations of theatre, especially a national theatre, will become increasingly obvious. And this is to be devoutly wished for because this very basic level of thinking, understanding and debate has been missing from Wales and the theatre of Wales for so long. Now that the rows about allocation of WAC funding have died down a little it should be possible to get down to the business of forging a Welsh theatre, rather than just performing theatre in Wales.

But what does the future hold in store? The present certainly holds clues. Welsh theatre indicates not only the difficulty of making theatre in Wales not only in the subject matter that it does or does not prefer, but in the very structure of the business itself. Wales has no writers' company. It is significant that the capital city of Cardiff should have to wait until 1985 to get its own resident main stage at the Sherman- which is still, after all, a part of the university, rather than a commercial enterprise. There is no overtly political theatre such as 7:84 in Wales. There is very little in the way of serious theatre criticism. And it significant that twice within five years the WAC should find itself subject to the scrutiny of a House of Commons Committee.

Perhaps the most interesting and ignored fact about theatre in Wales is that it is not the main stage companies, the TIE or community companies who have won international acclaim for their work, but the rather adventurous experimental companies. It is they, who in a country where audiences are divided on linguistic, geographical and social lines to an extraordinary degree, have found ways of exploring themes and narratives through the language of image, sign and gesture, frequently dispensing with scripts and words altogether. It is these companies who have responded most adequately to the totality of their environment, and perhaps they are the real “political” theatre of Wales.

There is more than one “perhaps”. Perhaps we have been looking to theatre companies and writers to do the impossible in Wales. Perhaps theatre writing is not a viable concern under these conditions. Or perhaps we are the victims of that centralist education I mentioned earlier. Perhaps our traditional concept of a writer's place within a theatre is too wooden, too out of place here. Perhaps we need to forge an entirely new relationship. Perhaps our appreciation of writers in a national theatre is too close to the English model after all. Perhaps as the Cardiff glitterati come to dominate the taste of companies like Made in Wales, and after them [but not very far behind] the Torch, Clwyd and Swansea Grand, the audiences will not be able to bear any great level of politicality. Perhaps the touring companies will remain too small or too marginal to take on major themes with any hope of winning audiences.

Either way there is no reason why the experimental companies should not be persuaded into a closer relationship with writers. Polish experimental theatre, which on some levels has had an important influence on the experimental companies of Wales, has a profound, flexible and productive relationship with writers of all sorts. One only has to think of the subject matter of Jerzy Grotowski's various experimental and his relation to the Wroclaw Laboratorium's literary advisor, Ludwig Flaszen, to see the possibilities.

There are those who persist in seeing the possibility of a Welsh National Theatre company. Usually they see it as either a theatre without writers, or as a theatre modelled upon the Abbey. I cannot imagine an Abbey in Wales. Such a theatre cannot exist simply because the national feeling that created the Abbey does not exist here. Theatre is one of the ways in which a nation is responsible for itself, its history and its future. It may be that Wales already has the theatre it deserves.

I said at the start that there is a tunnel that connects the theatre in any nation with the national consciousness. In Wales the connection exists. Compromised and deeply schizophrenic, it exists.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
09 June 2020


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