Theatre in Wales

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Civic Action Theatre Puppet Debate Blend

At National Theatre

Who Controls the Drones in My Sky?- Small World/ National Theatre of Wales Assembly , Small World Theatre Cardigan , March 31, 2014
At National Theatre by Who Controls the Drones in My Sky?- Small World/ National Theatre of Wales Assembly In ten or fifteen years an author will be commissioned to write the history of National Theatre of Wales. It will be a big, big task for at least one reason. The productions themselves have all been amply promoted and recorded but the company footprint stretches well outside the formal works of theatre. “Who Controls the Drones in My Sky?” is the first for 2014 in the company’s Assembly strand. There have probably been a couple of dozen so far. Out of the many 2012’s Machynlleth and Glynliffon have been recorded on this site. There may be some video but for the most part the events, and their impact, are in the memories of those who were there. That future historian is going to have to put in a lot of legwork.

Each Assembly, in the form that they assumed after the company’s game-changing first year, differs, morphing in line with the values of the group behind its proposal. Small World Theatre in its heart is politically conscious, boundary-probing, internationalist. These are the values that this Assembly acquires after its Monday-to-Saturday of intense preparation. It is also a puppet company; no surprise then that they have their participants forming dollars and cents, newspapers and models of the American president out of rolls of aluminium foil.

Civic action and performance are categories that do not marry easily. One is means to an end, while the other is an end in itself, formally bounded. One is specific, limited and instrumental, the other emblematic and trigger for infinite suggestion. Some previous assemblies, Machynlleth’s Y Plas for instance, have had expansive spaces. That has allowed a series of contrasting tableaus to unfold for an audience on the move. Small World’s theatre, founded, designed and constructed according to the company’s principles, is a unique performance space. Its floor space for this event is crammed with a dozen round tables.

Delyth Wyn moves among the crowded floor singing an unaccompanied song of lament. She has already given testimony of a childhood close to the Blaenannerch airfield. Once a place of model aircraft and open for play and adventure it is now home to unceasing robotic whine and warning signs against trespass with their threat of five thousand pound fines.

Bill Hamblett, in dark suit and severe expression, patrols the tables. He moves to the periphery to hold a model drone hanging from a set of strings and asks who is control. Hand declares its innocence and advises to look to Elbow. Elbow too declares its innocence and refers the enquirer to refer to Muscle. While responsibility is shuffled around more strings descend from the gallery and the ostensible controller becomes in turn a puppet under command of another force in the shadows.

One company member delivers appalling testimony from Somalia. Another plays the role of devil’s advocate. West Wales suffers a perpetual cycle of drain of young people and loss of economic vigour. If a high-technology activity arrives it is to be welcomed and these countries, exactly as seventy-five years ago, are far-off places of which we know nothing. “Tell me why should I care” she demands. Of course, the company of people who has assembled does care, because they are more than economic agents and consumers. We are also citizens.

The subject of drones is large and complex. The advance of robotics is unstoppable. The largest tax-avoiding retailer spent three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2012 on a drone company. California’s largest surveillance-advertising company has to date acquired twelve companies in the field. In the month of March alone the second largest Silicon Valley surveillance company spent sixty million on a drone company. Small World captures in imaginative form this new ever-watching world. A screen covers the space above us and a gigantic observing eye looks down.

Subjects for discussion and activities are given to the tables to undertake. All know that robotic aircraft are used for lethal, often indiscriminate assault. As the killings occur in territories against which no declaration of war has been made, says one, it is manifest that notions of international law are being tested to their limit. But, says a debater, there is another side. The concept of immunity of journalists has been jettisoned by many a regime and a significant number has died in the conflicts of recent years. Small robotic craft hovering over Maidan Square this winter recorded and relayed violence where journalists could hardly venture.

It is a world of which we know so little. It is no surprise then that suggested points for action focus on simply knowing more, getting the privatised defence company of the unspellable name to open its doors to the citizenry in its neighbourhood.

By definition an event like this is open-ended, venturesome, exploratory. Any theatrical experimentation is to be applauded. Small World Theatre is probably not that well-known in the greater theatre world beyond its own locality and activity. I wrote last year that it should have been default first choice for a puppeteering co-venture. Cardigan itself is at something of a turning point with the re-opening of the castle. It is to be hoped that this Assembly may encourage many a visitor, not least to experience the remarkable, values-saturated home that the company has made for itself.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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