Theatre in Wales

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A 2017 Look-Back: Differences of Opinion Again

National Theatre: Comment

National Theatre Wales “We're Still Here” , Byass Works, Port Talbot , December 28, 2017
National Theatre: Comment by National Theatre Wales “We're Still Here” The year cannot be left behind, in honesty, without a summation about “We're Still Here.” A distinct pathology has been running in the theatre of Wales for years now. Starting in 2011 it has raised its head on and off over the last six years. Lyn Gardner travels a distance, likes what she sees, and slaps four stars on a National Theatre Wales production.

Welsh reviewers, less fluent as writers and with only small-circulation journals or sites as outlets, travel less far and are less excited.

The most egregious is the production on the Watkin Path from three years ago. Run a search and the first result is “this was not theatre, this was performance art at its most self-indulgent.” That was a Welsh critic writing for Wales Arts Review. Planet Magazine had a farmer to report and critiqued it deeply. The report from here did not mince its words. The production was calculated to keep out a lot of people, those in the vicinity included. But on the company's site and Wikipedia the production is deemed to be just fab.

It is no surprise that the three screens on continuous loop in Castle Arcade have to cite a London broadsheet. A quotation of its kind is not forthcoming from a source in Wales.

So once again the split occurred. The Guardian was there again 20th September:

“This town is ours. They don’t get to speak for us, only we speak for us.” So says a steelworker as fury rises at a meeting with the union about a possible deal to keep the Tata steelworks at Port Talbot open, albeit with cuts to pension benefits.

“The workers get to speak directly for themselves in National Theatre Wales and Common Wealth’s kaleidoscopic production, hewn by playwright Rachel Trezise from the words of the community and performed by current and former steelworkers alongside a professional cast. In 80 minutes they offer us fragments from the continuing fight to save the last heavy industry in Wales.

“It is a promenade-style production that never attempts to be completist or linear as it unfolds across the vast floor of a former factory situated within sight of the steelwork’s blast furnaces. As one of the workers says: “If you can smell sulphur in the air, it means someone in Port Talbot is getting paid.” But fewer are getting paid, and the patchwork voices we hear are full of a fierce anger, love and often grief for what has been lost. A man talks about staying in bed all day, and how the sound of a neighbour starting up the car to go to work is like a knife in the heart. The names of the 750 to lose their jobs are read out like a memorial. In a town where there is little other work, losing your job is a kind of death.

“This is an evening full of ghosts both from Wales’s proud industrial past and from towns across the world where globalisation has destroyed jobs that had been safe for generations. The floor of the Byass works is covered with concrete slabs like tombstones and mounds of slag like unmarked graves. “Who’s there?” demand workers and union reps peering into the darkness, unable to see the whistling children – the ghosts of the future – scampering across the desolate landscape.

“It’s by no means all downbeat. The show comes laced with music and a rich earthy humour as it celebrates the heart and solidarity of the people of the town quietly and without sentimentality.”

A broadsheet critic ought to be the last word. But views from Wales diverged. Or rather some views did. There were voices that I value. The production was disorderly, the directors chopping and changing. It was humourless and structureless. It has no women and the steel men were reported as being “terribly clean”. It was without any dialectic “audience just talked at”. One veteran of theatre did not care for its slagging-off of the government of Wales.

A reviewer who was not there is a bit of a non-event. For the record I was not there for a couple of reasons. For the press night I was away- although the company is not overly keen on Welsh critics- and I was unmotivated to make the round trip of 65 miles each way. The main lack of motivation was due to the promotion. I am bored with facts. Theatre is there for drama, for frisson, thrill, tension, contradiction. The shrill advertising read like a Momentum pamphlet, arch and shallow. It is national theatre for the one-party state and a lot of establishment men thought it was the real thing.

There is also the base issue. Theatre can be more than lament. But there needs to be that edge of engagement with the world. The cost of coking coal is on the up. Iron-ore prices have doubled in the past 12 months. But look at Voestalpine in Linz. It for long had a board that refused to lay off workers made redundant by labour-saving technologies. Instead it went into shipbuilding- Austria has no coast- and weaponry, unwanted by NATO. Now it has margins of 4%, compared with 2% for ArcelorMittal, 1.8% for Thyssenkrupp and minus 7.5% for Tata Steel Europe. It is meeting the growth in demand for higher-margin speciality steel for car and aircraft industries. Voestalpine plans to open its first plant in Linz to experiment with using clean hydrogen instead of dirty coking coal.

These are real issues, success, but we are in an arts culture that has such small interest in the world.

Mark Ravenhill too is bored with facts: “If we turn theatre into a mere living newspaper we conspire in the processes by which modern man has come to feel adrift in history, without roots and without branches- galactic flotsam and jetsam. Kundera has described this phenomenon most vividly; without a past, we are children. To be grown up is to have a memory. The theatre, relentlessly trying to live in the today, this minute, has become childish.”

Picture Credit: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures

Guardian at
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/sep/20/were-still-here-review-welsh-steel-byass-works-port-talbot-national-theatre-wales

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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