Theatre in Wales

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

Nineties arts-speak is not enough

GRAHAM LAKER reflects on two very different accounts of the future of theatre in the next millennium

Theatre will only exist as long as it satisfies a public need. Periods of theatrical innovation and expansion have usually corresponded to those times when theatre was able to provide a voice, a public forum, or a picture of the world which expressed ideas which could not be articulated elsewhere.

The extraordinary explosion of dramatic activity in Elizabethan London was largely due to a public hunger for a forum in which a voice of cautious dissent could be heard in opposition to the Tudor political ideology, endlessly promulgated from that other "official" forum, the Church. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was the Intimate Theatre movement, with productions of plays by Ibsen, Strindberg, and 7ola, which was instrumental in popularising discussion of a plethora of radical scientific, political and social ideas. And forty years ago, the Angry Young Men of the Royal Court Theatre articulated a social need to analyse the "state of the nation" in post-Imperialist Britain. In each case, theatre was, for a time, the primary means for society to debate with itself in a changing world

Two publications, concerned with the development of theatre in the next millennium, have just come my way. One, The Future of Theatre, by drama critic of The Times, Benedict Nightingale, attempts to forecast what sort of theatre Britain will have in 2020. The other, Boilditig a Creatioc Society,a Consoltotion Paperono Strategy for the Arts ill Wales, has just been released by the Arts Council. Nightingale's short book is quite a lively read; the Arts Council document is not but then consultation papers rarely are. The terms of reference of each publication are, of course, very different. Nightingale's predictions are relatively up-beat: he identifies what he sees as the current strengths ‘of British theatre and its international prestige. In particular, he sees enormous promise in the young writers, nurtured by the Royal Court and the Bush Theatre: Jez Butterworth, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane et al

Unlike their predecessors, these dramatists had no obvious ideology, no political credo, no social agenda ... They observed the urban British quizzically, reported the contradictions thev saw, and left the audience to reach its own conclusions.

He is also heartened by the new generation of directors, who can move effortlessly from main stage to intimate studio spaces: Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes, Deborah Warner. The book as a whole is an exercise in star-gazing in every sense, and is, perhaps inevitably, Anglo-centric and metropolitan.

Building a Creative Society is a much more downto-earth affair, setting out a number of strategic options for developing the Arts in Wales in terms of fundamental objectives, art-form development, access and participation. The primary thrust is that, with declining resources, grant-aid can no longer be allocated according to historical precedents: art-forms may increasingly need to compete with each other for resources, and the traditional division between "revenue" and "project" funds is likely to disappear. Readers are invited to respond to the document as a whole, and to a series of accompanying papers, specific to certain key areas. One of these is a briefing paper on Drama.

What both publications largely fail to do is to address the issue of whether there is going to be a continuing public need for theatre in the future. There is very little discussion of what a theatre in ten or twenty years time might do to attract the lively interest of the public, and, therefore, justi{v its claim to continued state support.

The context for any discussion about the future of theatre has to be the reality of almost 20 years of declining subsidy. As far as central Government is concerned, the argument that Arts provision needs a steady and expanding investment from state funds has effectively been lost.

Theatre will, for the foreseeable future, be increasingly dependent on Lottery income; it will need to take its chances among all the other "good causes" competing for support. I suppose it is conceivable that the new Welsh Assembly will buck what is by now an international trend, by giving a much greater priority to Arts funding, but it is about as likely as the Assembly suddenly deciding that it will, after all, base itself in Machynileth. As the Arts become more and more dependent on one-off applications to the Lottery, the principle of regular, increasing provision of funding is lost. We have all seen the results: fewer theatre companies producing less work, less live theatre in the programmes of venues, and declining audiences. Gradually, a visit to the local theatre SlipS out of the repertoire of people's leisure activities; going to the theatre becomes an occasional special event, something to be done once or twice a year as an expensive treat. This is why West Fnd musicals continue to pull in audiences. The idea of theatre-going as a regular part of everyday social life has gone for good. We're back with need: as everyone knows, once you break a habit (smoking, nail-biting, chapel-going, whatever), the need will also eventually disappear.

Neither The' Future of Theatre, nor Building a Creative Society offers any clear account of why this should change. Both documents accept that there is not likely to be any return to the funding levels of twenty years ago. So, what conditions could obtain in the early years of the next millennium to reverse this trend of declining audiences? What can the theatre do to ensure that the public demands greater access to performance events?

Benedict Nightingale asserts the oft-repeated claim that as gratuitously inoffensive television proliferates, we will all be driven to seek more social forms of leisure activity: "People yearn to be active and (at times) communal, not passive and desolately surfing dream-land . . . the electronic revolution will put a fresh premium on physical immediacy." This may be true, but why it should lead us back into the theatre rather than joining embroidery clubs, or playing five-a-side football, or rioting in the streets, he doesn't really say.

In fairness, the Arts Council of Wales document does attempt to justify the continued need for the Arts. This is the first paragraph of the introduction to Building a Creotive Society:

The Arts are fundamental to the development of Wales as a forward-looking and dynamic country. In the next century success will lie with those societies which can nurture and mobilise the creative talents of their people. Jobs increasingly will be in the knowledge-based and creative industries. Cultural activitv will be crucial to the profile of Wales in its international setting, to the growth of an inclusive societv and to a sense of national and personal identitv

Why is it impossible to read this without feeling mildly depressed? It's not that it's complete bullshit: somewhere in the midst of its "nineties-speak", there are some nuggets of truth. It's not even the ease with which the statement elides into a view of the Arts as just another component of Enterprise Wales. No, the problem is that it could have been written by Tony Blair, or Ron Davies or even Prince Charles; certainlv not by Ed Thomas, or R.S. Thomas or Dylan Thomas or any other Thomas who has ever done anything genuinely artistic. If asked to subscribe to such a statement, they, along with Euripedes, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Henrik Ibsen, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Joe Orton, and today's young Turks at the Royal Court would reply with a resounding "Up Yours, mate!"

It's one of the great ironies of state subsidy that any Arts Council has to argue its case on the basis of the dominant political ethos. Individuallv, of course, Arts Council officers and members know that the Arts have quite a different agenda: thev will chortle with as much glee as anybody else when a performance of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking at Swansea Grand has the City Fathers foaming at the mouth with rage. Institutionally, on the other hand, the Arts Council of Wales feels that it needs to act as an extension of the Welsh Office, which to all intents and purposes it is.

Whether the National Assemblv will introduce any fundamental changes in the structural relationships, governing Arts funding remains to be seen, but it's good to see that Arts promoters and presenters are currently meeting with a view to influencing whatever decisions are made. I hope that theatre will survive into the next millennium, that it will find ways to respond to a public need. My own prediction, for what it's worth, is that, as so often before in its history, the means will be a process of questioning, undermining and subverting the ideological consensus. As a start, it could do worse than question, parody, and turn on its head everv Blairite/New Iabour/centrist/ "enterprise culture" / "people's Britain" statement in Building a Creative Society.

The Future of Theatre by Benedict Nightingale, is published by Phoenix Books, price 2.

author:Graham Laker

original source: New Welsh Review #41, Summer 1998
01 June 1998


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