Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Why Don't We Get to Laugh More?

Theatre In Wales: Comment

Ffion Jones & Welsh-Theatre-Not-in-Wales , Edinburgh Fringe 2019 , May 7, 2019
Theatre In Wales: Comment by Ffion Jones & Welsh-Theatre-Not-in-Wales Reviewing, like travel, is best done alone. Aloneness makes the eye and the ear more alert. The strangers in the seats to left and right say more about a performance than a friend or loved one. Acquaintance requires attention which lessens attention to the event. But on occasion I have taken others, young people, when I thought the occasion was right. On one occasion live theatre had its effect on a year-sixer who had never been in an auditorium before. His jaw hung open in astonishment and novelty. That is description, meant literally.

It has not been frequent but it has been regular. Sometimes it has not worked. Caryl Churchill was a step too far, but more often it has. The companies have been Citrus, Curtain Call, Flying Bridge, Buddug James Jones, the Globe, National Youth Theatre Wales, Theatr Clwyd on tour, the Torch on tour, the Wardens, Wales Theatre Company. To look back on these occasions is to realise they had a factor in common. More often than not we were there to laugh. In fact the schoolkids I took chortled more over “She Stoops to Conquer” than I did.

Wales as a nation reveals what it likes by choosing what to see. Wales as a state reveals less. But the Letter of Remit to the Arts Council cherry-picks a few items to commend from the efflorescence of culture. They are rarely the best of what has taken place the year before. But since the civil servants who draft the letter have not seen the shows, they presumably choose what they think the government likes. Or maybe ought to like. But there is scant connection between their choice and what counts in the culture.

My article, 25th February. touched on laughter and recommended satire. “It blooms when a culture is in a full flower of robustness, gusto and self-assurance. Daumier, Grosz and Scarfe are among the greats. It is good for everyone when the pious, the pompous and the powerful get a dose of mockery. It is good too when wordy critics are taken down a peg or two.” Wales could do with a big dollop of satire. “Oh, sacred Weapon! In Truth's defence, Sole dread of Folly, Vice and Insolence” wrote Alexander Pope.

Laughing on stage has a practical side. Aberystwyth had two performance pieces on two consecutive days in April whose subject was the health service. One played the big space and sold 520 tickets, the other sold less and played the Studio. If the company in the studio were able to even say the word “comedy” it too would occupy the place it that should, main hall not studio. Laughter, the most elemental act of shared human communality, is a seller where piety is a killer.

Two years back the Minister asked the Culture Committee to look to reduce Wales' need for subsidy. The Committee missed a trick. If theatre tried to make us laugh more, more of us would go. But a vein of puritanism gets in the way which considers earnestness to be seriousness. So Frank Vickery- see 3rd September 2018- was valued, but not in the rooms which control the money. If you want to be funny, by the doctrine of Wales although not elsewhere, you're on your own.

So the companies here reach to England for comedy they can sell; more royalties flow to Richard Bean. Welsh theatre runs a balance of payments deficit in comedy theatre. Which is a pity. A decent theatre magisterium would try to delight us with a new Dafydd James script or an equivalent every year. But then this would require the same magisterium to like theatre a lot more than it does.

The subject of the article referred to above was a show at the Vaults in Waterloo “the Other Ffion Jones.” Ffion Jones is author of a piece in Wales Arts Review called “Being the Wrong Ffion Jones”. It is in the category of “the Big Read” and it is, coming in at 2200 words. There is a lot in it, not least the allure of London:

“There are more opportunities, facilities and a bit more room for risk-taking in London, but, most importantly, I feel like I have found my voice can be just as powerful to be Welsh outside of Wales. If you’re creating art in Wales – thank you. I needed you when I was younger. But I want to be a part of the bigger conversation and I know that my voice – a Welsh voice – deserves to be part of that conversation.”

The heart of it begins. “One day I’m sitting on a bus on my way home from work and an email pings into my inbox. It’s the contract for the job. I sweat. I shake. My heart is in my throat. I check the contract and it has my name on it. It’s all kosher. I start to freak out a little because this isn’t the usual order of things. I didn’t have a call from my agent to offer me the job. I just have my contract. But it says Ffion Jones on it. It’s mine.”

The rest of the story asks to be read. As a tale from the acting life, in all its hope, its hazard, its elation and everything else, it is a classic.

As an afterword this is the first signal of a Welsh show heading this summer for the biggest, most jostling, most high visibility theatre festival on the planet. As to who the producers are I have no idea. An irony of my reports from last year's Edinburgh is that a good chunk of the explosive Welsh talent never gets to be seen in Wales at all. It is an upside down world.

I applaud Ffion Jones for the qualities that exclude her, and others, from ever getting into a ministerial Letter of Remit. I applaud the candour, the vitality, the emotional openness, the self-belief, the brio, the lack of jargon, the unabashedness of the Welshness, the relish for theatre.

I applaud too the promotion of her show, the hunger to communicate, the will for an audience. First mover advantage is a powerful tool.

“The Wrong Ffion Jones” will be at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh at 3pm 1st-25thAugust.

With thanks to

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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