Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Year That Felt Special

My Year of Theatre

Theatre in Wales North, South & West , Theatre in Wales North, South & West , January-01-12
My Year of Theatre by Theatre in Wales North, South & West “British theatre is living off its past” declares London’s most senior critic of the past year. It is a part of the allure of theatre that no single person can ever quite know what theatre is. The overall critical view is as much a collective effort as theatre itself is collaborative endeavour. The hardest-working reviewer might get to see two hundred pieces in mainstream venues. The truly driven, adding in six a day for three weeks in Edinburgh, might notch it up to three hundred in a year. There is no tally for the totality of theatre in any one year. In any case, in a vibrant culture there is no clear boundary line between theatre and other hybrid art forms. The most that one person might aspire to witness is, maybe, twenty percent of what has been made available.

“Wales is a culture in fracture” declares a dramatist from the floor of Cardiff’s gleaming new Dora Stoutzker Hall on October 1st. “Theatre criticism is in a state of sickness” asserts a speaker on the stage “and it reflects a theatre in a state of sickness.” It is a statement of sufficient drama and provocation enough to be quoted in Barn and on the Guardian’s website.

As metaphors they catch the ear. But, like all metaphors, whether they are a proper description is a personal judgement. Every person holds their view of what theatre is, or isn’t, or ought to be. The same playwright in the Dora Stoutzker Hall goes on to condemn the resistance of Wales’ theatre establishment to gay-themed plays. This is a puzzler. The week before I have been at Cardigan’s Theatr Mwldan. My last view has been of Simon Watts, Paul Morgans and the rest of the cast passing round pints of Brains to make the good the torrent of physical and emotional energy that has been “Llwyth.”

“Llwyth” had a stormingly good Edinburgh. In that setting no-one cares what language it comes in. It is just another European language; all that matters is whether it lives on stage or not. But then Wales had a stormingly good Edinburgh overall. There have been hits before but it is a long time, and certainly before my time, since the weight of shows warranted a social get-together at the artistic fulcrum that is the Traverse.

It is in human nature that every person, everywhere, thinks their time and their place is the most special of all. It’s not. But 2011 did feel different. “Llwyth” turned out to be one London newspaper writer’s top show of the Festival. “The Passion” was another critic’s show of the year. National Theatre of Wales in the view of the Observer is “one of the best things to happen to the stage in the past five years.”

When Fair Play came to Aberystwyth in October I remarked that “no-one ever embarked on a life in the theatre in the expectation that it will be easy or indeed fair.” Theatr Powys bowed out in 2011 with a last show that was bitter-sweet and completely original. New companies formed and got their productions out on the road. As well as Fair Play, Waking Exploits made the trip to Aber and was personally much appreciated.

“Bred In Heaven” and “The Wizard, the Goat and the Man Who Won the War” were popular hits. Both had deep cultural roots and deserved the applause. Many would say that not much on earth is as important as rugby and politics. Frapetsus, in particular, reached out to a new audience for theatre. They earned standing ovations at the New Theatre and could have stayed a lot longer. “The Wizard…” will be back in 2012 at those venues which missed out on the first tour.

The growth of new venues continued unabated. Merthyr’s Theatr Soar opened in the Spring, Cardiff’s Richard Burton Theatre to a fanfare in June. The Sherman’s new self kicks off early 2012 and the scaffolding comes off Llanelli’s Y Ffwrness in November. Welsh theatre has acquired a lot more overhead.

I read, and reviewed, Mike Bradwell’s “The Reluctant Escapologist” in the summer. It is in many ways an annoying read, but it is also a cry of protest against theatre’s raw making being swamped with erroneous cost. The Sherman took on a tone of slight apology for its “Raw/Amrwd” productions. Since one of them was among my productions of the year, I saw small artistic justification for reverting to any other model. So venues abound, and there are any number of cool new spaces for a cappuccino. But Cardiff does not have the leaky, rough, sixty-seater where new voices can see their work first tested out.

A keynote speaker at an Arts Marketing conference in Mold on November 17th suggested provocatively that everyone had been getting it wrong for a long time. I am on the receiving end of the promo and it isn’t working as well as it should. In Autumn, I went searching for the venues for a tour by a funded company. The company’s website failed to mention any production beyond that of 2010.

Same month, I found the box office of a venue for a show that evening locked and deserted. On enquiry direct to the company it transpired the show had been cancelled two weeks before, but still featured on the venue’s web diary.

I moaned at the time about Mappa Mundi’s omission of the cast’s names. The company in that case has built itself a powerful brand name. But there is a lot of muddle in arts marketing between medium and message. The basics for advertising are unaltered, the same for theatre as any other product. At the very least, state in plain language what it is, what are the main sales points, and who is it for.

David Edgar delivered a tour de force of a lecture at the National Library’s Drwm on September 17th. He made mention of his best theatre book of the year, Aleks Sierz “Rewriting the Nation.” My review in April ended with “the sheer profusion that Sierz describes, its scale, its irreverence, its probing fearlessness left me cheered and not a little awed.” Wales had its theatre heroes in 2011, artists who just wanted to make it happen. They stretched their credit cards to the limit. Forget overdrafts these days from the banks. Get a loan, and you sign your home over as collateral. It happened. We, in the audience, are the beneficiaries.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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