Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Figures in the Forest (2)

At NYTW

National Youth Theatre Wales- Torri Ffiniau , Llanerchaeron Estate Garden , September 11, 2012
At NYTW by National Youth Theatre Wales- Torri Ffiniau It is a brave programmer who plans an outdoors performance in the wettest summer for a century. Eyes at National Youth Theatre Wales are peeled right to the last hour for every hint or shift in the forecast. As it happens the Aeron Valley on the first day of the company’s two-day tenure is paradisal. It is the glorious summer’s day that barely flickered from June to August. Llanerchaeron’s garden looks resplendent. The performers have warmth, charm and energy. Some Year Eleven drama students have been coached in to see the show and are manifestly amused. The atmosphere is warm and amiable.

Three sirens sit at the bank of the estate’s lake. They are dressed in long blue robes that flow over the water’s edge. Their singing is astoundingly beautiful. A garden orchestra is assembled in the orchard. On the meadow next to Llanerchaeron House itself the whole company explodes with a circus exuberance and joy of colour, movement and acrobatics. The rhythm is beaten out via upturned plastic garden bins. True to form it is a strand of theatre that values visual panache at the cost of emotional and intellectual engagement.

It is all likeable enough, but it is a production that asks three questions. These are the nature of the theatre on offer, the audience that it is intended to attract, and the responsibility of the institution to its young people.

Site-specific theatre is responsible every year for some of the best theatre in Wales. When it works it does so because location is only a start-point. It is carried by vision. “Torri Ffiniau” is lacking a playwright. Its genesis has been a weekend gathering of storytellers from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Cornwall and Isle of Man. There is nothing wrong with this. Myths have an imagination, and a cruel underside, that make them ripe for dramatisation.

The issue with their realisation here is that nothing is at stake. Twm with a nut in his butt or the Old Hag of Bramble Bush or Betty Stubbs and Big Jack invite no engagement of feeling. Even when a baby is stolen it does not matter. This is in part due to the script’s habit of taking actors out of character to create comedy in commenting on their theatre-making. This strand of comedy was created by the National Theatre of Brent. In the hands of a Patrick Barlow it works. Elsewhere it comes over as mannered and slightly tired. “Torri Ffiniau / Beyond Borders” is not well served by its inclusion.

Secondly audience. “It promises to be a magical experience for all the family” runs the publicity. That means it is theatre for children. Whether it is successful with that group cannot be told from the first audience who comprise GCSE students and a scattering of adults. It does, however, point to a question at the company’s heart as to who it is for. Recent youth theatre proper has dealt with social networking, homophobic bullying, and parental alcoholism. Teenagers respond to theatre that is about their world. It is some years since I have taken teenagers to a NYTW production as it is not made for them. But I might suspect the Doctor Who generation expect more than an actor jumping out of a wood and asking “Have you ever seen a fairy?” A group song in a garden is quite pleasing but has cadences of Gilbert and Sullivan. Primary school children are listening to Jessie J and Florence and the Machine.

Lastly, the actors. National Youth Arts Wales has a complex structure and presides over a number of ensembles. I have not seen the work but doubt whether the performers are encouraged to make it all up themselves. In music, as in theatre, young performers are stretched by having to live up to work created by artists of stature in their genre.

The company has had its customary period of residence in Aberystwyth. The young cast deserve the experience of working with the best writers, designers, musicians, and technicians. The outdoor radio signal here deteriorates to crackle in headphones worn by the audience. Most of all the young actors deserve to learn what it is to be in front of an audience. David Mamet wrote it in “True and False”: “the audience will teach you how to act and the audience will teach you how to write and to direct.” A small group of watchers wandering amiably in a sunny garden is not the same.

2012 is the worst of years to be aged eighteen; youth unemployment at a level never before known, a debt-loaded future from the most costly higher education in Europe. No doubt the company has had a good time, had a lot of enjoyment. But being sent out to wood and beach “to trial and test their story-telling skills on passers-by” is not the same as apprenticeship in theatre. It makes no matter what the artistic fashionistas may claim. The word “National” attached to a company has to mean something. It is an attribute that has to be earned and with “Torri Finniau” it does not feel as if it has.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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