Theatre in Wales

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Theatre In Wales: Comment

David Adams , Critical Writing on the Theatre of Wales , April 9, 2019
Theatre In Wales: Comment by David Adams Art evolves, but does not progress. There will be performance in Wales in 2029, as there is in 2019, and as there was in 2009 and 1999. That future will not be the present extrapolated, because that is not how it works. The arts follow a way of punctuated equilibrium. But 2019 will be implicit in 2029 as 1999 is implicit in 2019. Or as a Nobel Prize laureate wrote it: “Time present and time past, Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.”

In that time of ten years forward there will have been change as there has been change since 1999. In that year, 1999, a company of Wales took a drama by a non-white writer to London. That does not happen now. The record of writing for the stage by minority dramatists from Wales over the last fifteen years ought to be a cause for concern; there is no evidence that it is.

But there will be continuity and one thing is certain. Live performance will take place because it gives us what we need, the co-presence of humans. Nicholas Hytner: “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 there will be rancour and there will be noise. Amid the noise there will be signal just as there is signal from the 1990s. A click to the left and the Commentary section is a roll-call of rancour. Opinion pieces have titles like “Can we avoid the sound of the death rattle?” But then rancour for one person is a sign of cultural vigour to another.

Writers are our guides. It is no surprise that it was Virgil who was chosen to lead Dante on his Decent to Hell. If not quite a journey of that kind, the wade through the past has its many illuminations. Among the writers David Adams has left a trail for the archaeologists from later days. (Personal note: I have never met and indeed know nothing about Adams other than as a reader of a writer.)

Certainly Adams was in Cardiff, close to where the action is and confident in his judgements. Adams had doubts as to whether the arms-length principle was being respected. At the time he wrote: “The National Assembly seems to have espoused the idea as a familiar device for legitimising a new nation through the creation of national institutions. Few see that as a proper reason for channelling a huge amount of resources into one company – and diverting us from the real concerns of what is still a fledgling theatre provision where both the practice and audiences need nurturing and developing. But what’s different is that the Assembly’s cultural policy is meant to drive the Arts Council.”

In 2018 the indication is that the arms-length principle was working, at least in parts. The theatre that shone out from Wales, and won awards, had for subjects clickbait frenzy, an aristocrat of high sexual ambiguity in a purple frock, a Cardiff drug dealer with a talking seal for a pal, a biological organ that fails to perform and is subject to public trial. Whether anyone in the government of Wales took much pride- or even saw- any of these award-winners is unknown. It does not matter anyhow; the people that matter, real audiences did.

The stream of Commentary to the left is certainly replete with Adams, his contributions evoking a sense of Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Last summer in Edinburgh Adelaide was able to travel across the globe and field a team of great young people promoting their theatre. Wales could not even put together a list in one place of Welsh performers in Edinburgh. But then Edinburgh is chock-a-block with punters from across the world with £££ in their pockets, That is probably the reason the performers of Wales lacked collegiate backing from Cardiff. There is David Adams writing in the previous century an article for Planet 99 “Our failure to promote Welsh theatre.”

The critical trail shows some of the darts he was confident enough to lob in the direction of authority. “It's a policy based on a philistine emphasis on so-called accessibility, where uncomfortable matters like critical judgement, the value of the arts and the needs of creative individuals and groups are alien concepts.”

For New Welsh Review 93 he wrote a punchy 1620 words “Theatre Criticism in Wales? Where is it?” The article kicks off smartly. “Theatre criticism, whatever else it may be, is confirmation of the existence of a particular cultural product and is often the only evidence we have that it happened” and continues to the premise “it is only when the work is publicly discussed that it starts contributing to a broader cultural debate and the practice itself starts developing.”

“One of the causes of the lack of visibility of theatre (or, indeed, of visual and plastic arts, for example) in Wales is the absence of any developed popular critical practice – in fact, it is the presence of commentary that is lacking in accepted critical objectivity and judgement that can also account for poor standards of production. Sycophantic and partisan reviews can actually harm the development of theatre practice.”

This last weekend, in 2019, a Welsh company won an Olivier. That's it. It does not get any better. Just as last year the lack of any interest by the Western Mail and BBC Wales is total. So Adams' question stands: “why are the arts ignored by the media, print, broadcast...not taken seriously? To be more precise, why is there so little critical commentary?”

After the media he reserves a final critical punch. “However, it is not simply the media who are to blame. In the latest Arts Council Wales (ACW) strategy on ‘Theatre and Drama’, criticism warrants just one sentence, and that is pretty vague: ‘As in other arts sectors, the vehicles, channels and protagonists in critical debate in theatre can sometimes feel narrow or claustrophobic within Wales and achieving broader comparative critical debate and contexts for discussion of the work along with exposure is seen as a positive goal and one that needs facilitating.’

“Phew!”, he writes “A sentence so clumsily written needs unpacking... But I don’t think it’s worth it. Essentially, it seems as if ACW goes along with the idea that criticism is a kind of optional add-on. What they should have said is that regular, informed, accessible criticism is crucial (and I mean crucial, not desirable, not a bonus, but crucial) for theatre development. Why do England, Scotland and Ireland have healthier theatre scenes than Wales? In part, because they have more active critical debate. Scotland, for example, has at least four professional theatre critics (using membership of the UK Critics Circle as evidence) and comprehensive critical coverage in its media; Wales has one (me) and not even a reviews section in the national newspaper...Theatre practice does not exist in a vacuum. It needs audiences and it needs critical engagement.”

“Theatre Criticism in Wales? Where is it?” at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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