Theatre in Wales

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National Theatre Wales: Guardian Feature by Gareth Llŷr Evans     

Last week, Wales Arts Review published an open letter sent to the chair of the board of National Theatre Wales. Signed by 40 Welsh playwrights, the letter expressed a collective dissatisfaction with NTW, with particular consternation aimed at the company’s recent tendency to commission artists located outside Wales to create performances for audiences within Wales.
The letter and the sheer number of signatories is in itself remarkable within a theatre scene where everybody seems to know everybody else, and there is a general reluctance to risk offending friends and acquaintances, or to jeopardise potential future employment. What is clear from the assertions made in the letter, and the appeasing tone of NTW’s eventual response, is that this is primarily a very public debate between theatre makers and theatre producers. It is a debate about who gets to make theatre in Wales. And it is not a new debate.

I am an NTW audience member. I am not privy to boardroom tensions or acrimonious commissioning processes. Instead, I see the work. I buy tickets. And as I live in rural Ceredigion, I often travel lengthy distances to attend NTW productions. But the experience of audience members like me, after we have sat or stood together in a room, seems to be wholly absent from the current conversation.

This is not particular to the current furore, and it is unrelated to the commissioning policy of a specific company. But it is representative of a woeful media deficit that exists in Wales, that inevitably results in what we might also term a critical deficit. Without greater arts coverage, without room for interpretation, for analysis and debate that is rooted in the actual blood and guts of the live event, audiences will forever be bystanders to a myopic debate between artists and producers. Platforms such as Nation.Cymru and the podcast Desolation Radio are boldly addressing the media deficit, and websites such as Wales Arts Review and Arts Scene in Wales, by sheer virtue of creating space for different critical voices, are making a vital and necessary contribution to the cultural debate. But alongside any discussion about the commissioning process of a specific company, there is an urgent need to increase and embolden a discourse that allows an informed public to ask: is this work any good or not?

The criticism directed at English, the contentious co-production between NTW and Manchester-based Quarantine that instigated the open letter, is not actually rooted in an assessment of its successes or failures. The letter fails to note that the artists responsible for its two most vital dramaturgical elements – the design and the organisation of the performance space (by Simon Banham, my colleague at Aberystwyth University), and its single performer and interlocutor (Jonny Cotsen) – reside in Wales. Failing to recognise these particular specificities and dismissing English as work created by “a Mancunian company” risks suggesting that some tellers of national tales are more legitimate narrators than others. This is unfortunate, and a dangerous path to tread in these fractious times.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think English wholly succeeded as a performance work. It never quite fulfilled the ambitious but risky offer it made to its audience. This was disappointing, as I am a passionate admirer of Quarantine. But what I regarded as its flaws is a matter of art: of dramaturgy, of aesthetics and of structure. Perhaps of beauty or of other romantic ideals. As an academic, I am afforded the privilege of at least being confident in my criticisms. It is this privilege that I would like to see expanded, within a broader and national conversation about what theatre does and how it does it. This should be fundamental within any conversation about who gets to do it. Let us all – makers and audiences, alike – find a way to begin talking about these details.

Gareth Llŷr Evans is a lecturer in the creative arts for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, Aberystwyth University

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018back

 

 

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