Theatre in Wales

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

Art and Stuff

Jeni Williams writes on recent theatre in and from Wales

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.
So says Simon Harris in an interview with The Guardian's Krishnendu Majumdar (March 14, 2001). A difficult project: Wales and Welshness aren't just formed from within but imposed from without. There are two forms of bigotry: that which sneers at cultural difference and that which reduces it to stereotypes. They are both in evidence in the reviews of Catherine Tregenna's Art and Guff: a Welsh play that opened in London's Soho Theatre this March. The theatre's puff describes the play as 'a brilliantly observed comedy about two Welsh writers in London to "give it a go."' It is very funny, if uneven at times, and Tregenna has both an excellent ear for dialogue and fine sense of structure. But the play is darker than this puff suggests - the friend I went with thought it 'pretty grim' - and more interesting.

Art and Guff is the second of Sgript Cymru's commissioned plays. I was confronted by what seemed, at first, to be an updated kitchen sink drama - though lacking both the vicious mysogyny and the imperial longings of a classic like Look Back in Anger it was certainly set in the kitchen. But if, on the surface, there were formal similarities with that older form, differences under the surface demonstrate its divergence from the inherited form, not least in its foregrounding of questions of a Welsh (rather than gender or class) identity. The London reviews were fairly positive, detecting Pinter amongst the soap elements. But there was no awareness of any significance in the nationalities of the characters (two innocent Welshmen, a predatory Englishman and a sycophantic Scot). The 'Welsh' character of the play was linked to what The Guardian's Lyn Gardiner called 'the shadow of Dylan Thomas' (March 9) - as if Thomas himself had not lived out a Romantic fantasy of dissipation but something 'Celtic'.

The Welshness of these two writers is central to this study of the cultural displacement and shock of two rural boys in the big city. The more creative, and more depressive, of the two is Art, (short for Arthur, his sister Guinevere has been left behind in Kidwelly) while the happier figure of Guff is named after a cartoon cat, Garfield. A myth and a joke: the Welsh as they are seen in London. No surprise then that the predatory 'hippies' from the downstairs flat are a slimy English waster, Nicky, ostentatiously demonstrating his education through the apt quotation, and his younger Scottish girlfriend, Sues, tagging along, keen to be cool. Nicky praises the castles of Wales (which Art has never visited) because he 'loves history'. Unsurprisingly, Art says he can't stand that 'Arthur stuff.' Reducing Welsh writing to its stereotype Nicky claims that 'Dylan Thomas has a lot to answer for,' and patronises Art behind his back as 'a man of many neuroses - all of them dull and provincial.' Nick lives up to his name, first invading the pokey space of Art and Guff's flat, taking over the sofa and appropriating their possessions.

Art and Guff is an interesting play because behind its humour lies a study of bullying that combines cultural and personal elements. The relationship between Nicky and Sues, for example, is an unequal one of her distrust and his domination. Nicky steals Art's lighters and, as the play progresses, the light, music and comedy run out. None of the critics seem to have understood the cultural subtext of this encounter - for example, Alan Johns in The Times considers that 'the play falls apart [whenever]… Nicky and Suse, gatecrash … It's as if Tregenna wants to rewrite The Caretaker as slacker comedy and it doesn't work' (March 12). The Independent's Rhoda Koenig might pick up on it in her 'annoyance' at the play but she seems quite unaware of the significance of her choice of words when she claims that 'the play's sole interest is provided by two neighbours who dub the pair "Bill and Ben", colonise their flat, and mesmerise the downcast Art … this strand fades out before it amounts to much' (March 14). Yet this jumpy hybrid of a play demonstrates exactly the impact of that colonising strand. The Independent doesn't review Welsh productions in Wales.



The tired cliché that in a postmodern world, because of the triumph of capitalism and consumerism, the social narratives of history are dead, seems increasingly a cynical luxury. Capitalism continues to create its victims: environmental disasters, the pollution of animal and human foodstuffs, floods of political and ethnic refugees. But times do change, people can make choices but they need the language of alternatives. The case for writing as the human voice that inhabits these wastelands is made by the American poet Adrienne Rich. To Rich language is the common medium, and poetry is that which 'speaks of our desire … reminds us of what we lack, of our need, and of our hungers. … keeps us dissatisfied.' It is no accident therefore that Rich associates political apathy with a decreasing facility with words. If this is the case for poetry how much more so is it with theatre, the dialogic space where, as Dic Edwards is fond of saying, conflicting voices are framed in debate.

Moves are afoot for change. And not just in Wales. Though I don't agree with everything that Michael Billington says, it's interesting that he should review Kay Adshead's The Bogus Woman and Timberlake Wertenbaker's Credible Witness as examples of a wider return to political theatre. ('Theatre of War: the return of anger to the stage' Guardian, 17/2/2001). Perhaps this explains my delight at seeing a poised and challenging (University of Glamorgan) student production of Howard Barker's superb Victory in Chapter last December. This was a production which enabled students to think about the nature of history and the purposes to which historical narratives are put. Barker's awareness of the relation of power to the use of language seems, if anything, still more relevant today in its concern with the flattening out and degradation of language - and hence of individual agency - that shadows the corporate value system of an established central bank. In Victory, the 'heroine', Susan Bradshaw (played with enormous authority by Vicky Charlton), fixed on an Isis-like quest to gather the scraps of her husband's exhumed and dismembered corpse, is the only figure who can see clearly, uncontaminated by the decaying state and its degenerating language, the only one to speak clearly, in measured tones, without obscenities. Directed by Andy Smith, this was a beautiful production, self-consciously playing with and subverting the comforting modes of costume drama. There were some wonderful tableaux, frequently underlit for extra effect, carefully chosen music to destabilise and offset the dramatic narrative and performers whose disciplined stillness commanded attention. A testimony to the value of revisiting a complex written text and, for this viewer, a decadent pleasure in powerful and significant language.


I might have felt uneasy at the politics of revived Prayer for Wings, but that seems nothing to the debates that have raged on the Theatre-Wales website over Gary Owen's play, Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco (Chapter, 9 February). Produced in conjunction with Paines Plough, this play was Sgript Cymru's first commission. It consists of three monologues linked one after the other in an argument (thesis/antithesis/synthesis). The first voice is that of a violent, homophobic bully, the second, one of his victims, psychologically unstable as a result of the experience, and the third, once his friend, also a victim, filled with self-loathing and unable to function properly or break free from the past. Keith Morris has expressed delight at the impassioned interchanges about this show. I'm not so sure. What has characterised the discussion has been a focus on what has been seen as the legitimising effect of foregrounding the vicious first voice with very little attention, if at all, being given to the production itself. The concern with content has driven both author and commissioning company to defend the show from accusations of promoting the vile attitudes of the first protagonist. I think that this is in part because of the play's form: the monologue.

These characters present themselves as story, quite different to something like Victory which distances its characters, setting them in webs of ideology in the form of language games from which they cannot extricate themselves. Crazy Gary's voice may be similarly struggling in repeated patterns (as the reference to the redemption he associates with finding 'the perfect girl' suggests) but because it functions alone it achieves a perilous mastery on the stage. The actors must employ the technique of the radical stand-up comic, exerting an uncomfortable power by manipulating and controlling their audience. What the play reminded me of more than anything else was a Victorian dramatic monologue (the most famous being that of Browning's murderous Duke in 'My Last Duchess'). The theatrical monologue, the stand-up and the dramatic monologue all create a peculiar discomfort in the reader as she is dragged into an alignment with views wholly antithetical to her own. These forms reveal something of the personal crises of identity that dog what we continue to term our postmodern space, for they highlight a baulked desire for a political and/or interpretive frame. In each case the spectators/readers are thrust on their own resources, forced to transpose and connect the three stories, forced to 'read' rather than consume the play. Crazy Gary is tame compared to many current films. I too loathe characters like Gary but is it the voice itself or the absence of a clear moral frame that constitutes the problem? I would like to see an awareness of the function of form in creating narrative. Personalisation marks an avoidance of the political - if taken personally. It isn't true that, as a friend commented, Crazy Gary could have been a radio play. It's that drama-as-monologue rests on the individual voice in an empty space: a soliloquy without the dialogue created by the social interactions of the more conventional context. For myself I'd like to add that I thought the actors and set were well thought out and uncluttered and there was some very striking writing but the play was overlong and needed editing and the closure was too neat.

The monologue is an increasingly popular form (David Adams has just finished editing a new collection for Parthian). It's worth considering why this should be so. Perhaps it demonstrates an identity politics withdrawing from the narratives of society - hence the difficulty of framing and interpreting Crazy Gary's voice. If so it could be interpreted as emerging from the diminution of the role of theatre: poetry has similarly been diminished in its social reach by its increasing association with the lyric mode and a confessional content. Perhaps. Yet it's no coincidence that the Victorian monologue concerned itself with the insane, the murderous, the power-crazed. As soon as the identity expressed in the monologue is associated with a marginalised subjectivity a resistant politics and a more vibrant voice emerges. The speaking self is conflicted and politicised by this issue: there is an enormous difference between, for example, the kinds of selves revealed in Ian Rowlands's Marriage of Convenience and Alan Bennett's Talking Heads respectively. A friend commented that one of the great advantages of emigrating to Australia was his escape from the middle-class claustrophobia of Alan Bennet. Rowlands's new monologue, Pacific, seriously debates the history and impact of British imperialism on both its complicit internal colonies and on the new colonies devastated by men who mistake themselves for gods. The version I saw (Sherman, March 14) was the only one with dancers, They shouldn't have bothered. The play's strength lies in the voice of David Samwell, Captain Cooke's Welsh surgeon these figures served merely as distractions. It's a magnificent text, beautifully written and deeply serious. Samwell defines himself through his relationships with both Cooke and the recipient of his messages, letters and thoughts, Iolo Morgannwg. Wider debates about nationality and responsibility thus frame the central guilt-ridden voice of this monologue. Difficult to deliver and Richard Elfyn delivered it all at one intense pace. He did a superb job with such a literary piece but I think it would have benefited from slower, more reflective moments. A different kind of play however, a different use of the monologue form and much more dramatically interesting than Roger Williams's revived Saturday Night Forever (Sherman, March 16) A cardboard gay Romeo and Juliet which depended on developing a stand-up rapport between performer and audience and traded in sentiment, stereotype (gay man as fairy, gay men as victims) for its effect. Form matters: the writing would have been far more powerful with more dialogic complexity and less TV slickness. This was an entertaining production considering the limitations of the script.

Sgript Cymru has chosen to address the questions of form (screenplay/Radio/stage play), of subject matter and of reception over the past few months. Where their first Xplosure asked 'what shall we write about?' their second provided an interactive space to explore the audience. Harris describes the company as, like so many others, 'struggling against the odds to deliver quality and excellence.' I commented briefly on the success of the second Xplosure (Chapter, 25-27 January) on the theatre-wales website and would vigorously promote these events as invaluable experiences for writers.

Two other productions concern me here. These are more in line with the 'traditions' rightfully pinpointed as strengths in Wales by the Culture in Common report: Small World Theatre's community project in Cardiff's Ely estate and Earthfall's physical dance theatre.


Considering the issue of identity within the theatre texts I have discussed here it is interesting that that most of the protagonists struggle to escape their inherited spaces in order to move to a new space and to leave their histories behind. But over and over again this struggle leads to deformity. So too with new writing in Wales. As Harris points out, we need 'fresh voices expressing the true pluralism and diversity of the country'. Rich instinctively turns to American television to illustrate the increasing limitation of human expression in her country, claiming that 'the range of articulateness has really diminished down to almost a TV level, [and that] to hear people speaking with rich figures of speech, which used to be the property of everybody, is increasingly rare.' This is why the richness of a new writing culture is so valuable. The title of the Culture in Common report alludes to the eclectic and expansive vision of culture developed by the great Raymond Williams. Both Small World and Earthfall would of course fit very comfortably into the remit of the report, Rowlands, Matthias, Tragenna and Owen do not - but they most definitely should.

author:Jeni Williams

original source: New Welsh Review, April 2001
01 April 2001


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