Theatre in Wales

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

A Gymnasium for underused imaginations

JENI WILLIAMS reviews recent new theatre productions in Wales - Summer 1998

Welsh theatre in terms of both Welsh companies and Welsh venues is in crisis. We need to make clear what kind of theatre we want in the Lottery funded world.

Utilitarian arguments (theatre generates employment/revenue), theatre provides entertainment (passive consumption) so readily dominate the issue. Benedict Nightingale's recent booklet on The Future of Theatre takes an unashamedly idealistic standpoint, summoning up the spectre of an alienated society dominated by sound-bite and image to present a case for 'a theatre in flight from the lonely pleasures of high-tech. living rooms and desperate for life and contact. Nightingale's description of theatre as 'a gymnasium for underused imaginations' stresses its active role in teaching us 'to listen, speak, feel and think less thinly' providing a paradigm on which I wish to draw in discussing recent theatre in Wales.

Starting with the English touring companies, Forkbeard Fantasy provided the most bizarre imaginative 'gymnasium' of the lot. The Barbers of Surreal develops their fascination with time and space through the video loop, the reflections and inversions suggested by the mirror, and set the whole in a setting of continual transformation. The plot is a peculiar take on the relation of science to fantasy: three men run a barber's shop where genetic developments have revolutionised the images they are able to create, simultaneously producing 'things' that escape into the street outside. The whole play is concerned with entrapment, experiment and escape. A large video screen masquerades as a window onto the world outside the play; when actors leave the stage they reappear on the screen looking back into 'the room' they have just left. Three actors take all parts, transforming themselves into a bewildering range of different characters while the video screen keeps running previous incarnations. We see an old woman in a flouncy Victorian dress bedecked with blue ribbons chasing something/someone down a country lane only to be left behind when he/she/it escapes by bus. Only later we recognise her as Alice locked out of Wonderland and grown old and the fugitive as a giant white rabbit released from an experimental station with an attitude and addiction to cigarettes.

Packed with wonderful and multiple cross references to children's stories particularly to Alice it is perfectly logical that the barber's mirror should be a magical looking glass stolen by the genetic engineers from the disused children's museum next door. 'Alice' sneakily manages to get back into the magic mirror and becomes young again. The central figure (father of one, brother of the other) is called Salvador presumably in homage to Dali. Lighting and set strange and imaginative, the whole play a mixture of erudition and mayhem, discussions of Miro and Bosch side by side with surreal hairstyles and 'crocodiles' of children on the street 'outside'. Underneath the bewitching glitter glitters a critique of the dowdiness of a world without wonder. I bought the T-shirt!

The RSC's Herbal Bed, which I saw on May 1, couldn't be more different. It's a classy costume ¹drama, serious, easy to follow, with nice old clothing, an attractive backdrop which functioned a little like wallpaper and lots of repressed sex (though the steamy posters suggested something more). The herbal doctor neglects the sexual needs of his wife because of his higher vocation as a healer: hence the title. Both servant-girl and wife are in love with the doctor's best friend, while the wife, who has a passionate past, has a fumble (which she denies) on the stairs with the sex-mad apprentice. All are drawn into lies in front of an ecclesiastical court and the happy-go-lucky apprentice is ruined. That the doctor and the lover were Puritans implied that the play was attempting to deal with moral questions. These turned on the compromises that unthinking 'life' demands of the exceptional man and the destructive appetites of a frustrated woman. It all seemed rather cliched, I'm afraid. I'm not sure why the unseen father of the wife had to be a William Shakespeare who is dying of gonorrhoea, but I suppose it provided 'culture' through association. I found this production easy to watch, highly polished and forgettable

. In a clear attempt to popularise Shakespeare, compass Theatre's version of The Tempest stressed the comic elements of the play. There was a simple and attractive set, a small cast, no attempt at realism. The audience seemed to like it the night I saw it. The problem, I thought, lay in the emphasis on comedy at the expense of complexity: it was quite possible to come away from the production without any sense that the play is more than an entertaining interlude. There was no sense of the power which bubbles under the surface of the play in its violent opening, background and episodes, of the desperate problem of timing, of outwitting elements that cannot be reformed in order to survive. Shakespeare's text is a profoundly disturbing drama, its 'hero', an unpredictable tyrant with an unsettling likeness to his brother, the usurping Duke of Milan. Its themes include responsibility, exploitation and the abuse of power (over Ariel and Caliban), revenge and forgiveness. Though there are no rules defining the way that Shakespeare 'should' be produced, a version that sacrifices richness to make the original text more digestible for the unexercised imagination seems an impoverishment rather than an interpretation of the play. As demonstrated in the changing fortunes of the elegant poet Chaucer, reducing older texts to comic bawdiness can quickly devalue them by denying their complexity and intelligence. Still, at a time when even degree students seem to have difficulty reading the Shakespearean text, it is good (at least) to hear Shakespeare spoken comprehensibly and unpretentiously.

A few lines on Fireraiser Theatre's Andy and Edie: Inside Wohol's Factory. Swansea's Taliesin theatre was pretty full (though a few left at the interval). The footage of the Factory shown on video was more exciting than the events on stage which seemed rather pale in comparison. Dreadful American accents, unconvincing body language (these figures were supposed to be out of their brains) unless you were already interested in the legend of Warhol et al. the production fails to engage. There was a striking silver set but that's the Factory anyway. With Edie presenting herself as a 'double' of Andy and being destroyed in the process, the attraction, I couldn't help but think, lay in the (trendy) fact of the iconic subject matter rather than in the play itself.

The destructive nature of living through icons seems to have provided the original impetus behind Made in Wales's production of Christine Watkins's Queen of Hearts, which presented us with two figures obsessed with Diana: Sylvia, a look-alike, and Raye, a transvestite who wants to be a star. Completed before Diana's death, the play was extensively rewritten to avoid offence. Unfortunately I think that this showed.

The first version concluded with the lookalike critically ill after being shot; in the revised version, she just disappears from the play, leaving a T-shirt behind her, a relic which transforms Raye's life. The subject of the play is plainly legitimate: Diana was the most famous woman in the world, many people were totally obsessed with her, that obsession is a genuine concern. The problem is that the whole issue was so obviously flagged that there seemed little else there. I found myself (as did others I spoke to) assessing the extent of Sylvia's likeness to Diana and thus becoming detached from the play. It needed to be more complex: all the figures were caricatures (transvestite cabaret singer; 75-year-old ex-pros titute; photographer with a murky past).

One source of dramatic tension lies in the interaction of agent and context as actors' actions define and redefine the meaning of the space(s) within which they operate and by which they too are defined. The fact that opposing corners were dedicated, on the one hand, to Raye and Annie, and on the other, to Sylvia, thus reduced the drama and increased the sense of caricature in the players. The conclusion was an anticlimax and very sudden. The play seemed unbalanced (rewriting perhaps?) undertones of violence were defused as Raye rescued Sylvia from the photographer; the transvestite and the prostitute seemed cliched. The concern the play has with image and reality could easily have been explored at a much deeper level.

It needs to take itself more seriously in order to get more out of its subject: as it is it seemed to get flak from all sides. I think that this is a great shame. Yet again Made in Wales are attempting to address issues of relevance to contemporary life (see My Piece of Happiness) and that, at least, should be praised. It seems, at least in intent, a more interesting exercise than that of Fireraisers.

Volcano Theatre Company toured an earlier version of After the Orgy in 1994. This version is sharper, with an almost wholly different text. This is a show (rather than a play) that addresses the empty postmodern world through text, technology and spectacle. The first impression was of the enormous screen, like that of a television, that acted as both a barrier between audience and stage and a surface on which a rolling text was projected. Additional levels appeared behind this almost like veils on which, or through which, texts and images could be seen according to the lighting. The opening was simply stunning: a Nietzschean text ran smoothly over the giant screen while a struggling, infuriated Spaniard, Ususpended in a straitjacket-like harness over the stage, screamed out the words in his own language. The disembodied/written text could be read and understood the embodied/spoken words were obscure. Words and body, the very tools of drama itself, were set in opposition though it was clear which was the most authoritative a perfect enactment of the little man caught within patterns of dominance and language of the text's declaration that there will come a time when man will no longer be able to despise himself. The two 'actors' Juan Carrascoso and Cill Lyon spoke to the audience but neither made any connection. A brilliant, hard and glittering tour de force, the show explores and explodes the voyeurism of television though its parody of that medium's stream of images, each following on the other without narrative thread. A multitude of different screens and videos, a rock band appearing and disappearing as backgrounds dissolved into foregrounds through the use of lighting: all this made the performance a series of visual and auditorv events rather than a linear narrative about character, of repetitions, cliche's a world lacking a centre was mirrored on a stage lacking depth, boundaries, duration.

At the heart of the show was an exploration of the voyeur, passively consuming and exploiting spectacle. This explains the controversial porn video which played throughout much of the show on a small television set, suspended, like Carrascoso, above the stage. It also explains the camera-rape of Lyon (its farcical replay making clear its reference to Peeping Tom). This incident was the most (only) disturbing part of the show, the audience drawing into easy identification with familiar territory, only to be wrong-footed into recognising their complicity in the exploitative values of the spectacular world.

The use of the porn video was peculiar in its effect. Set in competition with so many other visual stimulants meant that the fantasy of full identification with the camera as subject and total domination of the image as object was impossible. This completely disabled it of erotic potential. The fat woman fondling enormous lumps of flab in the form of her overdeveloped breasts just looked ridiculous. In his dark glasses Carrascoso was a dead ringer for Foucault, 'interviewed' by Lyon so we saw both individual and giant image floating over his head. The sidelining of the individual was perfectly enacted in the refusal to engage with the audience even to the extent of refusing definite closure. The end was left 'hanging' (the final word of the text) as Carrascoso was again hoisted into the air.

The go-go dancer who had danced non-stop throughout the performance was left dancing long after the two 'actors' had bowed to the camera and left the stage, returned to take their call (again to the camera) and left for good. They faced away from the audience who, sidelined bv the process, had no proper end or place to applaud to demonstrate their recognition of the end of the illusion. After the Orgy is an unsettling drama as testified by some of its discomfited reviews. It is no surprise that Nightingale should single out Volcano and Frantic Assembly in his booklet as 'the most imaginatively exhilarating of all' smaller scale theatre.

At the other end of the scale of innovative Welsh theatre, Ed Thomas's Fiction Factory produced his new play Gas Station Angel. Whereas Volcano are clearly fascinated by shape and form (of production, of form, of 'the poetics of space'), Thomas despite his protestations otherwise is driven by concerns with transgression and revenge, of myth and illusion, language and imagi nation. He does invite audience identification in the face of a bureaucratic, exploitative world. Because of this, his play (and it is a play) works far better on a small stage

I saw Gas Station Angel twice: first in Cardiff on the Sherman's main stage and second in London at the Royal Court Upstairs. The difference was dramatic. At the Sherman I felt distanced from the action, finding the constant recourse to soliloquy dramatically monotonous, the writing striking but overblown. I liked the cavernous stage however and thought the individual actors very strong. In the Royal Court however the smaller stage created a more dynamic performance with the tensions of the text exploding into the restricted space. I still thought the play too long, but in the confined space the soliloquies seemed more ritualised and therefore more exciting. The steep incline of the seating brought the audience closer to the stage and the actors. Siwan Morris in particular stood out as heart-breakingly vulnerable and eager, as did the restless energy of Richard Lvnch. The semi-vertical exits /entrances set at the four corners of the stage allowed the actors to appear and disappear almost as if coming from under the ground: perfect vehicles to express Thomas's interest in the invisible underworlds he explores again and again in his texts. In this play those worlds are expressed in the image of the fairies dispossessed of their land, and the 'tantrum sea' consuming it, both seeking revenge on the Ace family who have dug up ancient sites for farming and polluted the sea with chemicals.

Where Volcano disrupt the very fabric of the performance and its relations with the audience, Thomas retains a fairly linear narrative, with discernable characters, a recognisable, if bizarre, love-story, and a repeated concern for individual and cultural identity. When it works it's magnificent engaged drama, wonderfully dismissive, for example, of the banalities of Keith the supervisor who thinks he can only talk to the girl he calls 'checkout one' when he's fucked her, or of the transformation of old pubs into entertainment centres with Karaoke and Bingo, where the new management is 'fucking raking it in'. When it doesn't work it can be tedious sub-Pinter, sub-Kerouac. Thomas's strength however lies in his difference from these writers, particularly, in his confused struggle with Welsh identity, which appears invisible to others.

There are no answers to this problem in this play or any of his others, only the question asked jointly by son and father: 'Who can we ever be except... / The sons and daughters of our fathers and mothers.' Or the words he makes his heroine say to his hero: 'To be Welsh at the end of the twentieth century you got to have imagination'. In this confused world we all need imagination. Samuel Palmer got it right over a century a go when he said that 'a bird deprived of its wings is not more incomplete than the human mind without imagination.'

We need theatre to exercise that imagination. In view of the Arts Council Wales's current consultation paper on the Arts let us hope that these gymnasia aren't shut down.

author:Jeni Williams

original source: New Welsh Review #41 Summer 1998
01 July 1998


Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs /