Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Symposium "Who Needs a National Theatre?"

National Theatre: Comment

Theatre Practitioners & Scholars , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October-05-07
National Theatre: Comment by Theatre Practitioners & Scholars Back to Wales and the consensus from the speakers was that the Arts Council ofWales had been well and truly mesmerised by the model of the National Theatre of Scotland. With no building to support and a lean fixed cost base the company had been able to perform in non-traditional venues such as shops and tenement buildings, ferries and a glass factory. It was thus hitting some of the access issues that haunt theatre’s notions of self-legitimacy.

Theory and theatre both derive from the same word in Greek. Lectern and stage were born not far apart and have been in a relationship more or less ever since of mutual fascinated attraction. Bits of theory nipped in and out of the symposium’s proceedings; with university speakers present it was not going to be far away. But nothing was on the level of claims, heard in the same lecture space, for the Rebecca Rioters to be interpreted as an expression of innate national theatricality.
There were a clunky quotation from Lukacs, an extravagant metaphor from Artaud, reference to infrastructure and superstructure but the academic contributions were elegant, measured and pithy. Ioan Williams expressed pride in what he termed the porosity of the drama department, of which he has been a principal architect, between criticism and performance.

However, it took a practitioner, Tim Baker, describing himself as eighty percent Associate Director for Theatr Clwyd Cymru and twenty percent director and writer at large, to shoot from the hip. In rapid fire, Wales had too few young and ambitious directors, no canon of drama writing- this elicited a shout of protest from an audience mmeber. Carmarthen-based Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru had not been fairly treated. The very term “national” raised unrealistic expectations for an embryonic company requiring time to mature. If Theatr Clywd Cymru had a view over the Taff rather than the Clwydian Hills would this debate even be taking place? Why was this new endeavour being cast as a monolingual venture? He played well with the audience.

His contribution was from the heart, but a little undercut later in the day. His last directorial work had been “Porth y Byddar” for Theatr Clywd Cymru and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru jointly. Artfully the symposium had been timed to coincide with the play’s first performance in Aberystwyth. On the seventh leg of an eight-venue tour it played to a packed and predominantly young house.

The play’s premiere at the Eisteddfod was covered in the last issue of Planet. August 1st this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the City of Liverpool Corporation Act, the parliamentary bill that legitimised the sequestering and damming of Cwm Celyn. By the device of a Private Bill Liverpool nullified the planning and screening functions of the local authority, the former Merioneth County Council.

Manon Eames’ multi-stranded play followed the pattern of similar, big issue plays, which is no discredit. Characters paraded by the dozen with the energetic twelve-strong cast swapping roles at speed. Two narrators slipped in and out of the action and provided the essential glue for the narrative. Scenes moved from smoke-filled clubrooms to council meetings, chapel to the House of Lords, children fishing by the riverbank to interrogations by bewigged QCs.

Nor were the less elevating parts of the story ducked. It was all there; the ejection of Gwynfor Evans from a Liverpool council session, the relative indifference in nearby Bala, the heated debates within Plaid Cymru, the pusillanimity of local councils, the ambivalent role that the local police were obliged to perform.

Water politics are here to stay. The day “Porth Y Byddar” played in Cardigan two thousand staff, not to mention four million plus captive customers, at Southern Water were handed over unconsulted to a consortium of mainly Australian financial interests. Threaded throughout Manon Eames’ text was the assertion that the water requirement, ostensibly caused by Liverpool’s slum clearances, could have been satisfied by the already existing drawings from Llyn Efyrnwy. A short scene showed a conversation between councillors cooking up a deal to resell water to a neighbouring county. This theme of corporation capitalism was potent stuff indeed. “Porth y Byddar” was gripping national theatre, small letters, performed by a National Theatre company, capital letters.

The nearest relative to Manon Eames’ play would be John McGrath’s “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.” That production eventually played to a total audience of thirty thousand. Now Scotland is bigger in many respects than Wales. It has not got the rock stars, the tenors or the Hollywood A-listers, but its population and land mass are bigger, its aristocrats are richer- see September’s obituaries of the Duke of Buccleuch- its health profile worse. But, if 7:84’s production got to be seen by thirty thousand, then reasonably “Porth y Byddar” should be seen by fifteen or eighteen thousand. Before it shrinks from the big stage to Theatre-in-Education status it deserves to be revived. Producers, playwright and Arts Council of Wales should be locked in a room, Vatican-style, and only let out when white smoke emerges to affirm the play will be seen again.

Finally, back at the symposium, one word was refreshingly and repeatedly present, right from the start, but another as notable for its absence. Over and over the word “audience” was heard. As Ioan Williams put it pithily theatre at its most elemental is no more than “people coming together in a room.” Theatre legitimises itself in front of an audience. How to create it? Elwyn Williams posed the dilemma of a Welsh-language company, of determining who it is that they are for.

The word that went missing was “story”, probably because, Tim Baker apart, no fulltime writers were present. Gwen Ellis wrote in the last issue of Planet of the play’s performance in Mold, how its story generated more stories from the audience. There are legions of national stories that press to be told and audiences that yearn to hear them. Film now takes an average of five years from pitch to premiere and is ever obliged to keep an eye on a trans-Atlantic audience. Television is absorbed in its own concerns, which leaves theatre as the medium where national stories can best be played.

Scotland has had its “Black Watch.” London’s National Theatre has been host to “The Permanent Way” and “Stuff Happens”, huge chronicles about railway privatisation and the invasion of Iraq respectively. This summer “King Cotton”, about the blockade of Southern ports during the American Civil War that deprived the mills of Lancashire of their raw cotton, played to acclaim at the Lowry Centre Stage in Salford.

“Porth y Byddar” sold out its six and a thousand tickets because it was a gripping story written with skill. To follow there is no shortage of potent stories that await commissioning by a tough-minded literary manager in the new endeavour. The Merthyr Rising has already featured in a play by Patrick Jones this year. The Scotch Cattle have been dramatised by Theatr Iolo and Dic Penderyn made the subject of a rock musical

This is an edited second part of an article that appeared in Planet Magazine Autumn 2007

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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