Theatre in Wales

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“Time for some serious ambition and proper leadership from our national public service broadcaster”

National Theatre: Comment

Radio 4 Front Row , “National Theatre's Place in Civic and Cultural Life” , April 28, 2019
National Theatre: Comment by Radio 4 Front Row On the “Sunday Politics” of 28th April an interviewee, Roger Awan-Scully, declared that the First Minister had been wrong in something he had said. That is nothing unusual. But what was unusual was that the First Minister had been on the programme just minutes earlier. The statement had gone unchallenged and he had by that time exited the programme.

That is the job of the media. BBC Wales does not exist to carefully separate authority from its commentators. Thus in Wales, uniquely, a situation can arise where a Minister asks for more scrutiny from the media. But that was exactly what Lee Waters publicly asked for last week. I watch BBC Wales and I watch BBC Scotland, They are chalk and cheese. The second feature on the politics programme was treated with triviality and misled.

This is after all the media organisation whose main news could not even bother itself with the vote in the Senedd on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. In her letter to the management the Llywydd pointed to the difference. “By contrast, BBC Scotland’s output the following day was dominated by Scottish Parliament’s vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.”

There are not many public voices in Cardiff with any spark to them but Laura MacAllister is reliably one of them, Her opinion piece for the Western Mail of 27th April was headed “Time for some serious ambition and proper leadership from our national public service broadcaster”. In it she called for BBC Wales to put up better, sharper journalism. “BBC Wales”, she wrote, “is a national, public service broadcaster, it is not a region of England. Therefore, it should surely pursue its own distinctive strategy for the benefit of Wales and its people.”

She, an eye from close-up, sees “mostly flabby interviewing and a lack of interest in, never mind rigorous scrutiny of, those who run Wales. It was not always thus and there’s an irony that as devolved powers have grown, the flagship news programme has become less, not more, interested in robust journalism about Wales.” In conclusion she calls for “serious strengthening and improvement through an injection of high-standard journalism and production.”

Laura MacAllister has form. When Newsnight made a foray into Wales and broadcast trash her response was: “Newsnight and others will continue to treat stories about Wales with the nonchalant, ignorant, sneering disregard that we witnessed last night...We have allowed others to set the terms of debate for crucial things that we should have framed for ourselves long ago. What’s heartbreaking and infuriating (in equal measure) is that we are better placed to frame an intelligent debate.”

A critical culture starts with the particular. General conclusions are okay, but only if they arise from the particular. The BBC has never in 10 years, not once, addressed itself critically to theatre in Wales. In fact it is the reverse, BBC Wales setting itself up as a highly selective promotional medium. The situation reported in the article of 6th April would not have come about had BBC Wales paid first attention to its duty of public service. A full account of that, in detail, will appear at another time.

In the meantime Radio 4's “Front Row” turned once again to national theatre 10 days before the exit from the European Union, or at least the day of first intended exit. Once again generality took precedence over any critical attention. But “Front Row” is making progress. In 2014 a gathering of top men to address national theatre comprised McGrath-Sansom-Hytner. Theatr Genedlaethol was uninvited, the boss of the English company presumably not informing his hosts of the omission.

Time round Arwel Gruffydd got his invitation, took centre stage and delivered a contribution with a lot of vim to it.

In excerpt:

Arwel Gruffydd: “Our company was born out of a desire to have national status for a company that produced work in the Welsh language. In many ways we were born as a response to the National Theatre of Great Britain which produces work predominantly and I think even exclusively in the English language, the Welsh language of course being one of the official languages of the UK. We felt somewhat under-represented in that.

“There was no master-plan to have two national theatres for Wales when Theatr Gen was born in 2003. We have a situation now that was born out of an organic situation, even an accident of history. It was not design.

“The Welsh language is spoken throughout Wales. We tour our work consistently to reach Welsh-speakers wherever they may be. We're also making our work accessible for non-Welsh- speakers. We've devised our own app that allows people to have a translation of the piece which 'is triggered live during the performance. In some instances it has increased our audiences by up to twenty percent. We're constantly trying to make our work accessible to non-Welsh-speakers without actually compromising the experience of Welsh-speakers themselves.

“It's beyond any company to actually encompass and present a whole of a nation in what they do. What we do is give a platform to diverse voices, to express themselves on a national platform, to support artists to create work that's relevant, that speaks to audiences now, rather than say to the nation, or the world, “this is Wales” in any kind of definitive and final version.

“How we respond to that [the Wales' vote of 23rd June] is ensure we are as inclusive as possible, in the room of the work that we create and the work that we support, the communities that we support and engage with, to be as inclusive, while remaining true of course to our ethos of producing work in the Welsh language.

Kully Thiarai: “We've have had a whole series of conversations with people who've been critical of us. What's been brilliant is that the recent big creative conversation created a real space for the arts community pan-Wales to come together and talk about and dream about what theatre might be like over the next ten years and that's been a real positive energetic and dynamic conversation.

[Response to 23rd June vote in Wales] “Theatre is a kind of dress rehearsal for life at times. You get a chance to see a world or be provoked by a question or an experience or a character that somehow at its best speaks to you or for you. Part of the challenge around inclusivity is that we do not have enough diversity in the range of work that is out there, who's making it and how it's being made and how's it's being recognised and reviewed. All of that adds to the sense of feeling, people feeling that they are not being heard. Theatre has a role to play in telling those stories in their broadest context to have a place.”

Jackie Wylie: “The role of a national theatre in a divided world is of course to bring people together and theatre as an art form is arguably a place for community and celebration and discourse.

“And we talk a lot about making sure that we are representing a complex version of Scottishness. We don't see our job to give one single version of Scottish identity but rather to have the broadest spectrum and definition of what Scotland in the 21st century might be.

“I also think there's also something inherent within the process of making theatre, about collaboration and conversation and celebration. A national theatre in its best sense can be about promoting and contributing to a set of national cultural values.

“I was wondering how long it would take you to ask me a question about 2014 [the referendum]. I think it's too simplistic to say that it helped the National Theatre of Scotland because it's such a complex situation for a national theatre to navigate, a time of political self-reflection.
“The National Theatre of Scotland's founding principle was to be a theatre for everyone. Which means actually representing every single person in Scotland. Never take a political position because to take one position is inherently alienating to other positions.”

The discussion can be heard at

Laura MacAllister “Time for some serious ambition and proper leadership from our national public service broadcaster” at

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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