Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The How and the What of New Writing (3)

Theatre in Wales: Comment

Writers , National Theatre of Wales Site , July-30-11
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Writers Great nations, wrote John Ruskin, write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. A community tells stories to itself through drama. Arwel Grufydd writes that “new writing is a national endeavour.”

Theatre is the medium best suited. It is collaborative creation and collective experience, unlike the novel. It has speed and relative economy, unlike screen media.
The position of new writing within theatre can be likened to Cardiff’s National Museum. The visitor can choose; in one direction a sumptuous and accomplished Gainsborough, in another a naïve Elizabethan portrait, in another the Davies sisters collection. At the right time of year Artes Mundi offers innovation and boundary-breaking. It is the parts of the collection that make the whole.

The poles that theatre encompasses can be argued any number of ways. But there is at least the old, the new, that with music, and that which tests the assumptions and boundaries of the form. Undisputed excellence in site-specific work, Saunders Lewis and Shakespeare is in itself not quite enough. Among artistic directors Mike Bradwell, cited above, has written his autobiography “The Reluctant Escapologist.” The champion of new theatre is a role in his account that calls for single-mindedness, unsinkability, probably obsession.

New writing has a downside. It can be uneven, foolish, strident, banal. The silliest script I have ever seen was performed on the stage of the Royal Court. At the Traverse I saw a lumbering political allegory in which the playwright obliged two actors of middle age, for no particular dramatic purpose, to indulge in a bath scene. Against all the odds, a part of the male slightly paunchy player began to take on an excruciating horizontal life of its own.

But then there are times, not often, when a production touches a nerve in the body social and politic. It is a moment when it becomes bigger than the small space which first contained it. Generating that moment is worth whatever it takes. But if the quantity of new writing is small, every new piece has to bear a weight of scrutiny that it is often not built to carry. Were the numbers to be cranked up the critiques would cease to matter. Rebecca Gould: “when there’s a dull play at the Traverse, it doesn’t count for everything.” New writing will vary. A new writing company is not to be held to the quality standard of a factory.

Britain has morphed into the strangest constitution on Earth, the words of Sir Emyr Jones Parry, UN Diplomat and Chair of the All-Wales Convention. But it has one great and under-valued feature. It offers benchmarks for comparison. Scotland has a population a million people larger. Its mountains are higher. Before their demolition its banks were mightier. And it has playwrights who sell out in London for weeks on end and play to Europe and the world.

Given that there is no difference biologically, and much in common socially and historically, the difference is maybe structural. The goal of a new writing company is not to create new drama, but to create dramatists. The Bush Theatre, a venue of a ludicrous tininess, is currently putting online its badge of pride. Two hundred and fifty writers have had their careers galvanised into life at this tiny place, kicked around by a series of landlords who could not have cared less and a local authority with not much greater interest.

As for language Arwel Grufydd, with one of the trickiest jobs in theatre in the world, writes “To always separate or compartmentalise elements of our shared cultural richness and diversity not only unnecessarily over simplifies who we are, but also denies an essential element of what sets us out from other nations. The future sustainability of the Welsh language requires that certain elements of Welsh-language cultural activity needs to happen purely in Welsh, but writer development in the theatre and a commitment to producing new writing in the nation’s capital is not one of those.”

New writing is a public role. Bill Hopkinson, late of Wales, interpreted the role as one of visibility. He was to be seen on his feet at venues like Theatr Clwyd and the Dylan Thomas Centre, championing new writing as a moral cockpit. Quite hoe the Sherman fits as inheritor is unsure. The thread contains heartfelt testimony to the legacy that the Sherman embodies. Carmen Medway-Stephens: “the Sherman has enabled many to realise their ambitions.The Sherman theatre is part of the Welsh landscape and I see it as integral to bringing through the young generation in its Youth Theatre and seeing them grow up to adult professional practitioners.”

But in the debate of its mission Greg Cullen captures it succinctly: “The primary function of Sherman Cymru is to embed itself within the city of Cardiff and its locality, not only as a much loved and used venue, but for its outreach into the city and beyond through drama workshops and collaborative productions with sections of the community.”

Rebecca Gould asks the question: “deep breath, should Welsh Theatres mainly support Welsh and Wales based writers, at least for the next 5 years just to see what happens (I look longingly at Scotland)?” It’s a good question. Economists are divided over the Infant Industry issue. Maybe one hundred and twenty self-described dramatists are not up to it, but it would be good to know.

Scotland has its National Theatre and its new writing theatre located forty miles apart. In Wales, they are a ten-minute walk apart. The gene pool of discussion is reduced. An alternative is go to where office rent is low, lower than the capital. Merthyr has a new theatre, just weeks old. It has a young audience and is looking for content. Merthyr is not just at the epicentre of history but looks to the other Wales, the plump Usk Valley and northward.

The discussion continues.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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