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Theatre in Wales: Comment

Reviewers Welsh and English , Theatre in Wales , January-08-18
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Reviewers Welsh and English “Tiger Bay” on November 15th presented the thrill of seeing forty-five actors and singers at peak performance. But November 15th was also a press night, occasions I rarely attend being wary of the atypicality of their audience make-up. But that night in the Millennium Centre was revealing in that I was seated next to a Fleet Street critic. Only D C Thomson, owner of Dennis the Menace and many others, remains in Fleet Street and I asked if Fleet Street were the right term. He said the term had stuck. He made a good pre-show and interval companion, filled with an interest and a curiosity about a place that did he not know.

I described the larger constellation of theatre, a context unknown to Fleet Street and “Front Row.” The arc of creativity runs- and this was a sketch- from Mold to Franwen, Bara Caws, Opra Cymru, Arad Goch, Torch, Theatr Genedlaethol, Fluellen, six venues in Cardiff, to Ballet Cymru and Flying Bridge. As for the background to “Tiger Bay” my history was incomplete. But it took in the one-third of the world's coal that passed by within a few hundred metres of where we were sitting. Before oil Cardiff supplied the fuel that moved the empire. From that followed the bunkerage role of Aden, the subsequent Yemeni and Somali citizen groups and all that ensued.

This is preamble to the realisation that we were not seeing the same theatre. I was reminded of a visit to Dublin's Abbey Theatre for an O'Casey. The play, like “Tiger Bay”, played out in the streets all around the theatre. It was obvious that my view could not be that of the Irish audience around me. Similarly, the London critic and I were seeing the same production at the Millennium Centre but not experiencing it in the same way.

And so it turned out. Audiences and reviewers of “Tiger Bay” here liked what they saw a lot. The London group slotted it next to Boulbil and Schönberg and as a whole did not. This bifurcation is nothing new. Some years back I had written “Writers from Wales see the work here through a different lens from the writers from London. The London critics possess their far greater awareness of theatre in England and elsewhere. But they will not see theatre that inhabits a Pembrokeshire farm, a Valleys ‘Stute, or a Gwynedd coastal town with the same layer of experience and familiarity.”

This raises a question for producers in Wales and the funding structure that sustains it. The London critics have depth and writing skills beyond any in Wales. But they are visitors. When an event took place on the Watkin Path the review for Planet Magazine was written by a critic who was also a farmer. Her view ought to be the definitive one but probably is not.

One of the events that mattered in 2017 was the growth of Get the Chance and a stable of new writers. The writing is that of newcomers but everyone was once a newcomer. Sit down at a keyboard for a first time and it will take effort and time to get to “Kumbaya”. I read the reviews and usually the instincts are right. Young writers, not under the sway of PR or pedagogy, know what they are seeing.

There were equivalent mixed voices in England in 2017.”The Ferryman” is a piece of epic magnificence. At the same time there is hardly a bona fide Irish voice who does not say it is a piece of English tourism. “The Girl from the North Country” was the big hit where Conor McPherson met Bob Dylan in 1930s Minnesota. It too was magnificent. Yet I could not quite rub out a feeling that it was inauthentic, a jukebox musical for the folk who watch BBC4. I have to add I loved it.

The Arts Council defines one aspect of confidence in an arts company as “seeking feedback and critical review to see how well it's doing.” That raises the question as to whose critical view should take preference. “Tiger Bay” is an exemplar. Like all matters of judgement it is balance. Listen only to the local voices and the risk is run of “praise criticism”, condemned by the likes of Jon Gower on many a public platform. Critics in London provide their distance and the objectivity of outsiders. The views from within are written from knowledge. Theatre that plays only to Welsh writers lacks rigour. Theatre that plays only to Fleet Street lacks roots.

This issue of a small number of professionals in London and Edinburgh versus a flock of amateur comment was addressed by Lyn Gardner a few years ago. Her article of 22nd August 2013 was titled “Are Critics and Bloggers on the Same Side?” and discussed here. Her conclusion was that theatre “needs all the thoughtful coverage it can get. It doesn't need either critics or bloggers, it needs both.”

“Are Critics and Bloggers on the Same Side?” is discussed 3rd & 4thSeptember 2013 in the series "Theatre:the Talk in England"

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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