Theatre in Wales

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The opening of the Wales Millennium Centre     

“In these stones horizons sing.”

And sing they did, proclaiming to the world the wonderful strength of Welsh creative power in a way that has never been done before!

Day One.

This was going to be a long one, so I fortified myself with a pint of Rev. James and a huge plate of sausage and mash in the old Eli Jenkins pub before crossing the road to take up my place, in the clear sharp air, directly opposite the locked door of what is undoubtedly going to become one of the most imposing and iconic buildings, singing the praises of Wales out across the world.

I had to strain my neck as far back as it would go to look up at the exciting and towering facade of the huge lettered window, high above me and noted that this was the lowest point of the roof of the building. It must surely be one of the largest architectural structures ever to be built in Wales.

Of course it all had to start with speeches. The chairman of Wales Millennium Trust, Sir David Rowe-Beddoe’s body was, uncharacteristically quivering with excitement as he stepped up on to the podium to declare to the large crowd that had gathered, that the proceedings were underway, proclaiming a day of sunshine and hope for the people of Wales. First Minister Rhodri Morgan stressed that the £106 million art centre belonged to the nation, that it was for all of Wales not just for the elite. This was certainly borne out by the wide range of free activities provided for visitors on the following day.

Now we needed a key to symbolically unlock the door and open up for business. The key had been taken off around the world but on the large television screen set up on the piazza we could see it being raced home across Cardiff bay, the bay that will always remain symbolic of our internationally acknowledged industrial past. Now it will be the creative emotions pouring out of talented Welsh hearts, and not only from the WMC, rather than the black rocks from the bowels of the Welsh earth that will travel the globe.

Cardiff born poet/sailor Gwyneth Lewis, who has written the poem, emblazoned on the front of the building:


has brought the key safely to the shore and handed it to WMC chief executive Judith Isherwood, telling her that this was the most memorable sea journey of her life. Judith Isherwood has also recently completed a memorable journey herself, as she flew from her previous job, running the Sydney Opera House to take up her post here.

The key, like the unique handles on the doors, was cast by Caernarfon artist Ann Catrin Evans. It was being passed hand to hand across the bay to the centre through a long line of people of all ages, sizes, goodnesses and greatnesses. At just about 4 p.m. the key reached the hands of Janet Thickpenny, a young mother from Barry who had been chosen as her birthday coincided with the opening. The Wales Youth Brass Ensemble struck up a fanfare, the youth choir filled the air with Karl Jenkins specially commissioned work “In these Stones our Horizons Sing.” She turned the key, the doors were open and an extra significant new life for the arts in Wales was born. And the doors really were open to all. The crowds streamed in to look over the many wonders on offer.

Due to continuing rehearsals for the opening performance, very frustratingly the only place not available to visit was the main auditorium, the fantastic Donald Gordon Theatre. Named after the businessman who had personally donated £10,000,000 to the project. A fair reward for such largesse.

The centre’s opening weekend was sponsored by HSBC bank who also sponsored the opening performance ‘Cymru for the World’, this will become an annual event in which the achievements of five leading Welsh artists will be celebrated. The first recipients of the awards were, Dames Gwyneth Jones and Shirley Bassey, Siân Phillips, Alan Hoddinott and the late Richard Burton (represented by his daughter Kate).

The evening was a celebration and reflection of their attainments. The ever-present Bryn Terfel, deeply involved with the whole project as creative director of the opening weekend started us off with a joyous short celebratory speech and introduced the WMC singers and dancers, who in their hard hats and donkey jackets sang and danced the story of the completion of the building. They were quickly joined on stage by all 322 participants in a triumphant chorus.

Michael Ball and Nana Mouskouri paid tribute to Shirley Bassey, Moskouri pleasantly surprising every one with her rendering of ‘All Through the Night’ – in Welsh! Caroline O’Connor told us she was a ‘Big Spender’. Robert Hardy recalled Burton’s greatness, Mathew Rhys, in chain mail, with full chorus, brought back memories of Camelot and amongst all this razzmatazz, alone on the huge bare stage, Jonathan Pryce spoke the word of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy with a sense of delicacy and poetry that was very moving. But there was no question this was a night when everyone unquestionably wanted “To be”.

Opera was represented by Gwyn Hughes Jones and Bryn Terfel with Dennis O’Neil singing the wonderful duet from Pearl Fishers. Diversions, the National Dance Company of Wales gave us a new ballet based on Alan Hoddinott’s Welsh Dances. Roy Campbell Moore’s choreography began, uncharacteristically lyrical before turning into the more angular dancing we have come to appreciate from him and his company, now firmly based in its new home at the WMC.

The Welsh National Opera, anticipating their first performance, La Traviata, in their new home, with fine chorus gave full backing to the soloists. Taking over from the BBC Now orchestra who had given fine service in the first half. Even the refusal of the safety curtain to rise after the interval failed to daunt spirits. The audience took matters into their own hands and filled in the time it took to release the stubborn mechanism with a robust rendering of well-known Welsh hymns

The evening ranged across the whole gamut of entertainment from both popular and classical and of course, somewhere in the middle, a deeply reassuring and reclaiming rendition of ‘Myfanwy’ by the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir.

Day Two

Day two was open house. A continuous stream of many hundreds of people filled into the building from early in the morning to shortly before the singing and spectacular fireworks out in the Oval Basin at 8pm. They had to progress at a rather slow pace due to the airport style security barriers installed in preparation for the Queen’s visit the following day. They were able to explore the cafés, bars and restaurants, exhibition stalls and the Portmerion gift shop; visit the Academi office – the home of Literature in Wales or Ty Cerdd - the home of music. There you would find recording workshops with Cardiff schools taking part who then gave a great concert in the foyer, and Welsh composers available for informal chat just after lunch. The Touch Trust displayed a fascinating array of sound and feel and visual materials. The new beds in the Urdd hostel were open for inspection and there was a lot of ‘hands on’ stuff to do at the Arts Explorer exhibition.

A wide variety of entertainment was laid on both in the studio theatre and in the large and sumptuous foyer space, providing something for every taste. There you could find continuing throughout the day: skiffle, consorts of brass and other instruments, Jazz with some great singing from Cardiff’s Li Harding. The Academi brought in over a hundred kids to perform a stunning rap choir (under the direction of poets Leon Charles and Aron Elias. There was a continuing throb of excitement and expectation buzzing through the building all through the amazing day.

In the, by Cardiff standards, very large Weston Studio Theatre, Odyssey Theatre, enhanced by musicians from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama played to their largest ever audience and gave an hilarious larger than life performance for all to enjoy. I was also able to catch ‘Dance Showcase’ that gave high quality classical ballet from Swansea’s Ballet Russe, contrasting with work with great skill from India Dance Wales and the more experimental works from Sean Tuan John and Bert van Gorp as The Brothers, very Grimm and a cheeky solo performance by the astonishing, unpredictable Marc Rees. Couldn’t fit in the WNO performances or a musical drama by the Urdd.

There was just time to grab a sandwich and a glass of wine before getting outside. Nobody was going to be deterred by the heavy showers. Least of all Owain Arwel Hughes as he conducted the undiminished crowd and the ‘But as you View Cory Brass Band’ in “a Gymanfa Ganu with a twist”, maximising the ‘hwyl’ and urging us to belt out many very well known tunes with gusto! Christophe Berthonneau Artisitc Direcor of world renown firework company Groupe F, with a dazzling display of colour and light that most truly underpinned the excellence that is promised by this great enhancement to the Welsh cultural scene.

Day Three

The Queen

The even greater security laid on for tonight, though the only mild threat came from members of the Fathers for Justice movement, dressed in Father Christmas costumes. This meant I had to bustle my way into the building just as Matthew Rhys, Michael Ball and Jonathon Pryce were being bustled out to take a break before the evening performance.

The arrival of The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales was a much smoother affair. She was met by first minister Rhodri Morgan, looking uncharacteristically extremely smart in his dinner suit, shook hands with a line of political worthies and with the assistance of Sir David Rowe-Beddoe unveiled a plaque and signed the visitors book and took her seat.

She and the whole of the packed audience were welcomed by Sian Phillips. She stood on a huge completely bare stage to introduce the opening number, the overture from the musical Gypsy. As the stage filled with dancers and singers, spectacular scenery and lights fell into place around them By the time it ended everything was most certainly ‘coming up roses’. Then Caroline O’Connor rose out of the floor to give us ‘All That Jazz.

Philip Madoc told us of the thrill and satisfaction he was getting from the enterprise and introduced one of the great highlights of the evening. The Cape Town Opera, in their highly colourful costumes, began with a fulsome rendering of the Alleluia Chorus then quickly changed key into a more ethnic approach and rolled and clapped the audience into a minor frenzy. In great contrast Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet introduced two of her soloists, to show us just how classical dancing should be done.

Gaby Roslin brought us more down to earth and the company lead by a delightfully animated Michael Ball took us back to the days of Cardiff’s own Ivor Novello ‘And His Mother Came too’. Immediately followed by another Cardiff favourite Charlotte Church and her mentor and accompanist, Ian Shaw. A brave move by Charlotte to use this occasion to show us her new voice She may no longer be the voice of an angel but Ian Shaw and the young singer have a great working relationship, out of which something great may still occur. Karl Jenkins took the conductor’s baton to bring the first half to a close with a sonorous rendering of his anthem, especially composed for the occasion, ‘In These Stones Horizons Sing’. It began quietly with the solo harp of Catrin Finch, she was joined by a saxophone and some robust percussion then by the choirs ‘Only Men Aloud’, Ysgol Gerrd Ceredigion, Cywair, Côr Seirol and the National Youth Choir of Wales. At this point there could be no doubt that Wales is the land of song.

Act 2 was opened by the Welsh National Opera under their highly regarded conductor, Carlo Rizzi. Yet again with another demonstration of his boundless energy Bryn Terfel stood in for sadly indisposed Dennis O’Neil and sang like a true toreador leading the chorus in an exciting Carmen extract. After opera, the Kirov ballet, another great showing of huge skill and humour, leaving us eagerly awaiting the arrival of the full company, some time in the future.

An excellently energised Matthews Rhys jogged our memories of Musical Theatre. Michael Ball backed by the chorus and dancer reminded us of a few favourites and Jonathon Pryce grew accustomed to Ruthie Henshall’s face. Christopher Timothy introduced the spectacular Cirque Eloize who will be performing at the centre through the month of December. Although vast, a near two thousand seater, there is an intimacy about the space that will enhance the enjoyment of every kind of programme staged there.

There was more of, what in her early days was still called musicals, from Broadway legend Barbara Cook and stylish coloratura from Sumi Jo, before the irrepressibly Bryn Terfel joined by Jail House Rocker Michael Quinn joined again by the dancers and singers swung everything to an almighty close.

It is a smashing place, it deserves a smashing future. Go down there you’re bound to find not just something to like but, something to rave over!
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Michael Kelligan
Monday, November 29, 2004back



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