Theatre in Wales

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History in the Classroom Was Never This Good

A Place in Welsh History

Six Historians, A Minister and a Journalist , Digital Stage, Hay Festival , May-29-13
A Place in Welsh History by Six Historians, A Minister and a Journalist “A Place in Welsh History” has a producer and an ensemble of eight. It takes place on a stage before a large audience. They laugh and clap and are invited to lob comment back at the platform. It employs a crafted, rhetorical language, aimed at eliciting an emotional response. It does not have characters made from fiction, but then neither does the vast bulk of modern drama. It has dialectic, purpose and a lightness of heart. If it is not exactly theatre it is certainly performance, with more of theatre’s essence than the sometime receivers of official grants and sponsorship. It attacks head-on the shibboleth that seriousness must equal earnestness.

It has one unashamed scene-stealer who is the delight of Hay’s packed-out tent. Hay’s hundreds of guests conventionally sit in well-upholstered chairs. Chris Evans has had himself fitted out with a mobile microphone, which allows him to stomp the stage. His subject is Merthyr, “the place where our destiny as a species was changed.”

The Western Mail to its credit commissioned in 2012 a series of essays by heavyweight historians on heroes and villains in Welsh history. It emerged also in book form filled with the true stuff of history, the discipline as contradiction and paradox rather than easy continuity. The concept has obviously taken root as Ceri Gould of the newspaper, present on stage, has repeated the process in 2013. The theme is place, not the big, the well-known, or the showy, but locations which emblematise a crucial point in Wales’ history.

The format for “A Place in Welsh History” has been borrowed from Saturday night primetime television. Each participant has a four-minute slot to make their pitch and at the end the audience votes for their favourite. Huw Bowen is the man at the podium with the stopwatch, the easy humour of the presenter, and the fierce powers of critique or disqualification.

Chris Evans’ pitch for Merthyr makes the simplest of points. Coalbrookdale may have stolen the historical limelight but it had one great defect. It could never have achieved mass-volume manufacture because of its dependence on charcoal for energy. That demanded a vegetable input, which in turn required an unfeasible quantity of labour and an unavailable supply of forest. The smelters of Merthyr were fed for the first time with a supply of mineral energy available in near limitless quantity.

Helen Nicholson’s choice is also a place where Wales played on an international stage. The churches of Gower, Ilston, Llanmadoc, Cheriton and others, are tough-looking and modestly-sized. They are not the Cotswolds or Leicestershire, but their connection through the Hospitallers ran through to Christianity’s heart, the Church of the Holy Sepulcre itself in Jerusalem.

Paul O’Leary of Aberystwyth makes a persuasive pitch for the streets of Wales. It is true that rurality or the Arcadian country estate barely count next to the explosion of urban concentration, home to everything from festivity to riot. Martin Johnes is a member of the admirable next generation of historians and throws an iconoclastic entry into the competition. Modern Wales, Severn to Pont Abraham, is inconceivable economically or socially without the binding presence, for good or ill, of the M4.

Madeleine Gray, of the freshly-formed University of South Wales, gets my vote because she writes the kind of history that is the lifeblood for theatre. “We don’t like things that make us uncomfortable” she says. “We want history to be a comfort blanket. But it’s there to make us ask the questions.” Huw Bowen asks the audience how many present have even heard of Ysbyty Ifan. A sizeable number has, evidence, comments Ceri Gould, that they have been reading her newspaper.

Ysbyty Ifan, named after the presence of the Knights of St John, is on the old Denbighshire-Caernarfonshire border, a place where the Conwy river is just a stream. It may once have been “a receptacle of thieves and murderers” but it was also home to a family of power. Rhys ap Maredudd saw heroic action at Bosworth and his son Robert was personal Chaplain to Wolsey. He was thus close to Thomas Cromwell, the architect of Britain’s reformation. Cromwell took advice from influential Welsh, and that advice was “what Wales needed was emancipation and union with England.” History as discomfort indeed.

The Minister for Education is no stranger to the Western Mail. School or university makes the front page three times a week, every week. On a sunny Saturday afternoon he is present, says Huw Bowen, as a break from the job. He is a relaxed, open presence, flying a passionate flag for the Rhondda, trading banter with the historians. It is hard to imagine his battling counterpart in Westminster sharing a stage with educators in a spirit of such ease and engagement.

“History is as much about the mundane and the essential” says Martin Johnes. “A Place in Welsh History” is never mundane and often essential. Universities were never intended to be islands that communicated only with one another via sliver-sized journal articles at the behest of obscurely-hidden, citation-measuring Gradgrinds. A thumbs-up for the communicators. The overall flavour in Hay’s tent is a rocking good humour. The audience obviously had themselves a good time, and I did too.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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