Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Border-Buster of a Year

My Year of Theatre

Theatre Companies of Wales , Wales & Beyond , January 2, 2019
My Year of Theatre by Theatre Companies of Wales A beauty of theatre is its rhythm, the way it unfolds with such regularity over the course of a year. A small item, with the Christmas shows bedded in, are the late-December retrospectives. Lists do not say everything. Their immediate purpose is to be argued over, but they do say something. The round-ups and look-backs come with a difference this year. BBC Radio Wales is participating with a serious critic leading a programme on New Year's Eve. On network radio “Front Row” reliably has its retrospective on the year's last Saturday.

That too came with a difference in 2018, in a way which seemed to speak for the artists of Wales as a whole. The area contained within Irish Sea and Bristol Channel, Dee and Severn is not big. More companies seemed to jump the border than ever before. So on “Front Row” the first minute presented a company with a novel name to a UK-wide listening audience as fit to stand among the best of the year. Theatr na nÓg was followed by mention of Louise Collins and “Nye and Jennie”, not bad for a small group from Neath.

That spelling of “Theatr” minus its “e” was a familiar to readers of London's Evening Standard. Day on day in November its page 3 carried a large-format advertisement with that e-less “Theatr” followed by a word with no vowel. “Clwyd” features on a billboard outside a theatre in Saint Martin's Lane. The producers of “Home, I'm Darling” are advertising for the best of purposes; they have tickets to sell. A rough calculation estimates that January 26th onwards they have £1,800,000 worth to sell. And that is before the other venues that include the Lowry. That is good. There are a lot of words spilled over the arts in the public domain. Those of Gary Owen, reported 22nd December, ought to ring and to be heard: “thirty or forty people...that's a failure.”

London's venue is a big one. There are smaller ones overseas, and the Torch was at one in 2018 in New York and Flying Bridge at another in Adelaide. The Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 was a peacock's feather of display from Wales. The list, reported in its entirety on this site, comprised a record number of performers, with fresh talent like Alice Sylvester, Lucy Elzik, Sarah Thomas, Eifion Ap Cadno and Zak Ghazi-Torbati getting great reviews.

As a now-and-then griper about television's lack of enthusiasm for the performance culture of Wales it was good to be able to review the summer programme from the Fringe. Kiri Pritchard-McLean presented exuberantly, Carys Eleri her equal in conversation. Jafar Iqbal featured to add critical weight. He was at “the Flop”, “Benny” and “Sugar Baby”- “very, very funny. Very about Cardiff, of Cardiff..the themes are universal. I would say it is the pick of the Fringe.”

I missed “Sugar Baby” first time round and caught it at the Soho Theatre, the audience adoring Catherine Paskell's production. With my change in personal circumstances London is more visitable and on each occasion a little part of theatre of Wales seems to be there. It may be the name of a Tom Wentworth script jumping out of an excellent Evening Standard review or Motherlode making it onto another “best of” list. The Finborough and “Exodus” was a journey too far but I was at Richmond to see Katie-Elin Salt in a Brad Birch script.

Another Brad Birch play, a powerful one, was in Edinburgh courtesy of the Sherman. Theatre 503 was taken over by Chippy Lane for a night of new writing and levity. My report from February closed with three curt sentences. “Everyone in Theatre 503 looks to be under the age of thirty. The cheer that the event engenders is huge. The grass roots of Welsh performance are irrepressible.”

It is true. The grass roots of Welsh performance really are irrepressible. Which is just as well because the shocks that are coming are going to be seismic. But, by way of corrective, I wrote a curious sentence in covering “Sugar Baby”. It described the sheer exuberance of the occasion as “the antithesis of government-capture theatre”. There is theatre that soars and is popular. But look at what it is about: an aristocratic cross-dressing dilettante, a night-club hostess-murderer, a low-in-the-foodchain drug dealer. Those are “How to Win Against History”, “the Sinners Club” and “Sugar Baby” and those are just the start. This is not pious theatre but it is theatre that works. As a head of arts policy in England wrote in his book, reviewed 20th November, “I don't understand the distinction some make between “great” and “popular”.

Yet I read the statements of those in charge in Cardiff and I read the sub-text. I see a genuine hero of Welsh theatre telling the Culture Committee in the Senedd that theatre is suborned to be a sub-branch for education. One of theatre's top earners gets a BBC slot to pronounce theatre is social work. It is not. It does not have to be the axe to crack the frozen sea within every time. But thirty years ago a sage put the bifurcation into his book of collected reviews. In “One Night Stands” Michael Billington wrote “Authority wants art to be constructive.”

This survey has touched on just 18 productions from 2018. They are constructive all right, but not because they have a piece of official policy to impart. They all, in a rainbow of different ways, make that leap which is fusion between performers and watchers. In short they serve their purpose of being in the domain of public expenditure.

Last word to a great director who is also a good writer. Hytner on the cyber-age: “the instant availability of everything you want at the click of a mouse turns out not to be the thing you want most; human contact”. And why we come together across a shared space: “You reach out across the void and touch lives you seem to have led. Or you live vanished lives, strange lives, the lives of others. You are part of a community that, by an act of collective empathy rejects the low dishonesty of the age, and insists that no-one lives alone.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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