Theatre in Wales

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Spendthrift

At National Theatre

Theatr Genedlaethol/ Sherman Cymru- Sgint , Theatr Mwldan , March-06-12
At National Theatre by Theatr Genedlaethol/ Sherman Cymru- Sgint Verbatim theatre is not theatre’s centre. But when it works it has a force that other media cannot equal. After the Hatfield crash “The Permanent Way” skewered the balkanisation of the railway system. Philip Ralph saw “Deep Cut” take its deserved place at the epicentre of verbatim theatre, the Tricycle in Kilburn.

“Sgint” suffers from a number of flaws. The first is directorial. It has been given a treatment in line with a National Theatre company. The budget includes a movement director on top of director. But it is a first for verbatim theatre that a choreographer is required as well.

The over-elaborate design includes an embedded television twelve feet above the stage. It might symbolise the unreachability of consumer goods. But the script specifically touches on the purchase of an HD flat screen. The music is an irritant. It is used not as an augmentation to the action but is played as background to the words being spoken. The production overload makes for an inconsistency that is inappropriate for the genre.

At the opening of “Sgint” the cast of nine move around the stage and take up different positions with folded arms. They then unfold their arms, move, take up another position. Some leave the stage. It is languid stage action that is not just lacking in point but lacks all connection to what is to follow.

“Sgint” closes with a directorial visual flourish. It is all flourish as it too has no stylistic connection to what has preceded it. It is the kind of direction where service to the material has been put to one side. In place is a figure saying “It’s me! Here I am! Look at me!”

Documentary theatre lives, or dies, by the fierceness with which it adheres to a passionately held position. This season has seen a piece of theatre doing exactly that. Mike Daisey in “ The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”asks probing questions that test the consciences of all of us. His script is now posted online for anyone to perform royalty-free. Documentary theatre is an explosion on stage or it is nothing.

Richard Norton-Taylor, originator of the theatre plays of biting judicial enquiry, has described the rigour of creation. “In order to create a two hour work of drama from the thousands and thousands of pages of verbatim conversation means that threads need to be carefully selected in order to build a coherent narrative on stage.”

Sgint” has no centre. That means it has no rhythm, no momentum. The actors, a seasoned group, are obliged to deliver slabs of words. After seventy minutes the set transforms into a small room and three women begin to engage in dialogue. The viewer is disoriented. Is this scripted, verbatim, a conversation transcribed?

This piece might be about the peculiar nature of poverty in the world’s fifth biggest economy. In his first, and best, book Bill Bryson visits a desolate corner of the Appalachians and ponders the particular nature of poverty in the US. “Sgint” has touches of sharp detail like the frozen food store where everything comes in a cardboard square with a bright one or two pound price stamp on it. The price of being poor in Britain is stress and isolation, sickness and premature death by ten years. But the script spreads itself too widely.

It could be about what the Sunday press loves to call Britain’s bastions of Stalinism, where large-scale private sector organisations have vanished. It is characteristic not just of Wales but of fringe Britain overall that well-paid employment depends on a troika of local government, higher education and Health Board. “Sgint” takes in men and women in positions of authority. A politician, a Chief Executive, an entrepreneur and a City operative are represented. But their language rarely rises above bland generalisation.

Vox pop does not make verbatim theatre. It requires the transforming art of a Danziger or Terkel to turn the one into the other. Much of the talk in “Sgint” is what would be picked up in public spaces. Travel in buses, sit in cafes and these conversations are just there. Similarly “a Revolutionary” has some didactic input. It is true that SWP members do love their didacticism. But they also come in all types and hues. Some are colourful personalities; this one is without colour.

Joint ventures are rarely a satisfactory corporate form. The Sherman and Theatr Genedlaethol are both funded companies. London’s National Theatre does not have co-productions with the Royal Court. Which board and management ultimately is to be held accountable? A joint venture on this scale should be not just the zenith for theatre in Wales. It should take its place alongside the peaks of British and European theatre.

Lastly audience. “Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru…cannot survive on audiences of sixty a night.” That was Lyn T Jones in New Welsh Review in Spring 2004. “Sgint” toured Ceredigion the same days as “Fala’ Surion”. The adaptation by Katrin Dafydd and Manon Eames played to a hundred and fifty in Aberystwyth and even little Theatr Felinfach brought in an audience well into three figures.

One house for “Sgint” was fifty, another thirty. Maybe the other venues were better but National Companies cannot live on audiences a fraction of that which tough little independent companies win for themselves.

Audiences for a new writing company will vary but the national New Writing company lives on the quality of its dramaturgy. For “Sgint” the literary manager took a holiday. The challenges that both these companies face are considerable.




Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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