Theatre in Wales

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

Aliens, frontiers and the identity industry

GILLY ADAMS reviews a new book about four playwrights of Wales

State of Play contains some twenty interviews with, and articles about, the work of four leading Welsh dramatists Dic Edwards, Greg Cullen, Ed Thomas, and Charles Way. The Editor, Hazel Walford Davies, takes as her starting point workshops and seminars given by the four playwrights in the Drama Department of Aberystwyth University College in 1997, and perhaps she was also inspired by the interviews with individual dramatists that she was commissioned to do by New Welsh Review over the same period. Whatever the incentive, she has brought together here a distinguished set of contributors to reflect on the work of these dramatic writers. In so doing, she reveals a substantial body of work worthy of consideration by anyone who is interested in the history and development of Welsh theatre in the English language.

In itself, the choice of subjects is revealing and immediately provides fertile ground for the debate about Welsh identity which has always been current in Welsh theatre, as in other areas of Welsh life. Of the four dramatists, Dic Edwards was born in Cardiff and has always lived in Wales, but feels an alien within his own country. Edward Thomas is a Welsh-speaking Welshman from the Swansea valley, who has chosen to write (mainly) in English, and whose work is most directly concerned with issues of culture and identity.

Charles Way came to Wales from the South West of England and settled in the Border country in Monmouthshire. His work is concerned with borders and frontiers and is often addressed to audiences of young people or specific communities. Greg Cullen is also an incomer, having exchanged an involvement with political theatre in London for an equally political, but very different, involvement with theatre in the rural community of Mid Powys, and the Mid Powys Youth Theatre in particular. All these writers are "working out of" Wales at this time, to use the Editor's phrase, but their concerns, aspirations and passions are various and remind us that there are many different versions of Wales. Each of them is captured through the technique of the transcribed interview, and given how articulate they all are, there is much pleasure and stimulus in these lively conversation pieces. Charles Way's exploration of his creative process in discussion with Graham Laker, is especially illuminating.

Hazel Walford Davies's intimate knowledge of both the theatre and the academic scene in Wales is reflected in the range and calibre of the contributors that she has brought together for this volume. David Adams, as long standing Guardian and Western Mail drama critic, has been almost the only serious commentator on theatre in Wales for almost twenty years, and probably the person who can claim to have seen the most productions during that time. Released from the confines of the newspaper column he provides an interesting insight into how the work of three of the playwrights has matured and developed over the years.

His essay on Ed Thomas is particularly striking as it introduces the idea of what he calls the "Edward Thomas industry",a phenomenon which has been evident in the interest in and hunger for Thomas' work, which has emerged since the first production of House of America in 1988. David Adams' reflections contrast with the European perspective of the distinguished German arts commentator, Heike Roms, who offers a fresh analysis of Thomas's plays. There is much to provoke and intrigue too in Katie Gramich's exploration of the role of the Welsh Mam in these plays as Thomas's women risk falling into the sentimental stereotypes of mother or whore and are much less dynamic than his dangerous, witty and fluent male characters.

Dic Edwards begins his challenging essay on "Theatre for the Evicted" with a bold statement of his own sense of isolation and alienation. "A culture reflects a unity. Without a unity there is no culture. Wales is not a unity and so there is nothing that can be called Welsh culture" . He goes on to explore how this sense of dislocation has impacted on the plays he has written and in the process reveals himself as someone who is much preoccupied with the world of the intellect and dialectical debate. This is confirmed by what is a major "coup" for this volume, the first publication of the correspondence between the important English playwright, Edward Bond, and Dic Edwards. This has been an essentially private and personal exchange of letters, which has been going on since 1981, where the main preoccupation for both men is the nature and purpose of theatre writing.

Charles Way is fundamentally a teller of stories with a passionate sense of morality. His own essay "Dead Man's Hat" illuminates his view of the importance of narrative in theatre and this is substantiated by the way that David Adams is able to contextualise this work within the theatre in education and community theatre movements. Whilst Greg Cullen's plays have often targeted the same audiences his concerns have taken him into more aggressively political areas, often with historical figures or material as a starting point. Latterly his work has moved more into a kind of"magical realism", which is explored in David Ian Rabey's informative essay "Greg Cullen's Drama: Spiritual Realism and Chaotic Necessity."

The particular observations on each playwright's work are well complemented by more general essays which frame and contextualise the individual writing. Of these, I enjoyed Gill Ogden's examination of the way that the American Dream has impacted upon the theatre of smaller nations such as Wales and Roger Owen's attempt to answer the vexed question of what is a "Welsh" playwright. He concludes that Wales emerges as an essentially contested concept".

Hazel Walford Davies's lucid introduction to this substantial volume provides valuable signposts to its contents, so that the reader who wants to dip in is shown where to go and given enough information to be sufficiently intrigued to make the journey.

For any serious student of theatre writing in Wales, the whole book will be essential reading. The inclusion of collected reviews and photographs from particular productions, as well as chronological portraits of each writer, are valuable as this material is difficult to access since there is no kind of theatre archive in Wales.

As well as its importance as reference material it validates the claim that the work of all these writers not just demands but deserves attention. Given that there are other significant writers, (e.g. Alan Osborne, Ian Rowlands, Laurence Allan), whose work could feature in future volumes, it seems that a start has finally been made on the process of critically assessing what has been achieved in Welsh theatre writing in English in the last twenty years. However, the absence of female playwrights remains a cause for sorrow.

On a lighter note, it seems strange that this book should be dedicated to one of the Arts Council of Wales's senior officers. Given that the ACW's commitment to resolving the difficulties of getting new theatre writing onto the stages of the Welsh theatres and arts centres has been fickle and ineffectual, and that all of these playwrights have been in dispute with the Arts Council at different times, it's difficult to know whether this dedication is intended as a tribute or ironically!

The development of theatre in Wales has been retarded by the absence of any proper critical forum, a seeming inability to take seriously dramatic work which has been created here. At best, there has been the occasional newspaper or magazine article, which does not have space for sustained analysis or reflection, so there must be a huge welcome for this meticulously edited volume of lively and interesting essays.


original source: New Welsh Review
01 December 1998


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