Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Deeply Inadequate Event

Cotton Fingers

National Theatre of Wales , Aberaeron Memorial Hall , July-06-18
Cotton Fingers by National Theatre of Wales The ten year anniversaries roll on inexorably. On 8th March 2008 the first board was announced. In the way of the Internet, the announcement of the names was met with cyber-abuse for being too predictable, too old-gang. The snipers are long forgotten while that first board is not.

In fact Ryde and Hogger knew theatre, deeply, from different angles while Stead and Gower brought cultural depth and breadth. They have served their terms and departed. The tenth birthday occurs on 9th September. The formal incorporation took place on 9th September 2008.

Aberaeron has been scene of a busy late June. A week of events commemorated two hundred years of the Ceredigion-Ohio connection. Euros Lewis wrote a play for the event. Troed y Rhiw performed on the quayside to hundreds. The week climaxed with an open-air concert. Catrin Finch was there and seven hundred people packed into Cae Sgwar. The whole occasion was the brainchild of two enthusiasts. That is the thing about community; its fire and its life are local.

In 2017 National Theatre of Wales managed not to perform for 346 days of the year. So now this is the Big One. “Theatre can learn from the best of broadcasting something about relating to the audience...also to reach wider audiences than those who currently go to the theatre.” That was Phil George in his first interview four days into the role as Chair. So here we are, ten years on. National theatre is playing to an audience of 16 and 1 reviewer.

The reason that it plays to 16+1 is that the promotion comprises one A4 sheet on the town noticeboard. The colour is green, the graphic design is dreary. As an advertisement it is feeble, evidence that no-one has any background in professional marketing. If the company had played Theatr Mwldan, Felinfach, Morlan it would have come with an inbuilt marketing programme. But the company is unable to play in our theatres because of dogma, ideology taking precedence over audiences of Wales. The show has no local box office. Other companies that play out-of-the-ordinary venues- like Illyria at Cilgerran- piggyback on local box offices. This organisation is unable to do that for reasons that are known to itself.

National theatre after ten years does not play to audiences of 16. As for the board it either has no oversight of the marketing inertia or it gives it a thumbs-up. But then the last time it visited Ceredigion the company told us, via the Cambrian News, that “the locals have been very friendly and helpful.” No other arts company in Wales uses language like this about us, its audience. Again the board either has no oversight of its marketing communications or it endorses it.

Dramatists have written of health and health systems before. Peter Nichols had a hit, deservedly so, with “the National Health.” For film the late David Sherwin wrote “Britannia Hospital” for Lindsay Anderson. This is national theatre. It takes its place for comparison alongside these. This piece is far too long, straggly, episodic. It has no rhythm, it lacks dialectic and internal architecture. Were it in Edinburgh- and the company is not present in Edinburgh- it would get two stars for the energy of the performance. As the piece is far too long, the direction has to resort to fiddly touches to try and keep up a sense of impetus.

The latest review for “Sugar Baby”, 23rd May, picked on the formal qualities beneath the brio. This piece lacks all the formal qualities for performance. It betokens a brittleness of dramaturgical skill within the company, but that is unsurprising. This is the only national theatre in the world that is unable to even mention the word “drama”. Part of that quality of dramaturgy lies in its selection of authors. The bona fide dramatists of Wales are little wanted. In fact one of Wales' most accomplished theatre writers declined to be involved in this event, a remarkable state for a company of its purported importance.

Writing for performance is tough and is achieved by a hard apprenticeship. There is small pedigree of short story writers- even those with the highest gifts for the form- writing skilfully for performance. Companies should treat writers with care. I dislike intensely being put in the position of making these observations on a writer whose fiction I admire.

It may be that the other pieces of this season are barnstorming pieces of drama playing to packed houses. Nonetheless, the whole strategy misunderstands why we have theatre in the public domain. It is to create a common frame of cultural reference. The strategy of pop-up theatre, tiny runs, microscopic box-office ensures the exact opposite. At ten years of age the name recognition of the company is so low that it is statistically zero. The board should take an away-day, get back to zero-base planning, and work on a strategy that reflects their one and only obligation. The board of a National Theatre has one clientele. In fact Tim Baker declared it publicly at the last conference on the subject, a long time back: that is to deliver great theatre to audiences of Wales. At the moment it is a kind of Carillion of the arts- the shorters read it truthfully, government carried on obliviously.

The critical roll-call for 2018 has not been great. Gary Raymond was not impressed by the first production. Jafar Iqbal was bored at the next. The Stage brought a unique adjective into play for the last event. “For National Theatre Wales”, wrote Nicholas Davies”, to be seemingly unaware of the nation it represents is unforgivable.”

The next event programmes a group of celebrity comedians for a single night only, slaps on an entry fee of £27.50, and calls it national theatre. Every other company in the world takes pleasure in commissioning comedy and taking it to audiences. Scotland and England work with their comedy writers. An equivalent company would have embraced Frank Vickery with joy. It is too late now. Pembrokeshire is home to a dramatist of deep craft. In September Tenby is host to a unfamiliar name. Check it and once again it is the Contact connection. Whether it is writers or directors so many roads- not all- lead to England.

As for this event it will be far on the margin of what will come to be recognised as mattering in the theatre of Wales of 2018. It is inadequate, deeply inadequate.

“Cotton Fingers” plays the Merlin, Haverfordwest 7th July

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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