Theatre in Wales

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

Taff but not naff

Irish and Scottish writers are the toast of British theatre. Now it is the turn of the Welsh.

How ironic that the Arts Council of England chose to announce an extra 100m in spending on theatre over the next three years on the set of a Welsh play, Art and Guff. Wales has often been the poor relation when it comes to showcasing new playwrights: whereas Scotland has the Traverse in Edinburgh and England the Royal Court in London, Wales has no similar institution to attract the energy of young voices.

Sgript Cymru, the new national writing company for Wales, and the producer of Art and Guff, was an antidote to this situation. After surviving a complicated birth last May, it has become the new focal point for Welsh writers who write in either language, and has a budget of 170,000 per year (though it receives 90,000 less than previously provided by the Arts Council of Wales). As well as producing Cath Tregenna's Art and Guff, which premiered at the Soho Theatre, London, Sgript Cymru was also behind the national tour of Gary Owen's Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco, which stopped off at London's Lyric Studio this week.

Wales seems to suffer in comparison with Ireland and Scotland when it comes to expressing its identity through theatre. New work from Ireland is everywhere, and the influence it exerts on British theatre can be traced back over 300 years - from Sheridan, Wilde and Synge to the likes of Sebastian Barry, Conor McPherson and Gary Mitchell. With runs in the West End and all over Britain, Irish and Scottish writing has now been legitimised. Wales has no visible canon, so the only way to create a history and theatrical identity for ourselves is through new writing. But why is new Welsh theatre so conspicuously absent from the mainstream?

Jack Bradley, literary manager of the National Theatre in London, says the strength of regional voices lies in "their inherent musicality - whether it be the hard east-coast demotic of David Mamet, the plangent, lyrical quality of Conor McPherson or the modern north London argot of Patrick Marber". Yet the Welsh use of English has traditionally been ridiculed - "look you, Boyo" language is somehow hard for English ears to take seriously.

Writer and director Ian Rowlands is in the vanguard of trying to create a national theatre for the Welsh language. In his latest play, Pacific, he writes, "We are the first and last colony," and dismisses reinvention "for it presupposes that we had been allowed to invent ourselves in the first place". He claims that the Welsh have only "survived in the way that England has wanted us to mutate. Now's the chance for us to invent and define ourselves for the first time."

Sgript Cymru artistic director Bethan Jones, who ran the Welsh-language new writing company Dalier Sylw for 10 years, suggests that Welsh-language writers stopped writing state-of-the-nation plays in the 1980s. "Welsh-language plays have moved on from the crisis of identity to plays about people, relationships and situations. Up until now those writers who wrote in English strained to find an authentic voice."

Some, though, still champion their Welshness. The lyrical, emotional writing of Ed Thomas is unashamedly "state of the nation". With the feted House of America, he made the theatrical pilgrimage to London, but found his last play, Gas Station Angel, less well received. Thomas's mercurial work subverted cliches and showed that Taff is no longer naff; the old stereotypes were transcended, and the way Welsh people defined themselves was taken in a new direction.

New Welsh work is no longer insular. Sgript Cymru is working with the UK's most accomplished touring company of new work, Paines Plough, to take Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco around the country. Gary Owen's remarkably confident first play peels away the cracked veneer of a small town - which just happens to be set in Wales. Audience reaction around Britain has been positive, although director Vicky Featherstone initially wondered how people outside Wales would respond. She says she wasn't just looking for a "Welsh" play, but for "contemporary work that hits the mark", adding: "Gary's work has an incredibly honest energy."

For Welsh theatre to truly thrive, we have to be comfortable with multiple Welsh identities rather than a single face. Simon Harris, associate director of Sgript Cymru, says, "I want to escape a climate where a play is thought to be saying 'this is Wales', with all the attendant pressure and incompleteness. Instead, we need to give rise to a range of new archetypes, fresh voices expressing the true pluralism and diversity of the country. Only then will we be creating a new mythology for ourselves."

Britain has always had the odd writer from the "first and last colony" who has escaped Wales for a wider stage. But now there is a resilient energy emanating from young Welsh writers who aren't hung up about who they are, but are more concerned with the quality of the stories they tell. It may be too soon to evaluate their worth, but their promise lies in the strength of the stories.

Art and Guff is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (020-7478 0100), until March 31, and at Chapter Arts, Cardiff (029-2030 4400), from April 4. Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco is at the Lyric Studio, London W6 (020-8741 2311), until April 7.

author:Krishnendu Majumdar

original source: The Guardian
14 March 2001


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