Theatre in Wales

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"This censorship belongs in the bin": Lively First Half 2018

Theatre: The Talk in England

Argument & Polemic , Media in England , July 4, 2018
Theatre: The Talk in England by Argument & Polemic Critical discussion in 2018 kicked off with a combustible January. The cause was not theatre but the visual arts. Clare Gannaway, curator of contemporary art at Manchester Art Gallery, took a picture by Victorian artist John William Waterhouse off the wall and put it in the cellar. To complete the erasure of the picture, postcards of “Hylas and the Nymphs” were removed from the gallery shop.

The explanation was that the aim of the removal was to provoke debate. The public was asked to put post-it notes on the wall around the notice of removal.

This had a problem. Visitors do not want to debate anything. They have travelled to see pictures. It is curators who want to debate and the Pre-Raphaelites are popular with the public, albeit not with curators. The reaction was predictable and splenetic. Comparison with the burning of books was immediate.

The artist Michael Browne said he was worried the past was being erased: “I don’t like the replacement and removal of art and being told “that’s wrong and this is right”. They are using their power to veto art in a public collection.” “A crass gesture that will end up on the wrong side of history”, thundered a critical voice, “this censorship belongs in the bin along with Section 28’s war on gay culture and the prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960...backtracks 60 years or more into an era of repression and hypocrisy. The great freedoms of modernity include, like it or not, freedom of sexual expression..I can’t pretend to respect such authoritarianism. It is the just the spectre of an oppressive past wearing new clothes – and if we fall for the disguise we sign away every liberal value.”

The storm blew. A chastened authority returned the painting to its public.

Manchester received its level of publicity because galleries are popular, hugely so. Theatre has its flare-ups but they receive less publicity because the numbers are so tiny. Quentin Letts caused outrage but it passed. The issues that flare are similar to the question that underlay the Manchester fracas: who gets to be represented, and who makes the decision.

David Hare is right up there among those who make the decisions and enjoying a flourishing autumn of a career. He is even becoming a David Edgar in the length of his prose pieces. The Guardian bears down heavy on the length of reviews, slashed Lyn Gardner's commentary a couple of years and sacked her at the end of May. But on New Year's Day Hare was given the space of 2800 words for a piece entitled “My Ideal Theatre.”

It is an enjoyable piece, blending nostalgia and provocation, but fuelled by love and dedication. Its inspiration is George Orwell. His great 1946 essay described a pub of the imagination that he called “the Moon Under Water.” It embraced everything that was good about the public house. So too, writes Hare, “for my whole life, I have dreamed of having all my plays done at a theatre which, sadly, exists only in my mind, although the important elements of it, happily, exist in many.”

His idea theatre is to be located “in a place where people actually live.” Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East is remembered. He likes the Minerva in Chichester: “one of the best-designed theatres in the UK, because it has a huge playing space for epic plays, and yet the audience’s experience is extremely intimate. But fine as it is, it’s still a black box, and very few black boxes carry history. They wipe themselves clean with each production.”

I don't really get this last point. The closure of each production, and the glitter it leaves in common memory, is the wonder of it.

As for purpose: “the primary purpose will be to do new plays, and these plays will represent and reflect the society they are performed in. There will be no need for gender or racial quotas, either on stage or off, because, by definition, if the artistic director follows this governing policy, then everything good will follow. More than half the plays will be by women, women will gloriously people the stage, and the vibrant multiculturalism of the society we inhabit will be in front of you in its variety and abundance.”

A fulcrum of theatre of Wales, the Other Room, has led the way here. Its news round-up for June includes “The Other Room is a winner of The International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP) 2017-2018 50/50 Applause Awards! The awards honours theatres at least half of whose productions in their July 2017- June 2018 seasons are written by women.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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