Theatre in Wales

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The Wrap Begins

Eleven Years A Reviewer

Ending Writing On Theatre , Wales All Over , January-07-19
Eleven Years A Reviewer by Ending Writing On Theatre December was the 140th month in which I wrote, with regularity, about performance in Wales. An article written last year, Boxing Day 2017, looked back on 10 years of reviewing. It included “I have been a reader of reviews for far more years than their writer. I saw when young what happens to reviewers. Reviewing is a narrow activity.”

“When Sheridan Morley died”, it recalled, “an obituarist quoted reviews from productions of “the Deep Blue Sea” that were years apart. The critic had used the same phrase the commentator noted, in a tone of disfavour. But he misunderstood the way the mind works. The mind works on the principle of parsimony. The phrases that came to Morley would have been the ones that fitted.”

The same occurred when I saw “Woman of Flowers” last February. An adjective and noun came together to encapsulate the production. They amounted to five syllables with a nice assonance to link them. But they felt familiar and a quick check proved the feeling was correct. They were the same words as had been used, quite rightly, for “the Royal Bed”. Reviewers become repetitive. Repetition becomes predictability.

“I had had in mind the intention”, ended the 2017 article, “to make ten years the finishing point. But it is too abrupt to break completely; I give it another six to nine months.” In fact that time extended, for reasons that were the best. The last quarter of 2018 included “Lord of the Flies”, “Nye and Jennie”, “the Last 5 Years” and “A Child's Christmas in Wales”. This is a culture with a fizz to it.

But there is a time to stop before over-predictability. The reasons are practical-geographical but also theoretical-psychological. Except.

There is an irony that the data flood, zettabytes daily, has no precedent, but chunks of the culture of Wales still go unrecorded. A proportion of artistic activity takes place, unknown to any beyond the makers and participants. At the Penfro literary festival this last September two writers were on a panel in the mansion at Rhosygilwen. They had four novels to their name, with not a review between them. A Mildred Eldridge retrospective can be exhibited at Storiel, of fine quality, and leave not a digital trace of appreciation behind it. “Meet Fred” has travelled far and wide, acclaimed wherever it goes. As reported July 11th 2017 Hijinx can spend a weekend in Gwynedd with no record outside private memory.

So the except. If a company makes the trip to Aberystwyth it is difficult to resist giving the artists a response. Anywhere else it would be their due. If something is of import within the ecology of culture, it deserves to appear within the ecology of response.

But a reason for cutting back has to do with geography. Wales' theatre map has wholly changed since the years I started. Aberystwyth had Alan Hewson as director-producer and Gill Ogden as artistic programmer. It was making its own summer musical and other productions. The visiting companies from outside were Kneehigh, Northern Broadsides, Propellor, Vanishing Point, big companies who are now not to be seen. Other companies of Wales have gone: Earthfall, Frapetsus, Wales Theatre Company, Waking Exploits. Audiences will not be seeing Mappa Mundi or Theatr Pena on tour in 2019.

By contrast the Cardiff-Newport axis of the time bore small resemblance to now. There was no theatre to astound taking place in the gondola of the Transporter Bridge. The Sherman at its lowest ebb was pulling in 20 people on a Saturday night. The Millennium Centre was not the producer it has evolved into. There was no Other Room. Aberystwyth by contrast was an epicentre for performance, not just the Arts Centre itself but the still-doughty Arad Goch, Centre for Performance Research, Bold Theatre and all the fusions of professional-community productions. Taron Egerton was just one of the young talents to be seen.

But things change, and in 2019 I am in the wrong place. Cardiff is not a large city but it has a performance buzz to it to fit the performance tradition. Gary Raymond expressed it in his Review Show look-back on 2017, cited above 3rd January: “I have nothing but sympathy for anybody trying to keep up with everything..it was testing the stamina of the most ardent theatre-goer.”

There is a second, and complementary, reason. The sigmoid curve, illustrated, is a piece of mathematics used, often slackly, by management consultants. Charles Handy widened its popularity, writing: “the sigmoid curve sums up the story of life itself. We start slowly, experimentally, and falteringly; we wax and then we wane.”

It is not quite true. But there is a flattening. The evidence is now conclusive that the mind is best nourished in difficulty. Purpose, renewal and a new start are all the same. The shaded zone in the curve is an area for doubt and uncertainty. Artists know it, and reviewers should take their cue. Carl Honoré is author of a recent book “Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives”. “Go out of your way to perform tasks that are cognitively taxing, that force you to grapple with complexity and learn new things...Sadly brain games like Soduku too easy to have much effect...you have to push yourself until things get so uncomfortable you want to stop, and then push yourself some more. No pain, no gain.”

It is an error to give to the present a significance simply because it is the now. Nonetheless, 2018 in the arts of Wales felt different. As recorded above, 1st January, acclaim and awards flooded in as never before. But distemper and disappointment exploded too. It was termed a debate but the critical climate is too meagre, too defensive, for it to be called a debate. There remains more to be said. But Wales has a theatre of a quality and a scale that belies its size. No community of three million in the world has a larger. These two sentences kicked off a response I wrote when the Culture and Language Committee asked for evidence documents for a consultation.

There are pieces in the digital attic that need sorting and tidying, some deserving of a public airing. The cultural policy of Wales asks to be commented on. But the eleven years of performance, since I saw Michael Bogdanov and Mal Pope putting the life of Tommy Farr onto stage with joy, have put me in mind of a journey once taken by Paul Theroux. In his collection “Fresh Air Fiend” he describes a canoe trip from Falmouth on Cape Cod to the island of Nantucket. His last line reads “the trip had done what all trips ought to do. It had given me heart.”

So too, to be have been there, a watcher of performance of Wales, is to have had the heart raised.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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