Theatre in Wales

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Symposium: "Who Needs a National Theatre?"

National Theatre: Comment

Theatre Practitioners & Scholars , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October-06-07
National Theatre: Comment by Theatre Practitioners & Scholars Finland has one, Sweden not; Costa Rica, yes, Ecuador, no. Small nations and National Theatres are not necessarily synonymous but the idea for one in Wales has long been bubbling. Mooted in the 1930s it was the subject of a 1995 consultative paper written by two high-profile directors, Phil Clark and Michael Bogdanov. A year on David Adams, doyen of Welsh theatre critics, tackled it in his “Stage Welsh- Nation, Nationalism and Theatre: The Search for Cultural Identity.”

Taking a snapshot of a single week in Welsh theatre he reported a landscape then peopled by Dalier Sylw, Volcano, Brith Gof, Hijinx among many other companies. His conclusion was that Welsh national theatre- small letters- was in a robust and varied good health. He viewed a Welsh National Theatre- capital letters- with some apprehension. Cue forward eleven years and on page thirty-five of “One Wales”, the joint agreement of 27th June from the Labour and Plaid Cymru Groups in the Assembly, the pledge is made “We will establish a National English-language Theatre.”

On October 5th academics and practitioners joined in Aberystwyth for a symposium entitled, in English, “Who Needs a National Theatre?” Convened by Anwen Jones of the University’s Department of Drama, Film and Television Studies it was hosted by Aberystwyth’s ever more ambitious Arts Centre. Like the original Symposium the day proved exploratory and discursive, on occasion a little far-fetched and fanciful, but generous and hopeful in tone.

Before the latest developments were revealed by the Arts Council of Wales, news was brought from abroad, and decidedly mixed it was. From the viewpoint of Aberystwyth Dublin’s Abbey Theatre is a hundred and ten miles away, closer by sea than the road trip to the Millennium Centre. From the East coast of the Irish Sea the Irish theatre simply awes. The night of the symposium the Abbey Theatre was presenting a reworking by Roddy Doyle of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World”. In Sean O’Casey they have a Nobel prize winner. Brian Friel is a modern master. The trio of playwrights, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Sebastian Barry, are able to fill the Royal Court and National Theatres and get to play on Broadway.

The view brought by Holly Maples of University of East Anglia made for a bracing corrective. As the Abbey nudged towards its centenary in 2004 audiences were shrinking and unease was widespread among staff and advisory board. 2005 saw a climax to the fermenting crisis with the founding owner, the National Theatre Society, being dissolved and an entire new Board created.
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Behind the headline crises and substantial deficits the theatre was asphyxiating on the very richness of its tradition. Friel, Barry and McPherson are now established figures. New writers to reflect Ireland’s new condition and national self-image are slow in emerging or not being realised in performance. What is produced is over-dependent on monologue. Martin McDonagh is viewed with suspicion for the acidity of his work and the fact of his being born in Camberwell, London. Even producing Shakespeare is still a cause of contention for his non-Irishness and the bitterness not yet settled from the Abbey’s founding days.

To Scotland, and the view from Rebecca Robinson, Drama Advisor to the Scottish Arts Council, of the National Theatre of Scotland was altogether rosier. Firstly, the company has youth on its side, having been established only three years ago, secondly it enjoys what universal consensus deems to be truly visionary artistic leadership, and thirdly, with Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch”, it has had an acclaimed monster hit, both artistically and commercially.

In origin the Black Watch regiment presents something of a paradox. But, although raised in 1739 by the British Government to bring order to the Highlands, it went on to acquire the status of national icon. When the play was premiered not only had the announcement been made that the regiment was to be disbanded but it was under deployment in Basra. Playwright Gregory Burke marries a fierce theatricality, incorporating drill, marching songs and combat exercises, to sympathy with the men on the ground while officers eloquently denounce their mission. A sell-out in Edinburgh, it toured Scotland, a version made it to Radio Four, it has been touring Los Angeles and New York this Autumn and reaches London in 2008. A Welsh playwright would indeed be fortunate to locate a subject that linked to such a degree national sentiment to a burning topical issue.

This is the first part of an article that appeared in Planet Magazine Autumn 2007

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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