Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Production Achieves the Impossible

At National Theatre

National Theatre Wales- The Soul Exchange , Coal Exchange Cardiff , January 28, 2011
At National Theatre by National Theatre Wales- The Soul Exchange The National Theatre of Wales should be judged on the totality of its first year's productions. At this stage it has achieved a lustrous and distinctive status, not just within Wales but within British theatre as a whole. The productions to come may at worst diminish that status but cannot remove it. The tenth production meanwhile achieves the inconceivable. “The Soul Exchange” somehow manages to render Butetown plain dull.

Formally, the production is in four parts. A ten-minute start takes place in the foyer of the Millennium Centre. A “Customs officer” admits the audience, a discourteous “photographer” snaps us. A ten-foot high replica crane has been constructed out of girders. A frenetically edited video depicts Butetown's extraordinary population mix. A group sings a capella on a staircase.

The second part takes place in a stream of taxis. For thirty-five minutes the taxis meander round and round the Bay area while a dramatised story is played on the taxi CD player. In some taxis the poor sound quality renders the script inaudible. In others the taxi driver chats with his passengers. The quality of the writing would not pass muster on a mid-week Radio 4 afternoon play. It has no place within what carries the name of National Theatre.

Outside on the pavements actors push prams, cluster outside the mosque. A quartet of pavement dice-players mirrors the scene from that rather good film “Tiger Bay” of 1959- (although not quite, the group then was multi-racial.)

In the Coal Exchange the audience waits for thirty-five minutes. This is the second occasion the company has treated its audience to an overlong interval. It is fine for those in groups but for those alone it is long and unnecessary. Part of the delay is due to the staggered arrival of all those taxis.

The scene in the Coal Exchange is a funeral and a number of tributes are delivered, some by actors, some recorded. The quality of the amplification is not fit for purpose. Eventually the sequence mutates into a dance and then disco. At less than ninety minutes' duration elder members of the audience start to drift to the exit.

The desperate thinness of “the Soul Exchange” has two prime causes. The first lies in the flawed aesthetics. No programmes were available so the creators are not identifiable. However, a piece of promotion via Youtube has a line that the production deals with “things that is very important to us as human beings as a big family.” This is of course a metaphor. Humanity is a species. Family is a subset. The lifeblood of theatre is fissure, personal and social. An aspiration to a kind of soggy communalism murders theatre.

Although no programme was available the Western Mail did usefully pick up some insights. “It would have been easier to do a traditional play that took place in a theatre” says one of the begetters. Actually it is colossally difficult to create a drama of substance. “Traditional” is modish code presumably for things like pace, vitality, visual flair, emotional engagement, intellectual bite, metaphorical resonance, hilarity even. That “the Soul Exchange” is systemically stripped of these is a guarantee, quite predictably, that the result will be a languid, watery gruel.

“We wanted people to feel like they were experiencing what the community of Butetown has experienced” say the creators. Racking up fares on an endlessly pointless ride in a whole phalanx of taxis was presumably all part of daily life.

The second issue is that of the writer. Doollee Playwrights is as imperfect as any database but the writer's absence is not auspicious. If he is an untested writer it is a disservice that he has been given prematurely a commission of such high public visibility. In fact it is no service at all; the development of a writer for theatre needs careful nourishing. For that reason I make no quotation from the often awkward and jejune writing.

The stand-out productions from NTW, utterly different in style and content, have had one thing in common. They have all had experienced writing craftsmen. The limelight now turns to the company from Rimini. Should they too believe the writer to be a disposable part of the creative process, they should get one fast.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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