Theatre in Wales

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Reflecting the Nation (?)     

There's a lot of debate going on in Scotland and Wales about theatre. In the forum on the Theatre in Wales site, you'll find a constant discussion about English versus Welsh language theatre, about the very structure of theatre in Wales. In the SCOTS-NITS email group, there is currently a discussion about what Scottish theatre should be. In both the emphasis is on how national identity should be/is/might be reflected in theatre today.

I can understand the feelings behind these debates. Both the Scots and the Welsh, although they have a degree of self-government in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, still feel culturally dominated by England and so need to find a means of at the same time expressing and preserving their own cultural identities, something which is deeper than kilts and bagpipes, lavabread and Sospan Fach.

And beyond that, of course, there are the pressure of globalisation - a theme which is now coming to the fore in the SCOTS-NITS debate.

For the Welsh, of course, the language is central to this sense of national identity and there is a strong focus on Welsh language theatre, so the announcement this week about the setting up of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, the National Theatre of the Welsh Language, in Llanelli is a significant event. There has always been, in Wales, an ambivalence towards Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Terry Hand's company in Mold, because of its perceived pretensions to being a national theatre, even though it works in English.

There is not the same preoccupation with language in Scotland, for far fewer people have Gaelic and, in any case, it is spoken in the Highlands and Islands and has never been the language of the much more populous Lowlands. But there is still a search for the icon which will express the idea of Scottishness -

In Caledonia Dreaming, presented by 7:84 at the Edinburgh Fringe some years ago, that icon was Sean Connery! This was not, by the way, writer David Greig's own idea: it was a reflection of how many Scots think.

- for many feel the need for that Scottish identity to be expressed in theatre.

And yet...

The strength of English theatre is that it is open and accepting. It does not pursue a concept of Englishness but welcomes outside influences with open arms. It has done for a long time: I suspect that most of us have to deliberately remind ourselves that Chekhov was Russian and Ibsen Norwegian because their work has become part of the canon of English/British theatre!

Here at the British Theatre Guide, we have carried more reviews of physical theatre work in the last four months than in the previous four years. That is partially, of course, because reviewer Jackie Fletcher is very much a physical theatre specialist, but it is partially because this kind of theatre is becoming an increasingly important part of our theatrical world. And yet physical theatre had little influence here before Steven Berkoff: it has come to us from the continent, particularly France (Lecoq) and Eastern Europe.

We have accepted it - or, to be more accurate, we are in the process of accepting it - and that strenghtens our theatre, for physical theatre ideas work their way into the theatrical mainstream and enable theatre to become a more effective (and possibly more visceral) means of expression.

There is a real danger that pursuing a sense of national identity for its own sake could lead to Welsh and Scottish theatre becoming an irrelevance, or, worse, a kind of quaint hang-over from a supposed Golden Age which never actually existed, a tourist attraction. The debate in SCOTS-NITS is already beginning to show that there are real differences between the Lowlands (urban or cultivated rural) and the Highlands (wild rural) and one suspects that the ordinary man in the street in Glasgow has more in common with his counterpart in Newcastle, Manchester or Birmingham than with a highlander. In the same way, the English-speaking citizen of Cardiff probably has more in common with the aforementioned Glasgwegian than he has with a Welsh-speaking hill farmer in Preseli or Snowdonia.

Back in the early 1970s I worked at the St David's Arts Festival in Dyfed and I remember one production which we hosted was Beckett's Endgame, presented in Welsh by - I kid you not! - the Eglwyswrw Young Farmers' Club. That was, I submit, real Welsh theatre: it was in Welsh because Welsh was their first language,and they did it because the play meant something to them. Think about it - an English language play by an Irish playwright translated into Welsh! They didn't worry if this was Welsh theatre: they simply did what was meaningful to them.

And, by the way, it worked - even for those of us (the vast majority) who didn't speak Welsh.

Welsh-speaking playwrights will create Welsh theatre, if what they write has a meaning and a resonance for their audience. So will English-speaking playwrights in Wales. In just the same way, David Harrower (Knives in Hens and Kill the Old Torture their Young), Gregory Burke (Gagarin Way) and David Greig (Outlying Islands) are creating real Scottish theatre.

May I say to our colleagues in Scotland and Wales: beware! Self-consciously set out to create your "national" theatre and you'll end up with your version of Catherine Cookson!
British Theatre Guide  
web site
Peter Lathan
Sunday, May 25, 2003back



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