Theatre in Wales

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


A former Cardiff city- centre jazz bar is paying host to a new generation of Welsh playwrights. Penny Simpson reports

Glittering candles and shadow-lit faces: Jacobean horror meets today's council estate in Wolfskin, a 20-minute dialogue by Aberstywvth-based writer Lucy Gough.

It's a raw evening in February in an upstairs room in a city centre pub. Formerly, the Four Bars Inn and host to some of the world's best-known jazz musicians, it's now been transformed into an improvised home for a community of actors, writers and directors anxious to write a new page in the history of late 20th-century Welsh drama.

Yes, the RAW nights are back at Dempsey's Irish Bar in Cardiff, but there's a new twist in the cocktail: the script-in-hand readings continue alongside revivals of contemporary Welsh "classics", and a season of new comedy nights. The RAW initiative, launched eighteen months ago by actress Clare lsaacs, initially survived on little more than pints of goodwill and commitment from its network of supporters. However, it succeeded in finding an audience - sometimes over one hundred people could be found crammed round its tables and bar - and even grew off-shoots, like the series of monologues that found their way into the middle of a techno-circus performance in a Cardiff warehouse. Word-of-mouth gave the event a certain kudos; the atmosphere of an Edinburgh fringe venue, a sense of discovery.

This track record is something Chris Morgan and Rebecca Gould, RAW's new artistic directors, are keen to build on. Chris is a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where he has worked as both actor, writer and director (he probably helped build sets as well), whilst Rebecca is associate director of Made In Wales, the Cardiff-based company for new writing in English.

Both were keen to expand on RAW's programme of script-in-hand readings. The result is Medium Raw, a mini-season of plays running alongside the monthly Raw Nights. The season features works by established playwrights, which have been critically acclaimed, but all too rarely performed following their original premiere productions. The first season will present plays by Peter Gill, Sheila Yeger and Sean Mathias.

"The idea was to put these very new scripts into some kind of context," explains Chris Morgan. "It gives an audience - as well as the writers themselves - a chance to measure their work up against their contemporaries. The new work is not then seen in isolation. What we see here is a continuity with what has already been achieved by companies like Made In Wales and writers like Gill, who are more usually associated with venues like the Royal National Theatre. Comparisons can be made and debates started."

It's a departure that fits neatly into recent moves being made to document the progress of Welsh dramatists. For many years, there has been this sense that new plays in Wales are only ever produced once and, if you blink, you might miss the production of the decade. There has been no stock of new plays to draw on and without the commissioning, producing and interpretation of new works, there is no means of effectively judging Welsh drama against the wider context of a European theatre tradition.

Over the past twelve months, steps have been taken to redress this situation. Parthian Books, the University of Wales Press and Comer have recently published a mix of play texts by contemporary Welsh playwrights and collections of critical essays surveying their work; there have been restagings of early works by Edward Thomas and now Dempsey's is paying host to Cardiff's first pub theatre.

As far back as 1992, plans for such a theatre were mooted at a conference titled No Place To Go? organised by Made In Wales. There were heated debates about the dearth of outlets for new writers and even more heated debates about what should be done to increase opportunities for writers at all stages in their careers. One of the guest speakers at that conference was Tom McGrath, the Scottish playwright and dramaturg. He identified a key element in the development of his country's dramatic heritage: the role played by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in nurturing major new talents, such as John Byrne and Liz Lochhead. The importance of a cultural base like the Traverse was crucial, he argued, because it enhanced the sense of participating in something new, something relevant, for new generations of writers and theatre goers: "Increasingly, it is the writers who are making their own way, regardless of what the traditional theatre can or cannot do on their behalf," he stressed.

The RAW nights at Dempsey's pub theatre are, hopefully, going to act as a similar catalyst here in Wales, providing audiences - and writers - with a central meeting point for collaboration and critical debate.

"We're starting small - very small! - but then you look at places like the Gate in London and what they have achieved in a space not much bigger than ours and you can see the potential of what might happen here," Rebecca points out.

Venues like the Gate and the Almeida have revitalised the West End with production transfers that echo the signings of big league matches. Dempsey's could well field the next major playwright for one of Wales's mainstream venues. Progress is already being made. A forthcoming collaboration between Made In Wales, BBC Wales and the Welsh College of Music and Drama will provide a new script for a full-scale production at Dempsey's in May.

Collaboration is a key watchword for the artistic directors, who appreciate that cross-media partnerships might help raise the profile for their bar room bards: "We want to build up opportunities where we can," says Chris. "Theatr lolo are coming in to stage their new show and we are also working with Humphrey James on the Half Baked improvised comedy nights. It's an organic progress and we want to keep things moving."

author:Penny Simpson

original source: New Welsh Review
01 March 1999


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