Theatre in Wales

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Lively Report From the Critical Frontline

Public Event

Cyfrwng , Wallace Building, Swansea University , July 18, 2012
Public Event by Cyfrwng The timing for this five-strong panel discussion is good. The night before has seen the reformulated Book of the Year award. The weekend is scheduled to explode with dance events in eleven venues located north, central and south. This season has seen Welsh National Opera and National Theatre of Wales hitting the critical heights with “La Boheme” and “the Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.” The cross-border Coracle project has helped Literature Wales mount three days of good cheer of word and music in Dinefwr’s peerless park. Ifan Rhys makes a terrific adversary for the new Spiderman.

A literature, with a scope to take in both “Y Storiwr” and “the Last Hundred Days”, is going to represent, in the half-glass-full view, breadth and diversity. The half-glass-empty view is always going to see fracture and feebleness. The Arts may be in buoyant good form, but criticism seems to be perennially viewed as its weaker shadow. Panel Chair Beti George kicks off by quoting a provocative public statement from last October “Criticism in Wales is in a state of sickness.”

Geraint Ellis, late of S4C and now at Bangor University, responds easily to the Chair’s faux-naif question as to why we need criticism at all. “Every healthy culture” he says “needs a healthy criticism.” Dylan Moore, asked to recount his own journey-to-critic, tells how the National Theatre of Wales went out actively soliciting writers for its New Critics scheme. “It is not often that companies go looking for critics” he says. That is not quite true. Performance has a short window and there is many a young company in Wales, who hunger for a response, a marker even in writing that their event has occurred.

Geraint Ellis adds a caveat “But we're a small country, and it's not easy.” This lack of ease has several strands. Earlier in the day a dialogue between Dafydd James and Ed Thomas has concluded “A minority culture is defensive and it’s easy to be defensive from one perspective.” A part of it is expressed by Barn writer Sioned Williams. Like it or not, there is a genuine feeling of appreciation that a work has come into existence at all. Catrin Beard adds that in a small artistic world the likelihood of creator and critic being known to one another is high. Critics are human as well. Dylan Moore adds that he has given the National Theatre of Wales a broad thumbs-up. But, among the twenty productions so far, his enrolment in the company’s own scheme has not inhibited an occasional hefty kicking.

Geraint Ellis is a former producer of the lively “Pethe Hwyrach”, now plain “Pethe”. One edition saw Ian Rowlands, Charmian Savill and Keith Morris discussing an event in Aberystwyth by neo-Dadaist Berlin company Rimini Protokoll. The panel in Swansea exhibits a high regard for broadcast media and a regret for the cuts in arts reviewing. But “the Dark Knight Rises” arrives in a week’s time with a publicity budget in size akin to Wales’ GNP. Philip French can be read and Mark Kermode heard; they and many others are there only a few mouse clicks away. In this context of hyper-availability, the attitudes of budget-trimmers in taking out a three-minute local radio piece may not be welcome but it is understandable. A worse omission is that the fragmented Welsh media have a tendency to all go after the same work. A review of ”the Persians” has appeared two summers after the event and has a strong element of redundancy to it.

The attitude to television is intriguing. As the most popular medium it ought to be supplying arts criticism. S4C, in Sioned Williams’ words, “has a part to play in the national project.” Cyfrwng earlier in the day has hosted distinguished TV producers Colin Thomas and John Geraint. Both have hinted, albeit diplomatically, at the battles that are to be fought with commissioning editors. Their views would be illuminating. The reverence here for television has a few factors against it.

It is the medium’s nature that it will chase after visuals. But the interpolation of interviews, graphics, excerpts and readings all have one thing in common. They dilute the attention that is due to the artwork as an integrated entity. The written word is fundamentally different from the spoken word. Few speakers can generate spontaneous sentences of depth and form. A J P Taylor and Anthony Burgess were remarkable exceptions.

Writing possesses qualities of distillation and concentration. It can play with different forms. Michael Billington, in approaching David Edgar’s Jekyll and Hyde, adopted two voices. Peter Bradshaw generates, when a film warrants it, laugh-out-loud parodies of awfulness. “Eat Pray Love” is a tasty sampler.

But most of all the word endures. Those stelae from Hammurabi’s Babylon still speak. The trio in Aberystwyth who passed judgment on Rimini Protokoll may be locked in some digital storeroom but their voices are no longer accessible. The consuming focus on the division between print and paper is important but so is that between spoken and written word.

A discussion like this has a kind of inevitable recursion. The panel says it, the two themes are a small country and money, or its absence. There is money available, but it is inconsistent. Lowri Haf Cooke has benefited enormously from one scheme sending her to Melbourne. Dylan Moore has been in Kerala. A minority language is a matter of context, he says. The Keralan language, the palindromic Malayalam, is language for thirty-seven million. In India that is a low percentage.

The event is a simulacrum of criticism itself. It has spirit and life. Eloquence and personal engagement are on display. It is also discursive and over- stretched. Like a review, however good, it is the first but not the last word. But there are strong individual voices. Lowri Haf Cooke is fresh from seeing “Killer Joe”, the play by Tracy Letts that has made it to screen after twenty years. The film “created feelings”, she says, “that need to be explored.” For Dylan Moore it is less opinion that is to the fore in criticism. The act of writing is “more an engaged conversation, a re-presentation of the work.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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