Theatre in Wales

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Revealing But Discursive Scholarly Perspective

Theatre History

Nadine Holdsworth- Theatre and Nation , Palgrave Macmillan , October 1, 2010
Theatre History by Nadine Holdsworth- Theatre and Nation “Theatre &..” is a long series of short books” write the series' editors Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato. Other titles- 13 have been published to date- include theatre and the body, sexuality, audience, the city, feeling, politics, education. It is a high, and undoubtedly a good, concept. The format is 80 pages, book-ended with foreword, impressive “further reading” list, references and index.

The subject is important. “Nations”, wrote John Ruskin, “write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.” The downside is in the tone, set by the editors that the books hope “to capture the restless interdisciplinary energy of theatre and performance.” They are essentially brewed within universities where overwhelmingly a critical approach has been traded in for a pot pourri of sociology, psychology along with dashes of autobiography and plain subjectivity.

Walking the borders of disciplines works with minds that are exceptional, Gregory Bateson for instance, but more regularly the psychology or the sociology is shallow and ends up being deployed to tendentious purpose.

But this small study stimulates. The bibliography comprises 65 items and is both eclectic and heavyweight. Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, Hans Kohn, Ernest Renan all feature. But the space is tight and on page 76 the professorial attention slips away from theatre entirely to Artichoke, Anthony Gormley and the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Nations are entities and never before have the four constituents of our own state been made so manifest in their own institutions. This is a historical innovation that is entirely passed by. The issue of how theatre is part of, or represents, nation is a couple of centuries old but also burningly of the moment in the United Kingdom. Instead the book goes head-on for the opposite, its interest in “the nation as ambivalent and hybrid identities”. This is true, both only insofar as all entities are made of subsidiary units.

Thus the second line reads “the influential cultural critic Homi Bhabha, in his 1990 Nation and Narration, theorises that the way a nation sees itself and projects itself to others is tied up in the narratives a nation tells itself about itself, including both the “what” and the “how” of the telling.”

Bhabha again a few pages on looks “to the ambivalent nature of the nation. By this he means it is subject to competing discourses, change and periods of progress, regression and stasis. “It is an ambivalence that emerges from a growing awareness, that, despite the certainty with which historians speak of the “origins” of nation as a sign of the “modernity” of society, the cultural temporality of the nation inscribes a much more transitional social reality.”

The last line, windy and baggy, seems to say that things that are necessarily within time change with time. The approach has for its bogeyman “the danger in summoning the nation as a known, unchanging entity is that it suggests harking back to some misplaced notion of national purity, when, in fact, the reality of the nation is reliant on its impurity.”

This has a relevance for Wales as does the turn of subject on page 42. The topic is riot which the performance writer sees as “about enactment, display, and commanding an audience for the dissent they embody.” Certainly the long catalogue of historical riot and dissent is a repeated part of Welsh cultural self-assertion.

The book is very much better when it moves to the specific. The first actual theatre cited is that of South African theatre and the remarkable part that the Market Theatre of Johannesburg played. In Britain the first dramatist mentioned is Roy Williams. His “Days of Significance” was reviewed last year, November 2009, when the RSC toured to Cardiff. Holdsworth goes back to his “Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads” of 2004. Robin Soans' “Mixed Up North” from 2008 is discussed and the book goes back to “the Entertainer”, although Holdsworth has little time for Osborne. His play, despite its many revivals and a film that still holds up well, is a “petulant and rather lazy way of pointing to the nation's decline.” This points to the gap, gulf even, between performance scholarship and drama criticism.

Nicholas Hytner adds an arresting comment in his three-page foreword. The first production he chose on arrival at the South Bank was “Henry V”, the style overt in its topical reference. “It would have been perverse not to present it as a state-of-the-nation play.” His follow-up is “and I'm not sure that the audience would have allowed us any other approach.”

But a page on he writes that this attention on topicality has a corollary. “So eager was the National Theatre's audience to see contemporary history in Shakespeare's history play that there was a significant loss.” That loss was ambiguity. The monarch “may be ruthless and out for himself but he's also the heroic embodiment of the kind of nation-builder that has only recently fallen out of favour.”

He views his own production, a terrific success at the time, with candour and in a spirit of critique. “A production less at the mercy of current events would have given theatrical presence to his heroism.” In short topical reference entails artistic diminishment.

Note: “Rebellions, Uprisings & Strikes in Wales” can be read at

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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