Theatre in Wales

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

Rich diversity masks the sense of crisis

ROGER OWEN reviews a new critical study of theatre in Wales

Let's get the pleasantries out of the way first. Staging Wales is hugely welcome, and hearty congratulations to all concerned. The need for a volume such as this is so great that, initiallv, it mav not even seem that obvious. Critical discus- sion of theatre in wales has been neglected to the point that many may think that there's nothing to talk about at all. Staging Wales may start to change all that.

Anna-Marie Taylor's collection of surveys, reviews, anecdotes, analvses and provocations encompasses a wide range of performance forms and methods of discourse, and is both accessible and challenging. It features contributions from writers, directors, critics, researchers and all-round practitioners and binds all this varietv into one compact volume whose focus is, for once, solely on theatre. Within the field of studies in welsh culture, it will, hopefully, make theatre a little harder to ignore, since it provides tangible evidence that welsh theatre exists and must be reckoned with (so, even if you don't read it, you can at least brandish it!). One may also be hopeful that this will be encourage many more books discussing, debating and challenging the role of theatre in contemporary welsh society. At present, and at everv level, the need is great.

The pleasantries over, what does this book actually say? Its most obvious feature is breadth. Indeed, all other considerations would appear to have been sacrificed in order to allow as broad a sweep of the welsh theatre scene as possible. Accordingly, the meaning of "welsh theatre" appears to be an almost unfathomable entitv, incorporating professional theatre in both English and Welsh, new drama in both English and Welsh, communitv theatre, Theatre-in-Education, amateur theatre in Welsh, professional actor training, physical theatre, contemporary dance and site-specific performance work.

This breadth of reference, of course, reflects the rich diversity of work undertaken by theatre and performance companies over the past twenty years, and also, pleasingly, reflects the general lack of hierarchv in the nature of that work. Wales is not the domain of the great urban playhouse, and so a conventional critical discourse - presuming the natural dominance of mainstage professionalism- is well dispensed with. The resultant fragmentation, neatly embodied bv the volume, becomes the true index of cultural practice and of cultural identitv.

Simon Baker, introducing his review of English-language drama in Wales during the 1960s and 70s, develops this point, noting that "It is...conventional to make a virtue of discontinuity, and to argue fragmentation itself constitutes the onlv continuous experience we have", and adding, "... this is onlv everan imagined communitv, and in artistic endeav- our no writer can legitimatelv claim to be disinterested, or to speak authoritatively on behalf of evervone involved."

Taylor embraces the inexactitude described by Baker by adopting a "deliberately eclectic" editorial approach which gives free rein to the contributors to air a wide range of opinions, discourses and practical priorities. Hence, Nic Ros delivers a polemic denunciation of much Welsh-language drama of the 1970s and 80s; Mike Pearson offers a critical analvsis of theatrical form, as a means of arguing for an alternative mode of performance work; while Dafydd Arthur Jones offers something more akin to a tribute to a significant outpost of amateur theatre, Theatr Each, Llangefni. All this critical caprice makes for a livdy, accessible and unpredictable read, and also serves the serious purpose of denying an easy overview: arguing instead that each essay has to be read on its own terms.

The relationship between them is thus far from straightforward, and the volume resists the kind of reductive definitions of Welshness which might have been more acceptable before 1979. In that sense, it certainly succeeds in conveying a sense of the changes seen during the past twenty years. But there is a problem here. The eclectic approach, while allowing many different voices to be heard, refuses to qualify them in anv way. This implies a kind of parity - they are all representative of "Welsh theatre". However, some contributors go much further than a mere representation of activitv, but rather actively advocate the need for redressive action and a renewal of the medium. For underneath Staging Wales' celebration of the diversity of Welsh theatre, there is a sense of crisis.

Many of the essays declare, note or imply that theatre is in big trouble, either because of the inconsistency of public subsidy, its restricted appeal across social barriers, or because of the dominance of the mass media and entertainment industries. It is not, of course, uncommon to hear theatre folk bemoaning the state of things, and regarding themselves as uniquely hard done by in a cold, uncaring world. But many contributors to this volume go beyond such carping, and express a real concern about the future of the medium. Several see an incompatibility between structures of funding and the search for new, or more effective, forms of theatre.

For example, Greg Cullen and Dic Edwards condemn the lack of funding channelled towards new writing, which means that Welsh drama is still a comparatively rare feature of Welsh theatre. Geoff Moore, in an article originally written in 1993, argues forcefully that public arts policy is being written "by new bureaucrats... in the language of business-speak" (he who pay's the piper not only calls the tune, but also chooses the instrument); and Gilly Adams notes an emphasis on "'performance indices' and 'quality assurance' rather than on ideas and ideals". Gill Ogden, outlining the history' of Theatre-in-Education in Wales, similarly warns that its future prospects could be bleak, merelv because of ever-tightening education budgets and local authority r corganisation.

The larger question of theatre's capacity to relate to or affect its society is also considered bv several contributors. Paul Davies of Volcano Theatre warns of stage drama's need to be able to resist the appeal of "developing systems of technology that may render the culture of theatre an increasingly formal thing of the past . Mike Pearson suggests many possibilities for performance in a Welsh context imply a move away from pre-existing theatrical structures. Ewart Alexander states succinctly: "If you ask people to forego Coronation Street for something on at the Welfare, then you had better be sure of your product". Theatre, in its more formal or traditional manifestations, seems to be in a parlous state.

Many of these basic concerns about the future of theatre are at odds with the form of the book. Its emphasis on variety and abundance, diversity and parity, has the effect of trivialising some contributions, and reducing urgent arguments to the status of sound bites. "Welsh theatre" can be regarded as a medium in double crisis, one of identity, the other of function. Both elements caught in this crisis, "Welshness" and "theatre",could be described as unstable, ephemeral and insubstantial, from one point of view at least; but from another, both could be seen as reflecting and affirming a real connection between people.

Theatre is fighting an increasingly private, technological and spectacle-driven culture, and there is no going back. Contemporary theatre needs to define a role which puts itself in strong opposition to such culture - and fast. Indicating a variety of current activity is no answer in itself. So, although Taylor's juxtaposition of professional, amateur, community and physical theatre is welcome, some kind of greater focus, some kind of committed response to this very basic question of the need for theatre, really ought to have been included in a volume like this.

author:Roger Owen

original source: New Welsh Review # 40, Spring 1998
01 April 1998


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