Theatre in Wales

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Debating the Non-Debate

National Theatre: Comment

Theatre Studies Lecturer Intervention , Cultural Policy of Wales , November 17, 2018
National Theatre: Comment by Theatre Studies Lecturer Intervention No-one would wish Wales’ theatre to move towards the end of 2018 in its current condition. If it is in a state of bifurcation it is all predictable. One part is out there in England and Scotland, competing with the best and another is not. As I write a feisty young company, Motherlode, is at the Finborough, a small place with a big reputation in the world of theatre. No fine words can mask the gulf.

The debate over a national theatre has roots that are long and deep. Biography, masked as objectivity, features in excess. Nonetheless, in 2007 Planet published a long-form piece, 2500 words by myself, on the current state of play. The milestones of 2007-2010 are recorded inexorably, stage by stage, in the news stream to the left. Just one writer, again myself, summarised the first three months, the Year of 13, and the company’s first chapter. Below 8th September 2015 the conclusion is quite clear: “the National Theatre of Wales has brightened my life.”

Wales Arts Review is performing a service as a platform for public statements. The editing heads its pieces “a debate” but it is not quite right. There have been since 20th September 9 substantive statements, also hosted across Nation Cymru and the Guardian. The Company’s own statements are hosted on its own site. Again some- the more significant- may be read on the news feed on this site.

But the 9 do not constitute a debate. They are statements from different perspectives. But a debate addresses an issue. The 9 intersect, but some go off at tangents, meander in sideways directions, falsely raise points for rebuttal that were never present. There is no progression, and Wales is none the wiser whether the demands of the Group of 40 are to be implemented or not.

The view of the audience member is not that of any of the professional groups. But one factor is clear to a viewer who spends a good portion of time observing people on public platforms. While Wales thrashes out its cultural policy, it is manifest that to be a member of staff this season must be miserable. That may not be at the centre but it is nonetheless real.

8 of the statements emanate from Wales, the 9th from Sheffield, its author a former Aberystwyth resident and author of a doctorate on the company. The other 8 statements will await their discussion. This one asks for a rebuttal on 6 counts.

The first rebuttal is in the sentence “Just like the National Theatre of Scotland before it, NTW has sought to devolve its practices to artists across the nation’s creative sector, and this has meant wide-ranging artistic collaboration.” This assertion relies on an absence of knowledge on the part of the reader. It is false, the company here having nothing in common with its equivalent in Scotland beyond its not owning a theatre.

The artistic programme has no overlap. Look only to the report from Edinburgh this summer below of 21st August. The company programmed a five-star sell-out musical that parodied the film “My Left Foot” The artistic credos of the first artistic directors have nothing in common. The figures of state funding, productions, audiences are all freely given to the citizens of Scotland. Here, as with the occupant of the White House, they are withheld. That a scholar purports a comparison is revealing. The company here is a being that is entirely on its own.

The second rebuttal lies in “From the very beginning, NTW has sought to explore what theatre is and can be.” This is coded language but it is also not true. Alan Harris, Volcano, Elen Bowman, Marc Rees, Kaite O’Reilly, Mike Pearson, Gary Owen were all well-established presences in the theatre of Wales. The title from the very beginning from Alan Harris’ first script- a play with characters and a narrative structure- paid explicit homage to John McGrath, the McGrath of 7:84. This reference prompted the article “Homing in on a Good Night Out” below 3rd May 2010.

Read the ethos of McGrath and see the difference. McGrath would have had small truck with what has been amplified over the years. From the article “He promotes directness. “Working class audiences like laughs… “Comedy has to be sharper, more perceptive and more deeply related to their lives.” As an audience they “like music in shows, live and lively...they like melody above all.”

“…McGrath also pinpoints what it is all for. “Theatre is the place where the life of a society is shown in public to that society...where that society's assumptions are exhibited and tested, its values are scrutinised, its myths are validated, and its traumas become emblems of its reality rather than a place to experience a rarefied artistic sensibility in an aesthetic void...It shows the interaction of human beings and social forces.”

Joyce McMillan paid McGrath the compliment of calling his production the greatest single piece of Scottish theatre of the past 25 years. She also said the last word on the artistic imperative: “nations define themselves most fully, most accurately and most impressively not when they are directly examining their own nationhood, but when they are using the stuff of their own language and culture to tackle the substantial issues of their time.”

Points 3-6 for rebuttal will follow.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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