Theatre in Wales

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

Wales >Alaska

Simon Harris discusses his new play Wales>Alaska and the current Welsh theatre scene

Stop me, if you've heard this one before....

An apparently disturbed young man, immersed in the contemporary music scene, goes missing after a period of depression and self-destructive behaviour. Never far from the oblivion of drugs and alcohol, he dresses the part of the indie rock god - eyeliner, ripped T-shirt, tattoos, piercing - but his anti-heroic image communicates art school chic as much as the sickened rejection of the consumer society he lives in. Anorexic, alcoholic, self-mutilating, he talks of disappearance. He is spotted heading for the Severn Bridge and is never seen again.

Unfortunately, you may be forgiven for thinking that the perfectly ambigious exit of this young man was that of Richie James (Edwards), formerly of the Manic Street Preachers. But this tragedy occurred in December, 1997, not February, 1995, and involved a young homeless man from the Bristol area, who was known to be obsessed with Richie.

Suicide is painless. Really, it is.

If the original disappearance was not tragic enough, its replication makes it all the more haunting and disturbing, illustrating the destructive half-life such actions can have in the public eye. However, in Britain alone, a quarter of a million people go missing every year. The most that one hears of the reality behind this astonishing statistic is the occasional news item and, in such instances, one can too easily glaze over. Moreover, the presentation of news is all about stories and a disap p earance is not really a story - usually, it is a beginning and a middle without an end. During the last six months, while working on my new play, Wales >Alaska, I have been stunned at the number of people, who, at the casual mention of its subject matter, volunteer stories of aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins and wives who have walked out of previous existences never to return. The painful reality for the closest survivors, in such cases, is an abiding hole in their lives and an inability to achieve any sense of closure for themselves. In other words, the feeling of absence is compounded, as in the Richie James case, by a desire to puzzle and interpret in excess of the known facts and, consequently, those closest to the disappeared endure a very anguished sense of doubt. The cruel peculiarity of their experience is one in which there is a persistent feeling of grief without the certainty of death and yet, in time, people learn to cope, developing strategies to graft meaning onto these absurd and inexplicable events. In a surprising number of cases, there are even more baffling reappearances and resolutions. However, in many instances, there is nothing. Or, to be precise, something far more ambigious and uncertain - an interregnum, a pause, a hyphen, a comma, a gap.

It is troubling to speculate on the particulars of an act that inspires such feelings of a flement and loss - most harrowingly for the people who live closest to the aftermath of such an event. A reminder of it is a potential trigger to anger, mourning and grief. In the light of this, and in spite of the inevitable mythologizing that his disappearance was bound to attract, the treatment of the alleged "sighting" of Richie James in Goa last year was insensitive to say the least. Little different from the Elvis-spotted-on-the-Moon type burlesque of The Sunday Sport, it can be seen as nothing less than a cheap journalistic rehash, redolent of the cynical media vulgarity that Richie felt so disgusted by and inherently linked to. Nevertheless, one has to accept, it would appear, that the tactless probing of the family and the band for their thoughts about the "reality" of Richie's disappearance, is just another aspect of the merry-go-round of pop culture and the Faustian pact that the famous make with it. It is a tribute to them, under the circumstances, that they have dealt with these intrusions with such dignity and that the band itself should triumph so supremely with their fourth album, Everything Must Go.

Harrowing as it can be, however, one is drawn to speculate about the disappeared. Possibly for dubious reasons, but more so, I hope, in my case, with an attempt to explore some of the wider concerns that the phenomenon can seem to be expressive of. The vanishing of Richie James was the starting point for an idea in Wales >Alaska, but a speculation on the meaning of disappearance in general became far more important to me than the hagiography of a Welsh icon. Richie may be in Goa, or he might have joined "that stupid club" that Kurt Cobain's mother so succinctly referred to, but, in the end, Richie James disappeared from my play even before I began writing it.

In the same year that Richie vanished, Andrew O'Hagan, a Scottish writer and journalist, published a remarkable memoir, called The Missing, in which he looked at Britain from the early Seventies until the mid-Nineties through the marginal and liminal world of the disappeared. It is a complex and ambitious work that sets out to Tocate a sense of the loss of community and social anxiety experienced in Britain during this time, within the hidden histories and dark worlds of those affected by the West and Bulger killings. In doing so, he hints at the larger macro-economic and governmental failings of the Tory administration and exposes the Thatcherite banality that "there is no such thing as y" in all its tawdry vacancy. The title of his memoir seems to me well-chosen, forTh' Missing refers not only to those who have "gone missing," but also to those who have remained behind and "miss" them. There is a self-evident metaphysical dimension to this experience that I have already touched on earlier and which O'Hagan draws out. He writes: "The world is full of missing persons and their numbers increase all the time. The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead." The purgatorial sense of between-ness that he refers to is of crucial interest for me and broadens out from its ready mystical and religious connotations into something that touches the very sense of who we are and how we construct our lives. We are often told these days, in journals like this one, that, at the end of the second millennium, we find ourselves troubled by the loss of comforting absolutes and forced to confront a future where many of the grand narratives of history and politics struggle for any meaningful application. The crisis of faith in the present is a crisis of faith about the future, because we have lost all faith in the past. The disappearance of certainty creates a culture of unease.

The manifestations of this in Western culture are plain for all to see, taking in, for example, obsessions with serial killers, the occult, astrology and other aspects of the credulous New Age. Harold Bloom, the American literary critic, recently contributed his academic spin on the X Files generation in his book Omens of the Millennium. Aliens, pre scient dreams, out-of-body and near-death experiences, as well as other New Age phenomena, are shown by him to be more fundamen tally linked to ancient religious traditions than we might suspect. With a great synthesising intelligence, he inscribes the texture of a former, lapsed, spiritual world into the worn fabric of our contemporary material reality. Thus, a modernist sensibility confronts a post-mod ern universe and tries to mend it. Whether one accepts the thrust of what he refers to as his "gnostic sermon" or not, it is certainly a bold attempt to incorporate the manifestations of ourfin de siecle confusion into some form of transcendental belief. Erudite as his argument is, however, it is hard to accept that a conviction that Elvis is alive and working in a burger bar in Honolulu is actually the working of an ancient godliness within one, even if it is arguable that it is the pre-millennial equivalent. Belief and non-belief will endlessly co-exist, yet somehow our experience of chaos is more profound now than it has ever been. Possibly, as our control and mastery over our environment increases, we are reminded more forcibly than ever how imperfect are our attempts to do so. In a similar way, as Harold Bloom demonstrates, the religious impulse is more fundamental and endur ing, ironically, than its institutional practice and can be seen to have survived the collapsing of those very institutions that have sought to control and shape it. But it is not just the collapsing of old orthodoxies and absolutes that has led to our sense of confusion, itis thepost-struc turalist assault on the foundations of the Age of Reason itself and the rigorous interrogation of how "meaning" and "truth" are contested and constructed, rather than given or revealed, that has led us to the brink of a new discourse about who we are.


To move from this to thoughts about what is going on in contemp orary theatre writing may seem, in relation, like very small beer indeed. But recent successful productions of plays by writers as diverse as Phyllis Nagy, Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, Martin Crimp and David Crieg have shown to me that mainstage text-based theatre is belatedly willing to embrace some of these possibilities as well. For some time, it seemed, mainstream new writing was loath to discard the naturalistic and social-realist tradition that had served it for decades "authoritarian dramas," as Howard Barker describes them, that articulate their "messages" and camouflage them as "ques tions." SeIf-defeatingly, there has seemed to be no higher ambition at play within this tradition than to train writers for television. Whereas the likes of Barker himself, David Rudkin and Snoo Wilson - vision aries of the theatre - were treated with bemusement and some disdain during the Seventies and early Eighties, and where even now Barker is the only one to have found some form of audience for his work.

In Wales, where a sense of the fantastic has always come in handy, it is our socially marginal status that has enabled us, perhaps, to be more open to the development of an avant-garde and anti-naturalistic theatre, as evidenced by such companies as Brith Gof, Moving Being, Volcano and Y Cwmni-Fiction Factory. In the last twenty years, there has been a burgeoning tradition of theatre-makers seeking to chal lenge inherited theatre forms and to question the universal suitability of the Aristotelian model to their experience. The classic architecture of beginning, middle and end has been subverted in favour of a poetics of drama which is non-narrative, non-naturalistic, and affirmative of performance elements beyond the text and the single authorial view point. There is much sense to the argument that, in the absence of an established playwrighting tradition in Wales, this form of work has taken on the character of our national theatre.

Exciting and welcome as this work has sometimes been, however, it is making no great claim~o state, I hope, that text-based theatre can and should be as accessible to the forces of innovation as any other form of theatre and that the requirements of story-telling are not necessarily inimical to the impact of a post-modern aesthetics. In Wales, we ought to be particularly well-placed to appreciate this and Terry Eagleton's comments, in the preface to his play Saint Oscar, offer a useful reminder of it:

If like Wilde, your history has been one of colonial oppression, you are less likely to be enamoured of stable representational forms, wlucli are usually, so to speak, on the side of Caesar. You will find yourself a parodist and parasite, bereft of any imposingly continuous cultural tradition, cobbling one together as you go along. Your writing will tend to set up home witli anti-realist fantasy and imaginative extravagance, forced often enough into these modes as poor compensation for a harsh social reality. If the language in which you write is, like Wilde's, the tongue of the colonial oppressor, then it is unlikely that you will avoid an intense verbal self-consciousness; and language will seem to you the one surviving space where you might momentarily be free, wresting a pyrrhic victory over an inexorably determining history. The colonial subject, pitched into a permanent crisis of identity, will not be overimpressed by the solid, well-rounded characters of classical literary realism, but will feel itself fluid, difiuse, provisional; and the same sense of provisionality will apply to social forms arid conventions, breeding an ironic awareness of their fictive, un-grounded nature. In these as in other ways, there is a secret compact between artistic or theoretical experiment and the experience of colonialism, one still much in evidence today.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Eagleton writes this about a dramatist who created the Importance of Being Earnest.

Ideally, the spirit of experiment and innovation should feed and invigorate the mainstream, not be inimical to it, yet in Wales there seems to be a culture of mutual suspicion. Occasionally, the main theatres open up their stages to give a platform to these companies, but a willingness to countenance an exchange of practice or personnel is almost unheard of. The theatre scene in Wales is stratified and hierarchical, riven with suspicion and petty feuds, and the talent that flowers in the emerging companies can often wither for lack of en couragement, ossify for lack of challenge, or go elsewhere. As a consequence, the mainstream itself becomes impoverished and bor ing. In terms of generating distinctive new plays, Welsh writers are caught between the rejection of the writer completelyandadiminish mg audience for a derivative product. If the spirit ofthealterna tive is truly the character of our national theatre, there has to be a space for a more sophisticated dialogue.

One aspect of this might involve a re-orientation of ideas about what constitutes "the real" and how that has an impact on narrative - the beginning, middle and end of drama. Some years ago at a performance in Cardiff of Anna Karenina adapted for the stage, a friend, heavily involved in the experimental wing of Welsh theatre, turned to me and remarked, "Naturalism it's dead, man." When I stopped laughing, that moment crystallised a few thoughts for me. Of course, the narrative of dramatic text need not necessarily be the starting point for a new poetics of performance, but it need not preclude it either. The performance we saw was a sophisticated blend of many performance styles, including naturalism. There seemed to be an unwillingness to accept on its part the audience's mature ability to read the "realism" in the performance as one "coded sign" among a number of other Signs. I found myself reminded of Christopher Hampton's remark about Brecht's theories for an anti-naturalistic theatre: "Well, if we're not in the theatre, where are we?" The exploration of a new poetics need not necessarily involve the endless fragmentation of narrative, especially in a culture where theatre-going is a newly acquired and infrequent activity and where audiences can be all too easily alienated in a way that Brecht had not anticipated. These thoughts were foremost in my mind when I came to work on my own adaptation of Caradoc Evans's Nothing to Pay.

A founding father of Anglo-Welsh literature, Caradoc Evans was known to many as "the devil in Eden" and "the most hated man in Wales". Even now he is a focus of some controversy, but the interest for me lay less in the novel's undoubted contemporary significance - the clash of the country and the city, the struggle of the Welsh to define and express their difference against a more powerful neighbour, the negotiation of sexual power, and the place of human feeling in a materialistic society and more in the aesthetic and stylistic joy of the story-telling. Viewed from one perspective, the novel is nothing less than a snap-shot of Wales at the birth of its psyche and a journey into the heart of its darkness, but it is not social realism. Dai Smith has described the Wales of this period as being on a journey "through the looking glass " and this is a useful phrase in giving a sense of the story's surreal and fantastic heart and soul. The self-consciously poetic lan guage, the ironic tone, the unreliable narration, the subtle deployment of parody and generic reference points, the sense of mythology and folklore underlying the story, particularly at the start of the novel, prefigure many of the developments in post-modernist literature and the very fictiveness of the tale, it seemed to me, was part of its relevance to the debate about modern Welsh identity and the notion of how we invent, imagine and represent ourselves to the rest of the world. The production of this adapation, by my own company Thin Language, was extremely success with both audiences and critics alike, in London and in Wales. David Adams, Wales's only theatre critic, pronounced it "the show of the year," but it took four years to gather the support to enable it to be staged.

Fortunately, it would be much easier to get such a project off the ground now, but it was disappointing that Badfinger, the play that Thin Language produced at The Donmar last year, playing to packed houses, receiving rave reviews and garnering a commendation for Most Promising Playwright in Tlie Evening Standard Drama Awards in the process, will not be seen in Wales due to the lack of interest from the theatre managers - one of whom in Cardiff could not even be bothered to respond to our numerous letters and phone calls. Never theless, it is clear to everybody at the moment that something akin to a Welsh cultural upsurge is underway with the success of Welsh bands, Welsh film and the occasional theatrical export. Surely, the drama establishment in Wales cannot be unmoved by these successes and their undoubted affinity to the momentum apparent in the wider youth culture. It seems to me that far too many of the people in positions of power, especially in theatre, are resistant to change and outside influence, have grown too old in their jobs and have become too embattled (by an admittedly difficult funding climate), to have a clear and confident vision of the future.

Even in Welsh television drama, there have been murmurings recently of a determination to provide a diet of what is referred to as "brown bread" TV. This is accompanied by an observation that the "problem" with too many of the writers emerging in Wales, at the moment, is the emphasis on the aesthetics of language and character, rather than action and the traditional mechanics of plot. This seems to me to be out of touch and old-fashioned. Tn one sense, language is action. It is, among other things, the arena wherein power is con tended, reverberating between the characters involved and affecting their physical environment. But it is also, as Eagleton points out and Ed Thomas argues, a space where a culture of defeat can transform itself into one of self-assertion. But more than that the reductive conservatism of such a stand-point completely overlooks the ease with which contemporary youth culture has absorbed the pluralistic and mongrel nature of the changing world around it. The young audiences that flock to the plays of Mark Ravenhill or Martin McDonaugh are less bothered by imposed notions of structure and linearity. Writers, like myself, wishing to speculate on a fragile sense of identity at the end of the twentieth century find a ready audience in this generation, who are all too aware of the provisional and fluid nature of their experience. The modern world they recognise and appreciate has space for many forms of expression. In life, as in story-telling, there are no givens or universals; nor should there be. All that matters is what works. Sadly, the modern market-driven obsession with presentation and packaging - neatness and tidiness has spilled over from America into the arts here, mitigating against distinctiveness and the unorthodox, in favour of other forms of baked goods.


Gwyn A. Williams has claimed The Mabinogion's shape-shifting magician, Gwydion, as the presiding spirit of Welsh history, throwing off one identity after another, yet always remaining the same. Simi larly, I am struck by how commonly shape-shifting of a different kind - disappearance - has featured as an image in Welsh drama, as it spans the forty years from Return Journey to House ofAmerica. In the former, it is the fate of the narrator himself to discover that he has disappeared, unrecognised, and presumed dead by those he encoun ters. It is a play suffused with nostalgia for a lost past where the very identity of the writer-narrator is threatened by the loss of a reassuring history and the impact of war-time on a sleepy town. In House of America, the missing father is a totem of uncertainty that spills over destructively into fantasy and incest. The sense of his absence and loss resonates from the personal lives of the Lewis family into the social, where community has broken down and the raging imaginings of an abandoned family has its own restless, chaotic and assertive energy. Both plays resound specifically for me with the painful sense in which industrial south Wales has changed during this period, but they also describe the randomness of living in a secular and absurd world where "things fall apart." In the same way that death upsets human structure and linearity, exposing individuals to the chaotic practice of life itsel{ fiction can also transform death into the shape of ghostly hauntings and doublings. It is part of the post-Romantic character to internalise the concept of death and give it new and protean forms, so, if it can be argued that disappearance is a surrogate death, then it may be as strongly argued, conversely, that our millennial sense of the end of things a form of death - will give rise to the prevalence of disappearance in our fiction. Like others before me, I find myself drawn in Wales >Alaska to writing about just such a haunting, where a man assumes the identity, or becomes the double, of an old friend who has vanished and then disappears himself.

As I have argued, to vanish forever is to enter the unknown. Perhaps, it is also to reinvent oneself, to leave worlds behind and, in a sense, to become exiled. Those who disappear exist in a gap between being and non-being, where the existential meaning and sense of such an act must besought and contested, remaining provisional, fluid and contingent. There is no closure - its meaning is eternally opaque, uncertain and ambiguous. Like a perverse story, it is a beginning and a middle without an end. My own story is that I am a hyphenated Welshman. I mean by that, I am Welsh with an English-speaking identity. I exist on the border between two worlds, where sometimes my English-speaking self takes flight from its Welsh roots and where sometimes my sense of Welsh belonging draws me back. The edge of that border manifests a double self, denoting and connecting one to the other, where my Welshness disappears into its Anglicised other. As an actor, I choose to spend more time away from my home. As a writer, my imagination dwells there. I hope, before too long, to have written the end of my new play Wales >Alaska. Unlike the Wales of my imagination, Wales, Alaska is a real place. It is situated at the tip of North America, the furthermost point of the State of Alaska, and overlooks an inhospitable stretch of water to an alternative, distant and dimly perceived continent.

Somebody told me once, they saw Richie James there.

author:Simon Harries

original source: Planet #128 April/May 1998
01 April 1998


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