Theatre in Wales

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Portrait of the artist: Dic Edwards, playwright and poet     

Portrait of the artist: Dic Edwards, playwright and poet Dic Edwards and I have been more or less tracking each other for the last thirty years. One of the first plays I remember when I started reviewing for The Guardian was his remarkable debut, At the End of the Bay, for Made in Wales in 1983. His Regan, for Theatr Powys in 1992, perplexed and excited me as few community-theatre productions had. Canned Goods and The Fourth World, again for Made in Wales, were obviously far better plays than these productions suggested (Dic has, I feel, only been most sympathetically rendered in Wales by Steve Davis). Utah Blue (Made in Wales again), despite a poor production, blew me away first in 1992 (again in a fascinating radical restaging earlier this year). Then in 1993 Dic was taken up by Steve Davis of Spectacle Theatre in what to me was an unexpected new direction, theatre-in-education.

Now as anyone who knows Dic will attest, he and critics don’t really get along. Dic’s view of criticism is that of many playwrights: critics are tolerated because, after all, they are just one person’s opinions and as valuable or not as the next person’s, according to this view. Audiences are far more important and we critics are a pretty irrelevant lot. (Dic himself made forays into criticism but only wrote about productions he felt strongly about, not a luxury available to the professional critic !) So when I say we’ve been tracking each other, I mean I’ve been following his work with, I imagine, little or no impact on him. But at least he knows we’ve been travelling the same path. He does, after all, acknowledge my respect for his work with the odd signed copy, the last of which simply says “It’s been a long road !”.

That latest volume is in fact not a collection of plays but a selection of poetry, which recently has been more important to him as a writer than drama. Indeed, he threatens that Boy, his new play for Spectacle Theatre, could be his last. Anyone dipping into Walt Whitman and Other Poems (Oberon) will find that his poetry is no easier than his plays, most of which are notoriously difficult. The twenty-five poems, despite sometimes deceptively simple titles, are littered with classical and cultural references, expressed in an unselfconscious joy in the complexity of English language and vocabulary. Some (though, as yet, for me not all) seduce with further reading and delight with their imagery and sometimes breathless verbal momentum.

So Dic’s long association with Spectacle Theatre may seem surprising, especially as Dic doesn’t really do accessibility. And he certainly would never talk down to his audience. But he does teach creative writing at Lampeter, down the road from his home in Aberaeron, where I imagine he is popular with his students not only for his passion and commitment to the writer’s arts but to his image: tousled long greying curly hair, shades (necessity, not affectation, since his eyes are very light sensitive) and a dress sense that makes him look positively Byronic. When he sits at the back of the hall to watch a production in a school, the kids have no doubt when they turn round to be introduced to the playwright: he looks every bit the romantic artist.

Yet a complex, intellectual, erudite writer who has written plays about, for example, Casanova, Wittgenstein, Gary Gilmore, Baudelaire (the subject of his other new play, The Pimp), Cayo Evans, Dylan Thomas and Idris Davies, responds with enthusiasm to the challenge of writing for young people - and doesn’t hesitate to write about anything from concentration camps to third world dictatorships to drugs with references to Greek tragedy and contemporary politics. (We might note here, too, that Dic made an earlier foray into the community theatre/TIE sector of Welsh theatre when he was briefly writer-in-residence at Theatr Powys in the early 1990s prior to being taken up by Steve Davis.)

And the results at Spectacle are sometimes quite startlingly effective thanks, of course, as Dic himself readily agrees, to the special relationship between writer and director, based on respect and the meld of Dic’s often abstruse intellectual curiosity and Steve Davis’s drive for clarity and stimulating material for young audiences.

The creative combination has not always worked (at least for this critic). But the great majority of the thirteen plays he has written for Spectacle have been at least memorable. Indeed, many have been published and some translated and performed worldwide. The partnership started with Moon River: The Deal in 1993 to the most recent, Boy, and includes Shakespeare Factory (1994), The Man Who Gave His Foot For Love (1995), David (1996), Kid (1997), Vertigo (1997), Freewheelers (1998), Over Milk Wood (1999), Antigone Now (2000), Into The East (2001), Distant Jazz (2003) and The Girl Who Got Away (2005).

Over that time, of course, Dic has continued writing plays and seeing older plays get new productions. Utah Blue, for example, got a radical work over from Phil McKenzie earlier this year, and he has a month-long production of Casanova Undone at That Theatre, Copenhagen next Spring. He has also written operas librettos for The Juniper Tree and Manifest Destiny.

But it’s poetry that has occupied him recently, poetry that playwright-poet Edward Bond has called “remarkable“ and told Dic that he found the poems “very intense but expansive and very much your own voice..."

“I don’t want to write a novel or screenplay,” he avers. “I may have a narrative but I’m more interested in debate, as opposed to tv-style realism.”

For Dic, poetry has a particular purity: “There’s no journey beyond what you see,” he says. “You have to rely on your subconscious, a place where you abandon yourself.”

That’s not something mystical, just tapping into your own reality, he adds. And he does talk about it so excitedly you can imagine his Lampeter students trying to take in his torrent of words.

“When I talk about the sub-conscious being used to access the epiphany (which for me is an intense moment of passion) which drives the creative impulse, it's a given with me that my sub-conscious is intensely political in the philosophical sense - the images that spring from the sub-conscious are informed by that or they belong to that world,” he says, suggesting we might see some of this in his poems.

“The images of my sub-conscious belong to the political world - and by ‘political’ I mean the failures of man as a social animal. I'm not talking about the triumphs of self-congratulatory politicians and their parties, I'm talking about images of poverty, depredation, war and examples of suffering too numerous for a universe to hold.

“Politics itself has become a profession and accordingly has bureaucratised society and, in particular, theatre so that we have this absurdity in Wales where politicians believe they can create a national theatre for Wales while invoking the example of The Abbey in Dublin.

“The Abbey was created by writers - Yeats and Lady Gregory founded it on the work of Synge and O'Casey and others and it produced a century of fine theatre. Nothing like this can happen in Wales. The writers haven't even been consulted. It will just become a showcase for directors again with their interminable revivals. Most of them don't know the first thing about theatre and probably aren't even Welsh!”

The Welshness question is something that has dogged Dic a bit. He’s an Anglophone South Walian who’s decamped to West Wales and whose most controversial play (though far, I think, from being his best) was a satire based on the life of Cayo Evans, Franco’s Bastard, produced in 2002 by Sgript Cymru, that angered many nationalists. Dic did not get into the cultural-identity debate in the 1990s, his most prolific period, and so didn’t get the critical attention of fellow playwrights like Ed Thomas and Ian Rowlands.

In fact Dic could be seen as being more interested in America. Utah Blue and Over Milk Wood were published under the title Americana. He has visited the States and several poems are based on his time there. And, of course, both the title poem of his new volume and the play Boy focus on nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman, an eccentric and passionate poet with whom Dc Edwards might well feel sympathy.

But maybe the oddest thing is that Dic Edwards is simply hardly recognised in his own country except by Spectacle Theatre. Most of his plays are produced outside Wales yet this is a playwright who has his own entry in Wikipedia and who counts Edward Bond as a friend. He writes passionately about his works as well as within them. He has written twenty-odd plays, many of them published. At the age of 55, he is undoubtedly one of Wales’s most internationally acclaimed living writers. So easy he ain’t, but exciting and original he certainly is.

So congratulations to Steve Davis and Spectacle Theatre for recognising this huge and complex talent. The company celebrated Dic’s work last month – and about time.


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Friday, November 14, 2008back

 

 

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