Theatre in Wales

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Theatre Matters Over the Border

My Year of Theatre

Drama, Comedy, Musicals , Theatre Beyond Wales in 2019 , January 5, 2020
My Year of Theatre by Drama, Comedy, Musicals I saw 19 pieces of theatre in England over the year. For all the variations in population, economy, wealth and culture it is useful to have a view of what is happening not so far away.

It is interesting for another reason. So often actors of Wales- more often than not RWCMD alumni- feature regularly in the casts of great productions. Rosie Sheehy is an instance, making an impact at the RSC. She was first reviewed here in the autumn of 2017 to acclaim and went on to collect a best performance award at the last Wales Theatre Awards. Anjana Vasan, last seen in Haverfordwest's Tasker Milward school, was at the Olivier in “Rutherford and Son.”

I first saw Amy Morgan in Mold, last summer at the Lyric Hammersmith and she is currently in Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti “A Kind of People”. It is a play that blisters, its subject racial rancour. My 19 are obviously a tiny selection in a tsunami of performance. (Demand for theatre is so great in London that four or five new ones are being built to add to the supply.)

We go out at night to be shown worlds we don't live in ourselves. On 5th October a service of remembrance was held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Ladbroke Grove rail crash. “The Permanent Way”, Out of Joint's verbatim play about the rail industry, was revived. It holds up well largely because David Hare got to people, and their voices, who are far outside our own experience.

If the theatre I saw did not share much in common on the surface, there were factors that unified. In January I was at “the Convert” at the Young Vic, sold out, with a wholly non-white cast. In the same week I was in an audience which was 60% made up of the Windrush generation, their children and grandchildren. The atmosphere was great and, as often when theatre soars, strangers conversed with one another. The key is of course the content, that brings in new audiences. The setting of “Nine Night” was not novel, a family gathering after a death. But it bristled with vitality. Like any comedy that works it had an asperity to it. Natasha Gordon, the dramatist, was happy to lay into the deficiencies of the males of Jamaica to manifest audience delight.

These are great days for drama from the USA. Bruce Norris wrote the best play about the changes that have occurred in cities. David Bond directed his “Clybourne Park” for RWCMD, reviewed 30th March 2012. Norris' “Downstate” in 2019 was set in a hostel for sex offenders and was both brilliant and chilly. In May I was at the Royal Court for “White Pearl.” The characters were a cross-section of Asian nationalities, Japanese, Singaporean, Taiwanese. The title referred to a new cosmetic product. The plot was about a commercial that went viral. In the west it caused uproar for racism but the product was for marketing in China where the advertisement caused no offence. If theatre is a kind of testament to the real this was the first- at least that I have seen- that acknowledged that the interests of the new Hegemon come first.

Wales has musical theatre coming up in 2020 at Newbridge in March and Tregaron in August. I was at two in 2019, which were not brand extensions of well-known film titles. There are not that many original titles for musical theatre. I thought “Come from Away” was polished, energetic, nice enough for most of its length. Then towards the end it changed emotional gear. I was affected, the neighbour in the seat next to me more so, as she quietly sobbed. The authors tackle racial prejudice head on. I chose Mellody Hobson for some good quotations from the year, below 22nd December. Hobson: “We have to be colour-brave not colour-blind”.

The age profile of the audience for “Come From Away” hovered in the main between thirty and forty. In January I was at “Everyone's Talking About Jamie” where the age profile was way lower. Apart from the Member for Rhondda in the row in front, the whole lot was aged 30 or younger. Good scripts are powered by villains. The character Dean taunts the two main characters on account of their sexuality and their religion.

The show has made a mint and is going to be filmed. And it had its origin in publicly funded theatre. “Sheffield City Council”, says the company's Chair with justifiable pride, “has supported Sheffield Theatres' Arts Council application with a 4 year funding commitment of £291,600 per annum.” Not surprisingly it- and the others I saw- is what public funders dream of. Auditoria are stuffed with the young and with non-traditional audiences.

Literature had a loss late in the year. It was the accomplishment of Clive James to collapse the distinction between high and low culture. Dante or “the West Wing” made no difference to him. Quite right too. The messages from these productions are twofold. First, craft is the bed-rock. Dramatists need to be able to play with metaphor. Branden Jacob-Jenkins' “Appropriate” has, like “Nine Night”, the subject of a family gathering, in the home of a deceased patriarch. The first act closes with a little boy descending a staircase from an upper floor. He has been rummaging in grandpa's possessions and is wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. It is authorial mastery of stagecraft.

Secondly, stories need to be about things that count. Theatre is the art that has fissure at its heart. It is the achievement of our species to have transcended tribe to globe. But tribe asserts itself in a line that ascends from insult to assault. Theatre is the art of human presence doing division and fissure, because that is how we are. The material has to matter.

Public funded theatre has its motivations. “Our approach focuses on two objectives”, runs a policy document, “the arts as the basis of protest and dissent, the arts as surprise, contradiction and discomfort.” My neighbour at “Come From Away” was brought to tears. That aspiration to discomfort sounds good. After playwright Florian Zeller had done “the Father”- “Y Tad” for Theatr Genedlaethol- and “the Mother” he wrote “the Son.” The result was unbearable to watch, but it was high art because it did not flinch before truth.

The policy quotation was written by the Arts Council of Wales. But it was a few years back.

Illustration: Rae Smith's design for Ian Rickson's production of “Rosmersholm”, exquisite to look at throughout leading to a dramatic close. Photo: Johan Persson.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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