Theatre in Wales

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Theatre in Wales: Comment

40 Writers who Matter , Theatre of Wales , September-25-18
Theatre in Wales: Comment by 40 Writers who Matter Nothing is ever entirely new. Everything that is new is new in itself, but also recurrent. On September 21st 2018, 40 signatories wrote an open letter to Clive Jones. Jones is Chair of the company that is Wales' third attempt at a national theatre.

On December 3rd 2003 53 writers co-wrote a statement of requests for theatre. The Government of Wales has not seen fit to enact them. In 15 years in some ways everything has changed and in other ways nothing has changed. The statement of 2003 may be read in its entirety in the Commentary section to the left.

The signatories from 2003 were the cream of the theatre of Wales at the time. Some have moved on but many are signatories again in 2018. They are not just the cream of theatre, they are the theatre of Wales. They are the creators of plays seen by hundreds of thousands of people reaching back, in some cases, forty years. Every award-winner of the last years is united in disquiet at the corporate policy of their target. The language they have chosen is temperate and restrained and the demands unremarkable, that a theatre company might for instance produce theatre.

These names should be treated with the greatest of respect. This comment is addressed in particular to the non-executive board members of the company in Castle Arcade. You are new-comers to the theatre of Wales, and you must take on the lead and the responsibility that comes with public board membership. You have become part of the history of theatre of Wales because of eminence in other fields. Earlier in the year your oversight of the management in 2018 was referred to, an oversight that has condoned a media interview that referred to us in Ceredigion as “the locals have been very friendly and helpful.”

That language is revelatory of the chasm that has been created between company and country. That non-executive privilege and responsibility has found its moment to be made visible in action. The chasm must be healed.

The signatories of September 21st were Alan Harris, Alun Saunders, Branwen Davies, Carmen Medway-Stephens, Caryl Lewis, Daf James, Dic Edwards, Gary Owen, Gary Russell, Jacob Hodgkinson, Jon Berry, Kath Chandler, Keiron Self, Kelly Rees, Kit Lambert, Lisa Parry, Louise Osbourn, Lucy Rivers, Manon Eames, Mari Izzard, Matthew Bulgo, Melangell Dolma, Meredydd Barker, Mike Leitch, Myfanwy Alexander, Othniel Smith, Paul Jenkins, Phil Ralph, Rachel Trezise, Roger Williams, Sam Burns, Sharon Morgan, Sion Eirian, Siwan Jones, Tim Price, Tim Rhys, Tom Wentworth, Tracy Harris, Tracy Spottiswoode, William Roberts

The text of their comment read

“It is with extreme sadness that we wish to make known our discontent with National Theatre Wales.

We feel it is time for a public discussion about the very purpose of the organisation.
The direction of NTW, coupled with a lack of scrutiny, transparency and openness has led to a worrying internal culture which, despite the organisation’s name, seems to take pride in ridding itself of a theatrical identity and even its nationality.

Our fears as an artistic community regarding NTW’s low theatrical production rate since the departure of John McGrath are an open secret. Despite NTW being in receipt of a regular annual income from ACW of roughly one and a half million pounds, just one project is listed on your website for the remainder of 2018 – an exhibition of photographs taken with disposable cameras in Haverfordwest. And in the company’s latest public report to its trustees, just one production is listed
for the entirety of 2019.

But for many, it was this spring’s show ‘English’ which felt like a final straw, and which triggered a widespread discussion behind closed doors.

NTW described ‘English’ as ‘an investigation into language and identity’.  There is no version of the history of the English language in Wales which is not a history of its relationship with the Welsh language. How those two languages forge our identity is arguably the defining characteristic of our nation. And yet ‘English’ erased this crucial aspect of the story of English in Wales entirely and deliberately.

It was the open deliberateness of this act which made ‘English’ a turning point for so many artists in Wales. Its erasure of a distinctive Welsh context was not a mistake. It was not the result of hasty decisions made under the pressure of a limited rehearsal period. It was the result of decisions which NTW leadership had chance to reflect on and consider carefully. Specifically, the decision to employ a Mancunian company to make the show, and the decision to hire a director who admitted in interviews that, as an English-speaking English man, he did not feel equipped to speak about the Welsh language, or Welsh identity.

It is in this context that we wish to provoke a debate about what kind of national theatre we desire. We want it to be a theatre. We want it to be Welsh. These are two things we thought we could take for granted. And yet, despite the uproar over ‘English’, it is an English company which NTW has entrusted to deliver a flagship project in 2020 – the Liverpudlian 20 Stories.
We are therefore asking to the board to overhaul NTW’s aims and objectives so that –

All shows produced by National Theatre Wales have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as primary artist.This is to insure against the marginalisation of the Welsh experience. And to ensure Wales benefits from the investment of the national theatre with artists returning to their creative community and continuing their careers at home.

Non-Welsh and Wales based artists and companies need to be 1) world-class, and 2) engaged only to support a Welsh or Wales-based artist. The practice of engaging companies and artists outside of Wales to respond to Welsh stories has to end.

A National Theatre Wales show has to have theatre in it. If it’s a song then it’s a song. If it’s a comedy night, then it’s a comedy night. But if it’s not in some sense theatre, NTW should not be funding it.

We are not provoking this debate for provocation’s sake. We wish to work with you to deliver a sustainable, thriving theatre culture that can speak to Wales’ diverse communities, and at times to all of them. However in its current incarnation NTW is acting as a roadblock to this goal. It funnels what could be investment in Welsh theatre-makers to companies and artists beyond Wales. It sends out a consistent undermining message, via its work with non-Welsh artists, that Welsh theatre artists are not good enough to tell Welsh stories. Were it not for the success we achieve at home and internationally, without NTW’s support, it is something we could easily begin to believe about ourselves. And yet we are successful. Only think how much that success could be inflated with NTW’s support.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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