Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Criticism: the State of Play

Theatre in Wales: Comment

Theatre Blogs and Journals , Wales 2012 , January-05-13
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Theatre Blogs and Journals Theatre talk in the south returns repeatedly to a few themes. It shares a concern with the talk at Devoted and Disgruntled in Bangor- how may theatre in Wales raise its game, fly higher? The level of self-critique is high, and not wholly deserved. For a physical terrain of its size and population theatre across Wales has as much diversity, innovation, surprise, levity and beauty as anywhere, and probably more. But it doesn’t mean that things can’t be better, because they always can, and it is in human nature to dream.

Comment suffers from the nature of the internet. Its unruliness makes it open to all, but that unruliness means that it rambles and lurches, rarely reaches any culmination or conclusion. It is democratic in the sense that an enlivened, open-to-all chat in the bar is democratic. It is profoundly anti-democratic in the sense that the holders of power need give no account of themselves. But leadership in any area is a consuming business. The bullying of political representatives by party whips into churning out endless bloggery is deplorable. But then the issuing of an organisational fatwa that bans staff from participation in debate on the topic for which that institution holds responsibility is also not wise. Whether it is true or not, it is the nature of the web that it becomes true.

The chat forums seethe with nuggets, but they come well hidden within layers of rock and irrelevance. “That’s the big question for our world – how to create new work that challenges but does not lose – or retains/attracts/develops/grows – audience at the same time?” It is a good question. But it follows up with “But as with many important questions, trying to answer it brings forth a load of other questions”. The author then enters a realm of speculation, which I do not understand.

But, thankfully, there is plenty of plain statement. “There is a very healthy level of playwriting in Wales, as evidenced by the 250 submissions to NTW's award. So the plays are being written out there.” From the Made in Wales record that number has not changed greatly in two decades. There is also the self-reinforcing argument “New writing is a hard sell in Wales, but this is not a reason not to keep making a concerted effort to do it.”

That is not automatically so. Matthew Trevannion’s “Bruised” did well in an unlikely venue. But the comment misses the point. An audience of regularity does not go out in search of new plays scattered across any number of places; it does go to a venue where it feels familiar and comfortable, where a single known artistic mission prevails.

The Writers Group reissued the nine-year old document “State of play in Wales: Where are We?” in its entirety. It runs to twelve hundred words. Stripped to its essence and a few sentences it reads: “It is time to adopt a serious and integrated approach that offers proper support for the production of contemporary drama...the benchmark should be an increased number of original, full-length, commissioned new plays...Wales has no theatre space dedicated to new writing on a year-round basis...action should be taken towards the creation, or branding of a year-round dedicated centre for new writing in Wales, such as exists in every other nation in the UK and, indeed, in every major regional city.”

The artistic community deserves better from the commentariat who stand on the side. Performance hit the Turner Prize in 2012. The panjandrums at Tate Britain declared that “Odd Man Out” “confuses the boundary between performer and spectator”. That is now number one item on the catwalk for this season’s fashion show. When I was aged ten, Ken Dodd was assaulting his audiences with his tickling stick. Something similar was probably taking place when Ken Dodd was aged ten. “Odd Man Out” is just the same. It has the exuberance of performance to it, that does not need dignifying with earnestness.

The Tate Curatorship also sees in Spartacus Chetwynd’s event “social responsibility and the consequences of decision-making lie behind”. It is nonsense. There is an irony here. While social scientists discern in Britain a greater relaxation and hedonism, a strand of theatre comment has become a bastion of Puritanism. This should not matter much; the work is the thing. But a director, with a lifetime of innovative work behind him, took a careful trawl through the last tranche of decisions made by Arts Council of England. He discerned a subtle bias towards work of self-displaying aestheticism. Of course, in one way it suits the powers-that-be to diminish a company like Out of Joint. The aestheticians are deeply apolitical, so theatre need not run the risk of spilling over into tabloid rage. It may stay within a ghetto of the enthusiastic. It is good that Wales has a funder who can appreciate that “Hairspray” is the equivalent of Toneelgroep, not better, just different, and a part of the plumage that makes up the peacock’s rich display.

The makers of performance deserve better. A piece of funded dramaturgy in 2012 permitted lines like “It does not behove me”; the imagined character was a civil servant in the 1950’s. The play was made of scenes in which pairs of characters told each other facts and was deficient in verbal, physical and thematic action. The event was not a workshop but for an audience paying real money. The quality of the dramaturgy was risible. Artists, particularly the young, deserve better.

Wales has a spread of print journals across the arts. The diversity has prompted a review by the Welsh Books Council. There is often good writing, there is occasional poor writing. But they lack the authority and respect of a single figure, of the kind enjoyed by Joyce McMillan in Scotland or Lyn Gardner in England. “Torchbearers” in the summer was a large event for Cardiff, a crucial part of a celebratory season. As a member of the creative team that made it pointed out, there is no other city in the world where it would have gone unrecorded.

Editors really could work harder. A review qualifies the verb “to translate” with the adverb “unsparingly”. It means, maybe, that the translator didn’t leave any words out. A piece of Welsh landscape, with an important and dramatic history, is anthropomorphised as “resistant to our need for facility” and “proud of its inaccessibility”. Whatever this is, it is not critical writing. There is the irritating habit of making declarations on what the audience thinks and feels. As in “there could be no pretence here that this landscape could cleave itself to the audience’s imagination.” Whatever this may be intended to mean, it looks as if writer and editor alike believe “cleave” to possess a meaning that is its actual opposite.

Many good items came my way in 2012; among them:

When Peter Postlethwaite did “King Lear” it was not a success. In his autobiography “A Spectacle of Dust” he says “We were overwhelmed, I think, by the ideas.” Tricky things, ideas, and dangerous in their excess.

That irrepressible and unique fountain of words on both stage and page known as Simon Callow has a lot of sharp things to say in his “My Life in Pieces”. He includes “The theatre will in the end only be as good as its audience, and the critical discourse is central to what the audience brings with it to the performance.”

The Jubilee Cultural Olympiad prompted a radio series on the makers and shakers of our age. The fifteen minutes on Pinter included a Minister for the Arts being lambasted by the Boss with the question “How much longer do we have to keep giving money to ghastly people like Peter Hall?”

“The Passion” prompted a good anecdote for 2011. A helpful Port Talbot-er with a van offers to get rid of a load of scrap metal. “That”, says the Artistic Director, “is our set.” At Hay 2012 Owen Sheers was on the platform to talk about “the Passion.” Taking a question about the casting challenge, he glanced down and said “God’s right there, sitting in the front row. It’s not often that happens for a writer.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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