Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Hunting Out the Stories: Meeting Greg Cullen

Theatre in Wales: Comment

Playwright and Reviewer , National Museum Cardiff , March 5, 2008
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Playwright and Reviewer My first season as a reviewer started well. Four productions in the second half of last year circled around points of history and identity: the royalty of the Middle Ages, the Arandora Star, Tryweryn all appeared on stage. A symposium was held on my own doorstep on national theatre. Planet Magazine commissioned a sizeable feature on the subject. A documentary for radio was broadcast at the same time that a theatre piece was touring Wales North to South with themes in fiction “One Wales?” explored as documentary.

“Cafe Cariad” was set in the Valleys among “the Bracchi”, the networked Italian cafe society across Wales, its epic action jumping back and forth to Italy. It explicitly sought to universalise the immigrant experience. In this case it showed the bitter split between loyalists to Italy and its governing regime, that of Mussolini. In an age before easy banking where the cafe families were dependent on each other for loan finance the political divisions carried financial penalties.

“Cafe Cariad” was the fifth production of the National Youth Theatre of Wales under the artistic direction of Greg Cullen. He has a track record of fifty stage pieces, a history of productions in Edinburgh, London, New York. His subjects have included Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, his best known work, and the tense relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin. The canon of Welsh stories is probably greater than any contemporary. The subject of “Taken Out” was the Welsh deaths on the Sir Galahad in the Falklands War. “Whistleblower” set a fictional plot against the background of the Sea Empress foundering on the rocks outside Milford. “Paul Robeson Knew my Father” juxtaposed a fictional black-white relationship with the historic radio broadcast of Paul Robeson- his passport sequestered by his own government- to the Welsh miners.

I met Greg Cullen in the National Museum of Wales, an appropriate setting, on that rarest of days, a twenty-ninth of February. A grey, squally day put the great vaulted foyer of the Museum in shadow.

AS: I liked “Cafe Cariad.” It worked so well on several levels. It told me things about a part of Welsh history I didn’t know about. How did it come about?

GC: I was in Builth Wells and saw the Conti cafe. It seemed an interesting theme. Tim Price, the co-writer, had the background. It started as a love triangle. Then we swapped the genders around. It was small but then that was not fair to the cast, a few main roles. So I started co-writing, a large number number of speaking parts, not possible in any other theatre. Then the decision had to be made. It had to be a musical.

AS: One aspect I liked about was that it was not dramatically dependent on England as an Other. The war and internment were there but most of it was about Here. One of the features of Irish theatre, I know it’s in the doldrums at the moment but a lot of it does not depend on the presence, or the pressure, of an Other. Welsh, and Scottish, theatre, if indeed there is such a thing seem to need the presence of the relationship with England.

GC: There has historically been no infrastructure. I once called a meeting for writers here. At the time the best a Welsh writer could hope for would be a commission from Made in Wales, the then new writing company, and three hundred words of review in “The Western Mail.”

AS: Your plays cumulatively have a span that has I would guess no equal.

GC: There are dozens of stories, distinct, ones waiting to be told. I was in a bar just recently and heard a tale of a boy from Butetown who has moved to a plush place in Barry on the back of a fortune from pirate DVDs. I know a woman in the Valleys who used to worry if her neighbours’ sheets were whiter than hers. She’s got a PhD now, solely as a result of the Miners’ Strike. People’s lives were changed by that. There are stories queuing up to be told.

AS: So when the Chair of the National Theatre says it is about “Keeping our stories, our questions and our writers in the forefront?”

GC: It’s good to hear. You have to just go out and listen to people’s voices. That’s what Jimmy McGovern does in “The Street”.

AS: I’ve seen you compared to Jimmy McGovern. And Peter Flannery.

GC: And David Hare. If you compare “the Street” to S4C’s “Caerdydd.”I live here. I don’t recognise the city. The cafe society, where nobody ever goes to work. It looks to me like a group of writers stuck in a committee room and it’s being written to measure up to an image of what is expected.

AS: One of the things about theatre is that it can be fast. I have just read an article by Jon Cruddas MP on how the British National Party is appropriating the language of Old Labour. Language and loyalty are areas that theatre is particularly well equipped to tackle.

GC: Yes, send someone out there and get it up on stage. It doesn’t have to be the most polished piece there is. There’s a place for rough theatre. Wales has been very good at community theatre and theatre in education, but there’s a real gap in grown-up theatre, theatre for grown-ups.

AS: Going back to the National Theatre at least one director has expressed concern that it is far too heavy a title, it is too much to live up to. I was wondering if you thought it confused ends and means.

GC: In what way?

AS: It has a political purpose and there is nothing wrong with that. If the purpose is clear then the practice should fit the purpose. The purposes presumably are a distinctive theatre, that can go and out and hit the world the way that the National Theatre of Scotland has done with “Black Watch”, their piece about their regiment on deployment in Iraq.

GC: I’d be depressed if it were “Three Sisters” done with a Welsh accent .

AS: Although Irish writer Thomas Kilroy put “the Cherry Orchard” on a decaying Irish estate in a way that illuminated both Chekhov and Irleand.

GC: If an imaginative director set “Three Sisters” in rural Welsh that would be interesting.

AS: I was at a David Greig play last summer about the Middle East , better than anything that has come from England. And it has since toured, to the USA, Canada and Russia. If an institution here picked ten writers and said “we want three plays over the next three years for twenty performances apiece.” It seems to me at a purely statistical level some winners just have to emerge from that kind of process.

GC: The problem here is that writers have historically had nowhere to go. They reach a certain level and that’s it. At the end of the day when people look back they need stories. To have plays worth reviving we need plays in the first place. We can’t rely on adapting novels, not least because we are going to run out of them.

AS: Nationality and art are prickly topics. There's a statue there, Goscombe John's drummer boy. It's in pride of place here but it's from a memorial to South Africans and the full sculpture is in Liverpool. So, twenty-five years in Wales, your adult life, fifty plays, how Welsh are you now?

GC: I just yawn at this subject. Did you see the latest, the Rob Brydon programme? Maybe it takes an outsider to see it but squinting at people from Radnor and saying “Are you really Welsh? It's not an interesting question. My son’s Welsh, but I’m an Irish cockney. My parents came over for only one reason, work. My spiritual home is Ireland. But I’m passionate about the language, I support Wales in rugby, so I pass the Tebbit test.

We parted, in separate directions. In the scudding rain I gave no more than half a glance at the monument to the Marquess of Bute. His equivalent in wealth in Central Europe was the founder of the iron and steel cartel, Karl Wittgenstein. But societies are remembered not for how they earned their money but how they spent it. Father Karl would be a footnote in history were he not the father of philosopher Ludwig.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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