Theatre in Wales

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

The problems - and pleasures - of entertainment

JENI WILLIAMS reviews some recent new theatre productions

Let no-one say that there isn't any variety in the theatre on offer In this article I have the pleasure of discussing eight productions bv seven different companies, all \\'ithin the past two months: three striking experimental pieces; the shoe-string production of a two-woman ensemble based in Swansea, a Welsh company seeking a distinctive identity; a youth theatre caught between experiment and the classics - and a company seeking the status ot a 'national' theatre for Wales.

What unites all of these disparate productions is the ongoing and consuming problem of the relation of theatre to audience. Any company, whether professional or amateur, has to struggle not only to find and sustain an audience but also to define itsclfin relation to that elusive fragmenting entity, competing with other attractions which offer entertainment and pleasure. This is where the wonderfully named Forced Entertainment comes in with their teasing study of boredom and seedy p]easure - or the pleasure of boredom. Pletisitro itself dares at times to be boring, to make the audience question its desire for immediate gratification. The weary DJ in the corner serves as compere with his monotonous repeated comments as to why 'modern life is rubbish', the exotic performers are reduced to the drunken head of a pantomime horse, pouring whisky in through his eye, and the tired 'Hawaian' dancers, occasionally gyrating in unconvincing grass skirts, slightly pod gy, definitely non-erotic flesh bound in black underwear. These elements beautifullv comment on a world of commodification where desire is a commodity like anvthing else, where 'fun' shores up emptiness.

Gob Squad too takes this problem of theatre and audience as its starting point. Its Close Enough to Kiss is a perfect piece of postmodern theatre: a dance-like procession of dreamy figures moving up and down inside a long, illuminated box of mirrors. Before the performance started all the audience could see was itself reflected back from the mirrored exterior of the box, though presumably the performers could see us: once it started there was the usual reversal. Though at first it seemed that all we got was a collage of different movements without any sustained narrative -snatches of disco dancing, bizarre masks, perilously high heels, children's bubbles drifting and bursting inside the box, changes of costume from the banal to the stereotyped 'exotic' - what we saw was gradually complemented bv the introduction of voices, at first external, then overhead on a child's red telephone, then finally spoken.

These voices spoke of the desire for connection,from the fantasy connection of telephone sex, but this time with strange requests for home cooking and 'a nice cup of tea' to illustrate a need for security more than lust. It was a gentle quiet production, highly mannered with plastic flowers and ironic ironing. I went to see the show with four other people and it is interesting that the three women loved it and the two men hated it (one prefering to discuss Chapter's excellent beer).But, like Forced Entertainment, it seemed to me that the company engaged beautifullv with bubble world of control, a world characterised by the search for pleasure in place of something not present, not understood but absolutely necessary. What the beautifully named Gob Squad do next I don't know but Close Enough to Kiss was a multicoloured gem.

Swansea's Grit Theatre couldn't have been more different. Their production, Shiva, clearly had no truck with such navel-gazing. This production was solidly about domestic violence and marital abuse. It moved from the self-disgust of the abused woman to a final self-deliverance, as, having blown up innumerable balloons, the two women left their domestic traps behind and were symbolically washed clean of the pollutions of the past. It was an uneven performance - sometimes very powerful indeed, sometimes too closed to allow the audience room to manoeuvre. The counter-pointed voices of one scene drew together a suffocating alliance of outright abuse ('look at the state of you') and insiduous control ('I can't live without you') - Sylvia Plath's young man 'masturbating a glitter/ he wants to be loved'; in others realist video shots wordlessly re-enacted domestic violence and childhood innocence; one with a voice-over drew attention to the fear and actuality of marital rape ('you know you'll enjoy it'). Lots of talent and some striking acting but the problem seemed to be the relation of the performance to 'real life', Apparently from personal experience, the two actors want their production to show both the paralysing effects of domestic abuse and the possibility that the situation can change. This desire to fix the meaning is a double bind, for theatre works best through loose ends that the audience can weave together, replay and rethink after the event. Yet there was a lot that was good about the performance and I look forward to the next one.

Made in Wales's latest production, My Piece of Happiness, is a very different kettle of fish (as they say). It locates itself squarely with an 'issue' - relationships and, specifically, sex, between young people with learning difficulties. The night I saw it the theatre was packed and the audience seemed generally happy with the production. I felt uncomfortable with it however. Settling so clearly on a topic like this throws up its own problems: it seems to simplify issues, produce caricatured black and white. The Social Worker, George, provided the key into the issue, speaking passionatelv for his client in the face of unfeeling hospital bureaucrats, wasting resources - including himself -eventually taken off the case and leaving his puzzled young charge a victim of a system. Yet this is all too easy - though George's irresponsibility is demonstrated it is hardly questioned and he seems as much as a caricature as those around him, a frustrated masculine hero in a world of ineffectual and impotent figures. We're back to some kind of gender stereotype: to be virile is good. To produce drama necessitates dramatic issues as well as social ones and the play would have done more justice to its very real subject if it had been more troubling. Still, as with Grit, it depends on what you want to do. One thing - at least there's a clear audience and at least the issue gets discussed.

There were two offerings from West Glamorgan Youth Theatre this January: Carol Anne Duffy's delicious version of Grimm's Tales and a production of Brecht's adaptation of Antigone. Of the two I think that the Tales was much the more successful. Played in the round, clearly aimed at a young audience (who were entranced - as I was), it was innovative and intelligent.

It was also a perfect training ground for later ensemble work: no stars, an emphasis on the importance of working together for a common effect, an awareness of dramatic space and lighting. This production did the company proud. On the same day, however, I saw their Antigone. Sophocles created a dark play to begin with and Brecht intensified its focus on the rights of the individual within the repressive state. The staging built on this, producing the totalitarian paraphernalia of a state with Creon as a power-crazed fascist leader. There were shadows of Ian McKellen's Richard III. But it seemed a strange production for so inexperienced a cast. To feel into a part so that you can play around inside it is hard, very hard, even for the most experienced actor. To achieve effect these young performers resorted to posturing: Creon repeatedly forced his face into those of the others and shouted - Antigone vigorously asserted herself and shouted. Sometimes the chorus shouted too. Excess seemed to characterise the stage sets; too many distracting scene changes, the stage cluttered with under-used pieces of furniture. Why choose to put on a classic piece like AIIt(Q)IIe? One reason is possible: the praiseworthv one of stretching talent (though this clearly stretched onlv a few out of the whole cast): another might be a desire to prove to the audience that this is 'high' art, that the company can produce pieces of civilisation: tragedy. But tragedy is not to be approached lightly, it is quite powerful enough on its own without extra shouting, extra furniture. Too easily this production could teach bombast, rather than develop the self-reflective quality necessary for good acting. They did as well as they could it was a decent production in which they acquited themselves well - but not a patch on the joyful simplicity of their Tales.

Rescued from financial ruin and shored up against the future, Clwyd Theatr Cymru aspires to be 'the national theatre of Wales'. They have received good reviews for both Equus and Rape of the Fair Country (the second of which is too late to be considered in this review) so l looked forward to seeing them at Cardiff's New Theatre. The tragedy of Equus is a that of the individual in a sanitised modern world. The two main protagonists express ecstasy and rational control respectively though the confrontation between the two is complicated by the crippling self-doubt of the rationalist (the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart) and the agonised struggle for some kind of shared 'normality' of the ecstatic (the boy who has mutilated horses, Alan Strang). The names alone indicate the symbolic ground of the play; strangeness is set against a desert. It is a play about the stories that create thinking - Bible stories, stories of the Ancient Greeks, stories that are told to us as children - and the possibility of 'deviant' readings of those stories. As an audience we watch as the psychiatrist encourages the patient to reenact his defining moments, seeking to externalise and neutralise trauma. She shares our experience as audience. Yet we are also witnesses to the steady disintegration of Dysart himself, a figure whose dreams are contaminating his reality to the extent that he can longer accept the ideas of normality he is there to promote: 'The Normal is the good smile in a child's eye is also the dead stare in a million adults. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal.' Dysart's dreams dramatise our contemporary belief in psychiatry as a religion with its own priests and rituals. The depiction of Alan's God-fearing mother and Marxist father thus provides etaphors for a century torn between Freud and Marx.

Clwyd Theatr Cymru provided a respectable performance of this extraordinary play; it played to a reasonable audience which responds well if not rapturously. Respectable, however, is not enough. We had naturalistic actors stiffly moving around a denuded stage: 'classic' technique mixed strangely with a gesture towards 'modern' theatre. If consciously developed this collision between two approaches would have created a potent metaphor for disparate worlds of the play. But it didn't. It needed more thinking through. The characters seemed ungrounded and wooden, rather than desperate, the staging did not take up and reflect the contested mental space: the spotlights were too hazy, darker shadows would have scarred the surface, touched the white-clad characters with more force. But it's a play that challenges and re-echoes after the event, even in a rather tame version as (I'm sorry to say) was this. There was some strong acting: I thought Oliver Ryan was a good Alan Strang - definitely not a hero and more of a disintegrating punk - while Frank Grimes as Dysart settled after a stiff opening and Siwan Morris was eager and available as Jill Mason.

The drawback of the production lay in its muted staging and this, I think, can be traced to an uncertainty about the audience to whom it is addressing itself. How in the end to be 'a national theatre for Wales' does that mean being all things to all people? being 'modern' and 'accessible'?

Finally to Nigel Charnock: a magnificent performer who tempts the audience on to his own ground. He is marvellously talented in singing, acting, dance, producing the most wonderful hurried tentative, strident monologues linking twentieth-century paranoia to a wider Holocaust of belief. Where Forced Entertainment and Gob Squad deal ironically with alienation and postmodern rootlesness, Charnock plunges in with the wit ('You want dancing, you want post modern dancing?' [rushes backstagel 'I'm dancing now'), and the pain of disorientation. Strictly speaking, I shouldn't write here about his stunning one man show Human Being ,because, much to my annoyance, I missed it in Chapter. But I made the effort to go to London to see it.. .and in an inflated world it was worth every pound.

author:Jeni Williams

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


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