Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

"There seems be something still missing": Some Nuggets from Critical Archaeology

Theatre in Wales: Comment

David Adams , Critical Writing on the Theatre of Wales , April-12-19
Theatre in Wales: Comment by David Adams Revisiting criticism from another time is by any standard a minority activity. But as part of one reviewer's wrap-up, to read David Adams is revealing and rewarding. It does this, rewards and reveals, on three counts.

The first quite simply is that, as he says emphatically, he was there. Another era gets its record. Theatr Gwynedd, Theatr Powys, “the Merthyr Trilogy”, Good Cop Bad Cop: they were real, they happened in front of spectators, and they are remembered. But what matters extends beyond theatre getting the roll-call that is its due

The critic is a voice that it is its own. It is not an issue of the critic being right or wrong. Adams has conviction, at least he believes that performance is its own justification. The theatre of Wales excels in individual cases and under-performs in aggregate. It is a lesser thing as a whole than Scotland or Ireland. The reason is that the men at the top of the tree lack that conviction of belief in the art-form. In the public statements there is no indication that they even like it much. Or at least not in its own right.

Reading Adams' available articles I do not agree with everything but that is not the point. The point is to be an advocate, and a passionate one, for the art itself. Raymond Williams was articulate on his own role as one of the great and the good. It was a long time back, forty years, but the distance of time matters not a jot. Williams' essay of 1979 “the Arts Council” did not like the organisational culture that placed a higher value on consensus over rigour of discussion. Williams' diagnosis pinpointed this lack in the make-up of a closed and airless group of men. Appointed by government their first fealty was to authority rather than society.

It is a week that Councils have churned out documents that purport to address the next years. But to read Adams in 1999 is to read the same dilemmas of decision as Williams recorded in 1979. And they are unchanged since the very first memorandum written by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in its request to the Treasury for financial assistance. Sir John Simon was Chancellor, the date being 10th March 1940. And nothing has changed.

Adams is right on one aspect, the invisibility of theatre. Certainly more theatre gets covered but some still slips away. I reported last year that Hijinx can perform a whole weekend in Gwynedd beyond media attention. The media in Cardiff had not the slightest interest for the same reason for its indifference to Wales winning an Olivier this week*. The Gogs live in a far-away land of which we know little. The diminishing interest is not restricted to distant locations far up the A470. Sybil Crouch's tenure at Taliesin, and Swansea as a whole, has been broadly under-reported and under-appreciated. Wales is culturally disaggregated and public policy is no great help.

A taster then from David Adams. “Theatre, Cultural identity and the Critic” was a heavyweight 3670 words written for New Welsh Review in October 2000. Maybe it is overstated but maybe it was right for the time. (The drama strategy to which he refers led to a detonation three weeks later. It can be seen on this site, click left, News/2000/October 25th.)

“... the arts in Wales, notably theatre...there seems to me to be something still missing. We hear about excellence, accessibility, provision, development, and so on, that hotchpotch of New Labour, nationalist and marketing terminology. But we hear very little about criticism and the role of the critic not simply to evaluate theatre but to raise the profile, to relate it to real life, to insist on its cultural necessity. I suspect - indeed, I know - that the critic is not seen as an essential part of the arts in Wales. And yet have we not learned a lesson from the fiasco of the drama strategy?

“The problem is the general cultural one of Wales being more or less invisible or remains only dimly perceived, if not invisible...Any theatre practice, especially non-literary performance, and especially that of a subdominant culture such as Wales's in relation to England, does becomes invisible if it is not recorded. It is in general the critic that gives an ephemeral cultural practice a real place in history.

“Regardless of the qualities of the product and regardless, indeed, of the perspectives of the critic, the very fact of a performance happening is otherwise only manifest through such evidence as a ticket, a programme, a poster - promises of a performance rather than a record of one.

“....What do we have today in Wales ? A mess...On the surface this mixed economy may seem attractive, free as it might be of total state control or total free-enterprise commercialism. The public purse is held by bodies - the arts council and local councils - who ostensibly operate an "arm's length" approach from central government.

"In fact theatre provision is as part of the ideological structure as it is in socialist states. The arts council is a body whose members are all unelected government appointees; local council spending is increasingly subject to control from central government.

“...Whether the funding invested in theatre comes from a commercial organisation, from the local council, from business sponsors or from the arts council, it will be given only if it meets approval, if it fits in with cultural hegemony. The decisions are made by those with cultural capital. We must remember that theatre in the "free Western democracies" is as constrained by ideology as anywhere - all the more pernicious because of the illusion of freedom.

“...The unholy alliance of market imperatives and simplistic nationalism (or cultural identity) has taken much indigenous Welsh theatre to the edge of destruction. Experimental theatre, community and young people's theatre, new writing and "project" work is all under threat and will at best survive in a diminished form. How did this happen with no opposition?

“Criticism as an arena for debate, criticism as a vehicle for a plurality of views, criticism as a forensic tool, criticism as a document of record, criticism as an exposure of ideology, criticism as a search for meaning ... if there is no meaning, who needs criticism?

“Theatre is vital to society. So is criticism.

“Good criticism is so much more than simply one person's opinion about a show. It raises issues, it puts the art into social context, it says "this is important to our lives". If the Assembly wants to democratise the arts (and it clearly does), it must ensure that they become what they are in other parts of Europe - an integral, everyday part of life (or "Culture"). We get pages and pages of sports coverage in the Western Mail every day - then why not pages and pages of arts coverage (such as I found in Croatia, for example, a country roughly the same size as Wales) - and not just personalities and promotional features ? Put "cultural debate and discussion, as Ceri Sherlock recommends, into our lives.”

“Theatre, Cultural Identity and the Critic” in full at:

http://www.theatre-wales.co.uk/critical/critical_detail.asp?criticalID=226

*Postscript: The Olivier win was noted on Radio Wales Arts Show on April 12th. The programme, promotional in nature rather than critical, focussed on the upcoming co-production with the Menier Chocolate. The feature, which interviewed Tamara Harvey, was commendatory about Theatr Clwyd but made no reference to the achievement of “Home, I'm Darling.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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