Theatre in Wales

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2019 Arts Retrospective: High Confidence & Character

Radio Arts Feature

The Review of the Year Show , BBC Radio Wales , January 18, 2020
Radio Arts Feature by The Review of the Year Show The end of the year was accompanied by a customary slew of end of the year programmes. Retrospectives of the arts in 2019 were made in both London and Cardiff. The two- the Review Show for Radio Wales and Front Row for Radio 4- had an overlap and a divergence. The overlap occurred in discussion of awards that had taken place in 2019, critics on both programmes taking a dissenting view.

The divergence occurred in the treatment of context. The London programme is not concerned that the art under discussion be expressive of United Kingdom-ness. From a year in theatre “Sweat” was one to be remembered. The play by Lyn Nottage is set in declining industrial Pennsylvania. The fact that it was brilliantly realised in a London production is sufficient. The Wales programme looks to the qualities of art but has a secondary criterion, the extent to which it is expressive of Wales. Gary Raymond: “In broadest terms I always ask myself whether Wales is punching above its weight or whether it is falling short.”

Previous reviews of the year were not treated kindly, below 1st March 2017 and 3rd January 2016- ("appearance of a laddish embarrassment about the arts"). The editorial weakness lay in that it depended on video that had been made over the year. The video was curtailed by availability and availability- a fact that still broadly pertains- largely rested on proximity to Cardiff. Radio- or audio or sounds- is a better medium; assessment by vocal means alone is stronger and richer for its being untethered from the need for image.

The Wales' review of the year was animated by a voice that is distinctive and also critical in the proper sense. There is a firmness of judgement without dogma, a wryness and sometime lightness of tone which does not detract from the critical seriousness. The ends of art are elation, exaltation and Gary Raymond kicked off with what we are here for:

“As a critic what I really want, day to day, is to see that work that makes me want to rush out and tell everybody what I've seen.” That is it in a nutshell.

The programme began with the visual arts. “In the decade I've been a critic the visual arts have never thrilled me as much as they did in 2019.” The critics on radio were not restrained by geography and the exhibitions under discussion ranged to Swansea, Aberystwyth and northward. Jenny White was guest critic with high enthusiasm for Elysium and Gallery 18 in the Garw Valley.

“We may look back on 2019”, concluded Raymond, “as the first year in which Wales began to look to artists for solace, for reflection, and perhaps even for answers.” The accolade of top exhibition of the year went to Swansea. “For my number one I have to go with my heart- Frances Richards” and for a reason: “the craft that has gone into the work.”

Television in 2019 got off to a lively start. “Pitching In”- not mentioned in the show- got a roasting for its sheer wrongness. Not least in the critical kick-about online was the role of BBC Wales. If it has no editorial say within its own organisation how Wales is presented, said its detractors, what is its point? The Review Show looked elsewhere for high quality representations of Wales, giving high praise to “the Crown” as the years brought it to Aberfan and the 1969 Investiture.

The critical view was more cautious on previous successes. “The second series of “Keeping Faith” and “Craith” have perhaps proved the laws of diminishing returns in critical terms.” The caution in that “perhaps” was not the norm in a programme of critical sprightliness. “There have been some corkers” was more characteristic language. The end-of-year review programme liked “the Left Behind” a lot. To me it represented all that is shrill and evasive in the culture.

Production in Wales is clearly soaring with “Dark Materials” but the view of home-grown content was less complimentary. “Maybe Welsh drama can now look at some pastures new. Both of those examples- “Craith” and “Keeping Faith” are in danger of feeling a little behind the zeitgeist. It seems to follow trends that are already out of date. Even “Hinterland” is following a trend.” I am not sure if that is accurate. “Hinterland” was designed to be recognisable within a genre but was a distinctive variation. That quality propelled it to a lot of markets outside Wales and the UK.

For its top television of the year the programme went for “the Dynamic Duo” set in Abertillery.

Radio 4 got 45 minutes of broadcast time for its review of the year and Radio Wales 28 minutes. Dance and opera did not make the Wales' show. It is a pity because they are genres where Wales is strong. National Dance for example got to Japan in 2019. The perspective on theatre offered by the guest was partly my own but largely not. The differences, both geographical and thematic, await treatment at another time. The review of cinema likewise invites treatment.

This was a good retrospective programme with spark, verve and sense. In terms of quality it holds its own, in its own style, against Front Row.

A Parasol Production produced by Carolyn Hitt.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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