Theatre in Wales

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Critics Roundtable

Wales Arts Review , Richard Burton Theatre, Cardiff , November-19-12
Critics Roundtable   by Wales Arts Review The indispensable Rebecca West declared her simple reason for writing: “I write books to find out about things.” In his 1982 play “A Map of the World” David Hare gave his Naipaul-like character Victor Mehta a similar line: “I write in order to find out what I believe.” A culture that is bereft of an enlivened self-critique is one that is in hock to public relations. “If there is no intellectual, aesthetic, political, spiritual passionate argument about what gets made” writes Adrian Gill “then the only arbiters of value are the box office and the phone-in.”

Criticism may be narrowly considered as private opinion. It is, but that is the least, and the last, of it. It is also engagement, context, insight, description and concern. All are on display over the four hours of Wales Arts Review’s inaugural Critics Roundtable.

The format is a trio of panel discussions, topped and tailed by the launch of the Review’s new version. Jon Gower’s brow knits slightly when asked for his view of the lurching, fragmented critical landscape of Wales. It is long practice that chums and colleagues are commissioned to make comment on one another’s work. He gives this tradition the term “praise criticism”. It is healthily alive in 2012; a current Welsh Books Council-sponsored journal has selected this season one piece of theatre out of several dozen candidates to address. The five-page review remarkably makes no mention of acting, lighting, design, sound or script. It is, the writer concludes, a thoroughly splendid organisation, upon whose Board he sits. In breach of tradition an interest should be declared; I am among the fifty-nine contributors to have been published by the Review since its launch this last March.

“I would do one thing straight off” says Linda Christmas of the title of the next panel. “That is to take out the “versus” in the high versus low art”. The two are distinct- the Vergil who is companion to Dante is not the same as the Virgil who pilots Thunderbird Two. But quite where to put the dividing line is anyone’s guess. Schoenberg is still esoteric stuff but his contemporary Klimt is t-shirt and table mat material. Catherine Paskell provides an illuminating history of the Arts Council and its swivelling policies.

As it happens serendipity provides a nice illustration a two-minute walk from the venue. The visitor heading for Artes Mundi in the National Museum this particular Saturday passes through a celebration for Diwali. Dance, food, a pounding drumbeat are all one with an art installation using discarded canvas and oil drums. Jon Gower provides a pithy anecdote. Asked to provide a list of favourite art works for a BBC event he eschews the usual suspects, Dostoevsky, Proust and the like. With a list that takes in Manic Street Preachers and “the Wire” a plea comes in return “Could you make it a little more serious?”

“Theatre, Art, Truth and Politics” is as big a title as it comes. Tim Price is here to talk of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.” The waning of post-modernism is unlamented by the panel. Moral relativism is essentially anti-political. Brecht gets an inevitable name-check. Personally, I have been more impressed by Brecht the theatre-maker than Brecht the political utterer; a formative theatre experience was crossing the Wall to see the Berliner Ensemble in situ.

A series of trenchant points are made. The nudge towards project funding is not good for political theatre. It is not just that live art is less able to make the rapid response it is good at. In Sara Rees’ phrasing the nature of the relationship becomes somewhat paternalistic and child-like. That the work has to be so thoroughly pre-defined is, says John McGrath, fundamentally inimical to art’s making.

McGrath also pins down the heart of political theatre, differing from the recent view of dramatist Dennis Kelly. Its function need not be the engendering of immediate action. That is what UK Uncut is for. If it is doing its job political art is about “exposing a deeper feeling about how power works. It opens up connections in the world in a way we had not seen before.” Dylan Moore recalls an encounter in Sara Rees’ unclassifiable art event in a ghostly, merchandise-less shop. Entering into the universal discourse of choice and consumer feedback, an enquirer asks him “And how is your current democracy-provider working for you?”

The Richard Burton Theatre is a natural venue for a panel discussion of the man himself. Phil Morris who takes the Panel Chair is impressively well-informed on the man and the myth that Burton has become. James Lloyd has newly reviewed the Dairies and has to hand their insights. “I don’t need to research this part” says Burton on taking on “Dr Faustus” “I am Faustus.”

Pertinent lines are quoted from Burton’s best biographer, Melvyn Bragg. All his life the actor remained Richard Jenkins from Taibach playing a part. On the power of his stage presence he says “I feel a great stillness within me.” Literary accomplishment was beyond him, says Bragg- the necessary stamina and focus are at odds with the gusting life-force. Phil Morris has the acuity of the trained actor. “Look Back in Anger” fails in his view for a good reason. “Jimmy Porter is a lost cause and he couldn’t play a lost cause.”

Mark Jenkins is one of the panel members. His “Playing Burton” has now played fifteen hundred performances on three continents. A filmed version is due for transmission by Sky Arts in 2013. He was a young witness to Burton on stage in 1948. That is the key to unpicking the allure. Stanley Baker, his near contemporary, has at least a half-dozen films, “the Good Die Young” onward, that are tremendous. Baker’s power is there to see. By comparison the Burton filmography is miserable. The great art is elsewhere, and invisible. The volcanic Shakespearean stage acting can be told but it can never be seen. The claim that it still makes on our attention is theatre’s power.

The Wales Arts Review editors make a plea for new writers. The state of criticism may no longer be “parlous” but it is patchy. WNO, says Jon Gower, produces work from the European canon that can hit greatness. But there is no Welsh critic of stature who might comment on the company’s omission of the nation’s composers. Theatr Clwyd Cymru, the only year-round building-based producer, is now unseen by any newspaper critic of substance. BBC Wales operates in a wholly criticism-free zone. A journal has this year had the services of a television correspondent; in two issues and seven pages he did not get around to discussing an actual programme as seen by viewers.

Dean Lewis and Jennifer Moran provide a coda on technology and numbers. Numbers are never the whole story, but they are a part of it. Wales Arts Review, seven months old, has put out two hundred and fifty articles and received half a million hits. Reviews of Cynan Jones or Vincent Delbrouck are never going to be Dizzee Rascal. But with not much more a smidgeon of seed money from the public purse it is not a bad start.

Editor-founder Dylan Moore closes with appreciation of thanks to those who have helped create this first Critics Roundtable. Organisational thanks are given to Literature Wales, Welsh Book Council and the National Theatre of Wales. The best line of an ambitious, engaged, wide-ranging afternoon comes from the writer of Wales’ most successful play this side of “Under Milk Wood” and Emlyn Williams. “I thought I was just doing a job that might earn me a few bob.” (Glossary for a younger generation: “bob”- a common term used to denote five pence.)

“The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others” wrote a veteran a half-century back. If that is the case then the twenty speakers are artful critics.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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