Theatre in Wales

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Theatre in Wales: Comment

Devoted and Disgruntled , Bangor , January 6, 2013
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Devoted and Disgruntled Devoted and Disgruntled was in Bangor 7th July and left an interesting footprint in its wake. It is an area of performance where I tread uneasily, for an obvious reason. Encounter a language in middle age and it can never be the same as its ingestion in childhood. It might be feasible in an environment of total immersion, but the presence of English, even in an environment of seventy percent bilingualism, is like the perfect storm in Wolfgang Petersen’s film of that name.

It is not just the size of it- Shakespeare’s vocabulary range is twenty-five times that of Racine- but the blizzard of neologisms it throws up. New terms like “stuffocation” and “wantology” already have references in the thousands. My perspectives on the companies in the Welsh language are taken from viewers, my neighbours, with a small dash from the theatre-makers.

The talk from Bangor mixes the true and the not-so-true. “A feeling there is not much Welsh language theatre that challenges by satirizing and raising political/social questions” runs a comment. Swathes of performance pass me by. I may well be wrong but I have heard one fleeting reference to the Assembly, in the script for “Baker Boys.” Theatre in Wales and government in Wales barely touch one other.

There is a difficulty, a very genuine one, that acts against a rigour of assessment. The critics for Barn and Taliesin, who gathered for a panel at Cyfrwng’s conference in July, acknowledged it. The likelihood of a reviewer not knowing a novelist or a member of a theatre company is non-existent. “Praise criticism”, in Jon Gower’s phrase, is a mirror of social reality. On the other hand, critic Aleks Sierz told the recruits on the New Critics Scheme a couple of years back “You don’t go into reviewing to make friends.”

“Attending Welsh language theatre has a political element” says a D&D participant “There is a sense of obligation within the Welsh speaking community to attend all shows in Welsh, rather than the shows that spark an interest.” I cannot speak for Gwynedd, having only ever seen one event there. But the good-sized audience for “Eich Parc, Eich Dweud” came together because the event sparked an interest. It seems a reasonable aim for theatre-makers, and deviation from it hazardous.

Further south I have seen productions with Welsh language in five venues locally. (The phrase “Welsh-language theatre” gives undue attention to the word in an art form that is not literary.) The sizes of audience have ranged from sell-out to the number of people on stage being not a whole lot more than the number in the seats. The audiences are the same as any other, but with one difference.

Word-of-mouth has an effect, whose potency I suspect company advertisers are barely aware of. When a tour kicks off at Y Galeri or, less commonly, Chapter the news of a production’s worth or wetness spreads fast. The numbers are after all small, if as a rule of thumb half to one percent of any given population are enthusiasts for theatre outside the annual pantomime visit.

At Cyfrwng in the summer Ed Thomas was blunt: “There’s a stranglehold of mediocrity here in Wales.” Frank talk too in Bangor: “The group discussed why so much welsh language theatre is so bad, which meant that when “Llwyth” was produced the community was so starved of good work it fuelled a two year run of the show.”

A part of the answer is that it takes a long period of nurture, and the right structural conditions, for the making of a dramatist. Dafydd James revealed in public conversation in Swansea just what it took for the making of “Llwyth”. The author himself was “struggling to know what to write about.” Happily the Sherman was on hand with encouragement that went beyond moral and artistic support to “We’ll give you a small bursary.”

Lastly, from Bangor: “Discussion centred on Theatre Gen's tradition of translating English classics and if there should be a place for that in Welsh language theatre. Welsh language audiences tend to be older and therefore more conservative.” This last line is simply not true. Theatr Genedlaethol has shown that Elen Bowman can mount large-scale productions that bring in audiences from across the ages. As for all that trouble of translating work out of English, I know personally audience members who cannot be urged to go. If they want Pinter they will see him as he wrote it.

Monoglot nations are a minority anyhow in the EU. There is thrilling theatre, or so we hear, in Estonia, Slovakia, Belgium. A Belgian company of brilliance was in Aberystwyth this last autumn- they tackled bilingualism by having no words at all. Adherence to translation from English could even be viewed as homage; bolder surely to make common cause with the other small nations on the EU’s fringe, invite a great Estonian to direct. It is always easy to voice opinion from the safety of the touchline. But the record of the last couple of years must be that strong content will get its audience.

Posters outside the Assembly Building in Aberystwyth are marking the countdown to “Y Bont.” “Real political theatre assumes a maturity and an ability to think in its audience”. That was writer Peter Lathan in 2002. He made the distinction with work that “seeks to beatify the side it supports…Real political theatre is difficult, hard and uncomfortable.” Decent journalism, it is said, is writing that someone somewhere does not want to see the light of day. Trefechan Bridge is one tough nut of a challenge; to avoid it being a CADW Visitor Interpretation Centre and its rendering as theatre.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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