Theatre in Wales

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Exhilarating Testimonial to Highpoints of Recent Years

Theatre Writer Book

Editors Tim Price & Kate Wasserberg: Contemporary Welsh Plays , Bloomsbury Publishing , February-09-15
Theatre Writer Book by Editors Tim Price & Kate Wasserberg: Contemporary Welsh Plays Collections of plays from Wales are not frequent. Parthian published a trio of Hijinx-produced scripts by Sharon Morgan, Greg Cullen and Lewis Davies in 2006. Before that Parthian published a trio of Made in Wales scripts but that was in the last century. This new collection is different. Bloomsbury, in recognition of the polity of the United Kingdom of our century, has published collections from all four of the constituent nations. That from Wales differs from the other three in two intriguing respects.

The first is the number of contributors, not the playwrights but the authors of forewords and introductions. Ireland, Scotland and England have one each while “Contemporary Welsh Plays” has four. One reason is practical- Tim Price features as both editor and selected dramatist. Whereas the Introduction to Scotland is written by Trish Reid of Kingston University and England by the fiery and dependable Aleks Sierz “Contemporary Welsh Plays” is principally in the hands of theatre-makers.

This has an effect on style. Qualifiers like “incredibly” and “fantastically” are deployed too loosely to hyperbolic rather than descriptive effect. “Llywth” inevitably is one of the editors’ selections and Arwel Gruffydd is the most accomplished writer. He had a pivotal role in the making of the boundary-breaking production beyond that of director. An article on this site (14 July 2012) cites Dafydd James at the time “struggling to know what to write about”. The Sherman provided the key.

Gruffydd provides more detail on “Llwyth” on its first tour. Local choirs were recruited “fusing popular Welsh music with gay anthems”. He chooses some nice phrasing for the author, admiring “the ambition, vivacity and naughtiness of his creative mind”.

David Ian Rabey in his Foreword places these plays in a context of cultural continuity. Crucially he pinpoints the presence of Ed Thomas now a generation back. Thomas “avoids portrayals of linguistic restriction and enclosure” and Rabey makes the contrast with the Bond of “Saved”. Certainly the characters in all these works are rarely marked by a Mike Leigh-like taciturnity.

The most revealing difference in approach to the Wales volume is the sense of common cause. The introduction to “Contemporary English Plays” is all about a polity under stress with a record of racially motivated murder, ASBOS, the BNP and Vicky Pollard. Aleks Sierz picks out the plays that are about a nation in struggle to make sense of what it has become. Plays like “Testing the Echo”, “England People Very Nice”, “Jerusalem” and “Statement of Regret” all circle around fracture. This makes “The Westbridge” a natural candidate for selection.

The contrast with the Wales book is considerable. In part it is the role that Dirty Protest has played, to the extent of staging a prize-winner that bizarrely the award-givers were unable to stage themselves. Try to imagine the Bruntwood handing out cheques along with a “not wanted here” notice. Tim Price writes of his relation to other writers: “it is a collegiate movement…where playwrights help each other by reading, dramaturging, producing and acting in each other's work. There is no room for rivalry or competition only encouragement and support.”

Each of the four volumes has three pages entitled “Chronology”. Scotland lists every election this century. The Wales “Chronology” does rugby but does not do elections. This is an irony in that the politics of devolution have been crucial in the definition of theatre. The Coalition seven years ago was author of the National Theatre and the National Theatre has not just been galvanic in itself in its first years but its influence has felt itself across the spectrum of theatre.

The “Chronology” in the Wales collection has slipped into print without benefit of a proof-reader. Verbs oscillate between past and present. Punctuation is all over the place with intrusive commas and hyphens gone astray. “Submarine” as title for a film is not placed in italics. The 1999 Act did not give the Assembly “the power to decide how the government budget for Wales is spent”. The devolved powers are selective. When independent Scotland of 2020 kicks out its submarines Cardiff will have small say in their putative redeployment to Milford.

The inaugural year of the National Theatre is awkwardly described as “the company produces thirteen plays in a map of Wales”. The phrase is “across Wales”. The productions were not “digitally enabled”. “Better Call Saul” is digitally enabled; theatre is live. The great production over Easter 2011 was not entitled “Passion Play”. That is the title of Peter Nichols’ most enduring play. It did not “perform the Gospel story” as the Gospels are about God made Man. The production was a humanist variation recreated by Owen Sheers.

Kate Wasserberg rightly sees “confidence and authenticity” in these plays. But she also writes of “Bruised” that it “barrels towards a heart-breaking revelation that would only be possible on a stage.” To read these plays is to be reminded that they were not created for tablet or paper but to be enacted as sound, light and movement.

Thus “Tonypandemonium” is inseparable from the brio and high energy of its Lopez-ian treatment. Matthew Trevannion’s heart-stopping climax revolves around a phrase “This stops tonight” and it is repeated seven times. The author also slips in a visual trick, a borrowing from “the Sixth Sense”, that is purely and only theatre.

David Ian Rabey makes mention of scene thirty of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” In book form it is a bald few pages and a world from the way in which director John McGrath used his cast in his school hall space. Nor can the script in itself make mention of how it feels for audience members to be handed their seats by an impossibly young-looking Gwawr Loader in combat fatigues and battle helmet.

This is an exhilarating compendium and reminder of recent years. Audiences of 2015 have the opportunity to see one of the works this season. Lora Davies directs Brad Birch’s “Gardening for the Unfulfilled and Alienated” at Theatr Clwyd 24th April.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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