Theatre in Wales

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“Not theatre, performance art at its most self-indulgent"

National Theatre: Comment

Writers of Wales In Agreement , Yr Helfa , February 5, 2015
National Theatre: Comment by Writers of Wales In Agreement The Wales Theatre Awards of last week gave National Theatre Wales two nominations and one award. “Yr Helfa” did not feature. That would be of no matter; there is a lot of performance in Wales. But it has a significance in its own right. That is the gap between the producer view and, for want of a better word, the consumer interest.

Reviewers are not necessarily a surrogate for the public but the numbers who saw the piece were tiny. Certainly the reviewers from Wales ought to have more credence with a Welsh theatre company than visitors from London. But the company website continues to boast of the production. This varies considerably from the reviews from here.

Planet covers theatre selectively but “Yr Helfa” featured in Issue 216. Ffion Jones' review was spread over no less than 8 pages, although it was heavily illustrated with 6 pictures. Unusually for a reviewer she also runs a 148-acre sheep farm.

Her main critique had two parts. She discerned a lack of complexity. “I expected an engagement with the complexities of living and working on such places: comment on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy; or with the problems of implementing the Glastir scheme in such a challenging environment; something to allow for a deeper more meaningful depiction, exploration and dissemination of such lives; something for the farming community themselves perhaps.”

As for the language she found “the theatricalisation of the words seemed unnecessary, jarring and, on occasion, overly romantic.” She too high-lighted the directorial shortcomings. As in my own review she warmed to the Deiniolen Silver Band. It should have been “a moment to be savoured. Yet again we were rushed onwards.”

Later “we were in constant motion and unable to engage with them in our own time and on their own terms..The work was superficial in its engagement with the farm and the four years research was not very apparent in the work which was, in my opinion, a missed opportunity.” My own review pointed to the misjudged direction, the obvious fact that poems had been commissioned, but the audience was unable to read them.

Her critique picked on the lack of involvement with actual farmers. “My second criticism is that there was ample opportunity for the voices of lay experts (farmers) to be included first-hand in the work, but these were cast aside in favour of a particular aesthetic and a poetic facsimile of the agricultural lifestyle.”

Molly Jones was there for Wales Arts Review. Her last line read “This was not theatre, this was performance art at its most self-indulgent.” She commented too on the tiny scope. “With just three performances and a maximum audience of two hundred, it was a crying shame then that the scenery proved to be the most dramatic element of this four and a half hour long show.”

My own review pointed to the fact that exclusion was at the show's heart, good health being a prerequisite. “With the path harsh and unforgiving under foot”, Jones recorded, “it was difficult to choose between focusing on one’s feet to prevent ankle breakage and glancing up to see the few sparse moments of performance.”

Again the poor pacing was noticed. “We paused for a moment whilst one of our fellow audience members with better eyesight than me, recited it in a wonderful voice reminiscent of Richard Burton – an impromptu highlight that showed up the lack of theatre provided by the show itself.”
So too the thematic shortcomings. “After several hours of walking and all of about half an hour of actual performance, we were herded back down the mountain, alongside a distinctly undramatic number of sheep, to a sheep farm. There was a bit of live sheep shearing, a fair amount of waiting around, some poor quality video, a baffling but strangely entrancing short dance by an athletic member of the cast across some beds in a barn and another tune by the brass band before we were eventually released back into the wild after a very long four and a half hours...something, somewhere has gone quite horribly wrong.”

She too concluded it was tourist theatre. “Yr Helfa was none of these things. For the culmination of a three year project, it lacked focus and did not do justice either to the brave souls eking out a living through sheep farming or to the animals themselves. Perhaps as a city dweller, if I had never seen sheep being herded or strolled in rugged terrain there would have been more of a novelty value on offer but with less content than an average episode of BBC’s Countryfile, Yr Helfa was a disappointment.”

My own review also noted how local people were kept out. “Gwynedd may only have four percent of the population of Wales but it is their national theatre too.” As for the health exclusion “So to be very young or old or infirm or unfit is to be excluded. But it is their national theatre too.” My last line “it is tangentially theatre, certainly un-national, debatably even local. It is not just that a Gwynedd theatre audience deserves a theatre that engages with their real lives, it is their right.”

Planet 216 pages 117-124 print magazine

Molly Jones for Wales Arts Review

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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