Theatre in Wales

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

Phantom of the foyer

MICHAEL BAKER Arts Council of Wales's Drama Director, discusses Stage Welsh, a new book on the development of stage drama in Wales by theatre critic D

David Adams is a theatre critic, a hot metal journo of the old school with a brisk, chatty style honed by a lifetime's embattlement with sub-editors. He is absorbed by debate: his notices frequently hinge on the 'but' paragraph about a third way through. I guess Da'vid Adams would term this as thesis through antithesis to synthesis - he wears his hearts on his sleeve like cub badges - his convictions often lead him to be a banned man, doomed to be the Phantom of the Foyer. The book's final section is an absorbing appraisal of current work: worth reading twice which the publisher assists by reprint ing the last twelve pages.

David Adams' new book is subtitled 'Nation, nationalism and theatre: the search for cultural identity' and is a corral of his many intellectual preoccupations familiar to readers of the Guardian's intermittent coverage of 'regional 'arts over the years and latterly of the western mail.

Stage Welsh concludes its deconstructions of cultural myths about Wales with a chapter on diversity, being a round up of David's latest views on seminal theatre work he has witnessed. David, of course, is the Creat Punter. He sees just about everything onstage in (mainly south) Wales which uniquely qualifies him for the task in hand. This book is his attempt to locate this theatre work in a kind of cultural thought map. The searcher for cultural identity is ultimatley the author: his journey is a debunking, tell-it-like-it-is story which concludes that there is real worth in the theatre in Wales and it's called distinctive difference - the product of not aping the English theatre and not being shackled by tradition.

Lively though the style is, this a serious book by a man convinced that theatre can change our world for the better, and is a democratic opportunity which should not be squandered. But (oh!) I am not sure that its theses are as weighty and as authoritative as the credentials of his listed sources of information and scholarship might suggest. Its failings are partly due to some ill-fit of context with analysis, partly because, frankly, the practice has not stood still while he's been writing the book

Stage Welsh is fired by anger at the very idea of a National Theatre of Wales. The first four or five chapters are a well researched rationale for rejecting the cultural and political authority suggested by 'National' and 'Wales'. Theatre, he says, had to be invented in Wales, just as cultural identity had to be. The starting point was in the 196Os when the Arts Council (and sex?) took hold.

Stage Welsh covers some of the same ground as Carl Tighe's bitter polemic in Wales: the Imagined Nation: Essays in Culture and National Identity (Poetry of Wales Press 1986). Newcomers to the de bates could do worse than start there - it is salutary to see what hasn't changed. David Adams' obsession is with preserving and celebrating the uniqueness of theatre in Wales, Carl Tighe was more critical of his peers and berated the entire scene for its failure to give the (English-language) playwrights their due rights of audience.

Tighe believed that this malaise resulted from suppressive politics and burocracies (the bland encouraging the bland) and the prevalence of non-literary theatrical styles.

Adams seems more content with the diversity of theatre in Wales as it is developing, while mourning the dearth of any plays dealing with issues of multiculturalism. During the period his book was in preparation, Made in Wales Stage Company mounted its first season under a new artistic leadership and set out its stall as a popular theatre of political issues.

David Adams makes an entertaining case that a National Theatre as proposed by the likes of Michael Bogdanov and Julian Mitchell would be culturally alien to Wales, and, in doing so, hands us a well-thumbed 'Rough Guide to Quangoland' as evidence that it merely represents the desire of a small, unrepresentative but powerful, cultural elite.

He plays down the fact that these two artists (both of whom live by their talent alone and have made a living by working to and for the widest public) genuinely believe a National Theatre of Wales has the potential to enfranchise artists, by giving them bigger, better resourced and more challenging canvases, and to satisfy the population's right to have regular access to comprehensible and exciting theatre.

It is a quarter of a century since Lord Redcliffe Maud recommended that local authorities should be the new patrons of the arts. In Wales they accepted that challenge: their support today matches the Arts Council's grant-in-aid. Put bluntly, this means that no proposal for a National Theatre of Wales could get off the ground if local democracy in Wales didn't want it. But what if it does? For sure this might not be the indigenous art form development that David tracks and praises as uniquely 'Welsh' but it would be important, and it would be wanted by Welsh people. In Adam's own terms, it would be a uniquely Welsh desire.

This book's primary thesis is that the development of indigenous theatre provision and practice has been a rejection of the conventional English model of theatre and has started to succeed in expressing a sense of distinctive difference. Well, I know what he means and it is good for his readers to be reminded of the vitality and uniqueness of what we have. The real story is however a great deal more complex.

It is certainly true that a theatre genealogy was started with companies encouraged by the 'otherness' of the theatrical cultural climate... But can we yet claim, as does David Adams, that it has developed into this identifiable Welsh theatre. But surely not one of true and lasting worth until it becomes part of the everyday life of large num bers of the people of Wales. We share common ground in believing that a National Theatre of any kind is risible unless it has earned the title the hard way.

I am more bothered by the impression he conveys of reasoned development in the various strands of distinctive theatre work. I see the geneses of professional theatre in Wales to have been so diverse as to be in themselves a lesson for the future. It all alerts us to continue tobe open to new movements and momenta, from wherever they come.

Taking at random some institutions and individuals: I don't think the book gives due credit to the role of Wales's vibrant higher education sector, from art colleges to universities, and the local authority drama advisory services (now extinct) in brining forward new talent.

He doesn't tell us why the Welsh-language Cwmni Theatr Cymru worked in its time, why Theatr Bara Caws' original personnel set up an alternative - and leaves out the critical role of this company played in breaking every rule of sophisticated theatre-making while moving their audience to real emotion such as I have rarely seen.. He cannot bear witness to the significance of the Gregynog New Theatre Workshop in 1981. But this was where so many theatre practitioners of later note in Wales forged new partnerships and the language issue stopped being an issue and started being a landscape. An agenda was set which is still current.

He underplays the huge significance of Geoff Moore and Mike Pearson whose companies have been nurseries for so many talented people and new groups; of John Prior who first thought strategically about theatre in education in Wales; of Gilly Adams who, as Welsh Arts Council Drama Director, believed in investing in talent beyond all else; of Geoffrey Axworthy and Wilber Lloyd Roberts who were visionaries in their own way; and of Valmai Jones, Richard Gough and Toby Robertson who took important things forward in, respectively, Welsh language theatre, international practice and the mainstream sector.

Again, while S4C gets its mention, the economic importance of a local TV / media industry is under-regarded and he does not give adequate consideration to the vibrant issue of the Welsh, English-language playwright.

In short, David Adams is more concerned with what it all is (defind in current politico-cultural terms) than where theatre in Wales has come from and how it works. While it's not for a radical cultural polemicist to compliment a funding agency, it is worth noting it was the old Welsh Arts Council which envisaged and negotiated the change in Sherman Theatre artistic policy which its director Phil Clark then boldly took on, and which promoted the nationwide policy to develop a Theatre In Education/community theatre network.

Most notably, much of the theatre practice he acclaims has a minority place in the programmes of the many and proliferating venues in Wales. There's a missing link here between indigenous creative practice and infrastructural needs.

There are two interesting points towards the end of the book. David Adams thinks that 'mainstage' work is to an extent alien to Wales and we should share the best fruits of dramatic traditions by, for example, buying in the RSC and the Royal National Theatre. This surely puts a brake on writers from Wales ever achieving regular mainstream prominence. Don't we want both the best from England (and we have a right to the 'Nationals', their artists and traditions are intra British not solely English) as well as a developed, multi-disciplined theatre of Wales itself?

Secondly, and curiously, in an Epilogue, he fast-forwards to a National Theatre Company of Wales Spring Season in the year 2006: a feast of activity as if 1996 styles and personalities were projected into an imaginary multi-culture. But (yes, again) it is a mite too close to the Michael Bogdanov / Phil Clark vision; so, is it parody? Or is it as David would like to foresee it? Maybe this is the irony which a commentator can afford but the practitioner cannot. This said, this book is an important statement and I recommend anyone with an interest in theatre in Wales to read it.

author:Mike Baker

original source: New Wesh Review #35, Winter 1996/97
01 December 1996


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