Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Game-Changer of a Year

My Year of Theatre

Theatre in Wales , Venues North, South and West , January-01-14
My Year of Theatre by Theatre in Wales 2013 was a whistlecracker of a year for performance in Wales. A number of the long-established companies are now in middle age but happily making productions of undimmed vitality. I missed Volcano in 2013, but Music Theatre Wales provided one of the strangest things I have ever seen on a stage with their double bill of “Ping” and “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” Christine Watkins in collaboration with the Centre for Performance Research created wonderful multi-media with their “Invitation to the Polestar Club.” Earthfall could give masterclasses to a new generation of overly digi-utopianised theatre-makers on the deployment of gadgetry in a way that enhances live performers.

One aspect of being an observer of theatre in Wales is the pleasure to be had in the rhythm of the year. If it’s Spring it’s Waking Exploits, come September and Mappa Mundi, Frapetsus and Opra Cymru go a-touring. The critiques in the first quarter of 2013 to the dust being blown off a piece of Heritage Theatre was not just to do with the thing itself. A big, intelligent, probing piece of classical theatre in the first days of Spring is what Theatr Clwyd does. It is what it is for, as well to set a benchmark for the best of the year’s theatre. And I felt its absence in 2013.

Side by side with regular pleasures each year brings an effervescent surprise of newcomers. In 2012 it was Omidaze; this last year it was Mercury, Almost Human and Tin Shed. Lucy Rivers has been a musical presence in other productions and her own production was adored wherever it travelled. Actors make good writers. After Matthew Trevannion in 2012 Daniel Llewelyn-Williams launched himself as writer-actor. James Lawbuary and Francesca Rhydderch made debuts with full-length plays. The regular message goes to all budding theatre-makers. Aberystwyth’s Open Platform is made and intended for you. A sympathetic and enthusiastic audience is guaranteed. If the work is good it gets a nice critical head of steam behind it. If it does not work there is no record.

The venues did their different things in their own way. Venue Cymu was part-producer for the very appropriate “High Society.” Taliesin had a quieter year in-between the busy Olympic year and all the upcoming Dylan-alia on its doorstep. The Torch reprised Helen Griffin and her searing Rachel Roberts. The estimable Riverfront saw the Crashmat Collective out and on the road. Richard Gough has been exploring food, ritual and performance for years. Crashmat’s “Façade” beat the Royal Court’s “Gastronauts” by a full half-year.

Aberystwyth picked “Little Shop of Horrors” for its summer musical, a tale of a small innocuous thing that grows and grows to lethal effect. It was done with aplomb but much better was the full-blooded production of “the Government Inspector.” With a Scot at the directorial helm Gogol’s tale of mean-minded, small-souled officialdom in a far-off town was delivered with such a pumping vim and vivacity that it felt as it were jumping right off the stage.

The WMC and Traverse got together in another less feted Scots-Welsh collaboration. It was the wrong context. As a late night fringe event it would have been praised but it could not carry the lustre and gravity of its producers' names. National Theatre of Wales got to Tokyo, Edinburgh, Berlin and London. With a total staff number less than Nicholas Hytner’s catering team theirs has been an indelible achievement. Back home the work did not have quite the consistency of the stunning year two. It is called reversion to the norm and does not matter one bit. 2014 beckons.

Among the other national companies WNO hit the critical heights with “Lulu” and did something innovative and surprising with the Tudor trilogy. National Youth Theatre of Wales came back in a big way with a little help from Frantic Assembly. Theatr Clwyd hosted another bubbling Celtic Festival. Kate Wasserberg finished her tenure in Mold with a stunner of a production. It was a pity that so few of the critical community were there to see Mike Britton’s design and the acting of Christian Patterson, Katrin Aaron, Lisa Diveney, Brendan Charleson among many.

Great individuals and institutions create effects that were never intended. The artistic corpocracy is as tight-lipped on its inner doings as any other industry. In fact the public sector has embraced gagging orders with a fervour to out-do the private sector. But it must be fair to observe that National Theatre of Wales must have been in some way midwife to the re-born and rocketed-into-the-twentieth-first-century Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru.

Jain Boon, if she will pardon the title, is my mini-hero for 2013 but there can only be one contender for Theatre Hero of 2013. There had been hints in “Y Storm” but nothing really prepared for the unleashing of Arwel Gruffydd’s first season. “Y Bont”, “Blodeuwedd”, “Dyled Eileen” and the others- there were so many- were different but linked together in a way that was a whole in itself and all politically tinged. It reached its culmination in the image of Owen Arwyn’s Handy Al, the children's entertainer, miming the words that cannot be heard. It was not just theatre but theatre doing what no other art form can do.

New writing. It’s a strange world. The Board of the Sherman opted a few years back to do without an Artistic Director for a period- WYGIWYG as the IT people put it. The new regime in Senghennydd Road can only be wished every blessing and good fortune going, because the place matters. The official new writing company passed on Wales’ prize-winning play. The National Theatre passed on its own winner and chose to stage a first-time playwright, an interesting self-definition of national theatre. Dirty Protest assuming the mantle of new writing company took its bag to the Royal Court and staged “Parallel Lines” to acclaim. If Dirty Protest has by action rather than policy seized centre stage in new writing, what that means for funding formulas is presumably cause for some deliberation.

Definition of theatre is as elastic as any. If Plaid Cymru’s Powys electoral candidate stands on a platform in front of a paying audience, with a rehearsed script, cracking jokes and making comments on Wales’ topography and politics, that is theatre. No-one is counting but around one hundred pieces of work appear each year. My view is as partial as any. The list of productions I did not see is a long one and includes “Cyfaill”, “Flights of Fancy”, “Hide”, “Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow”, “De Gabay”, “Llanast”, “Lulu”, “Praxis Makes Perfect”, “Salt, Root and Roe”, “Say it with Flowers”, “Rhwydo/ Vangst”, “Tir Sir Gar”, “To Live, To Love, To Be”, the WNO Tudor Trilogy” “Tonypandemonium” “Winslow Boy”, “Wyneb dros Dro” and a whole lot more.

Theatre has many a Laputa-style Speculator and Projector. I find that the makers themselves are better trusted. Among them Richard Eyre put it best: “the “untranslatable” element in the theatre, the part that isn’t a surrogate for television, that isn’t prose to be read standing up, the part that can’t be translated from stage to screen; the part that is, in a word, theatrical...the unique properties of the medium- its use of space, of light, of speech, of story-telling; its theatreness.”

I saw a production a week. Tough as it as to whittle out a shortlist, my favourites got what Eyre was describing. So with a strong dash of personal preference my favourites, by order only of their appearance in the year, were

“Sexual Perversity in Chicago” Living Pictures/ Cegin Productions at Aberystwyth Arts Centre Studio

“The Day We Realised the World was an Oyster” Chloe Loftus Dance at Chapel Court Aberystwyth

“Barbwr Sefil” Opra Cymru at Aberaeron Memorial Hall

“dead born grow” National Youth Theatre Wales with Frantic Assembly at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

“Aristocrats” Clwyd Theatr Cymru at Emlyn Williams Theatre

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Ballet Cymru at the Riverfront

“Love and Information” Richard Burton Company at the Caird Studio

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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