Theatre in Wales

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Othneil Smith Remembered

In Memory

Othneil Smith: Writer, Critic, Film-maker , The Culture of Wales , April 16, 2020
In Memory by Othneil Smith: Writer, Critic, Film-maker I was just once in a theatre with Othneil Smith. We had seats together quite high up in the Sherman. The date is on the record, a Saturday night, January 30th 2016.

We were not there for a production but for the presentation of awards, the best that had happened in theatre in the year before. The gathered women and men from the arts were in a high mood of merriment. It is not often so many assemble together in a common space for a common celebration.

It was a year in which Cardiff's theatre had done well. Othneil's contribution to that evening was central. Forty or more reviewers had made the nominations from across Wales. Wales has no professional critics who see the lot. At the end judgements are reached by people sitting around a table, deliberating in good faith and seriousness.

Othneil had seen all the productions of the year at the Sherman, the Other Room, Chapter. He did not need to raise his voice in discussion. He had been there and he knew what was good theatre, what mattered.

In our seats that night at the Sherman we did not even talk that much. We were together in a common satisfaction; those who were deserving were enjoying the applause and the cheers of their peers and fellow professionals.

We met once at the Made in Wales office in Chapter. I met him in the street on another occasion. But in the main we came together to talk theatre. Over a few winters Othneil and I must have spent maybe 20 hours or so in aggregate, together. All we did was talk about theatre; the writers, actors, designers, directors who had made our own individual experience richer, more meaningful.

Much of the theatre he advocated I had not seen. My confidence in his advocacy, his judgement, his enthusiasm, his insight was complete. The news of his loss on a Sunday in March came without warning. The reaction across social media was swift and it was deep.

I only knew Othneil as the most regular, seasoned and generous of theatre reviewers in Cardiff. Other writers have written their tributes that fill out the breadth of his activity and contribution.

The links are given below. Among the tributes, in excerpt:

Manon Eames:

“...As Secretary of the Welsh Committee of Writers Guild Great Britain for more than twenty years, Othniel was meticulous, generous, calm, intelligent, committed and thorough. He gave me, as Chair, confidence and steadfast support. As we all know, people come and go on committees, but Othniel was always, always there. Just as he was always there for many other people – colleagues and friends : always at every performance and production, contributing intelligent and thoughtful reviews to the British Theatre Guide and on his Blakeson blog, active in the union and Cult Cymru, and always an astute participant in the many campaigns and issues that have arisen over the years.

“Othniel was also an artist in his own right, writing for television, radio and theatre : plays “Giant Steps” (Oval House and Chapter Arts Centre 1998, “New Welsh Drama II” – Parthian Books, 2001), “Fight Of The Century” (BBC Wales and the Sherman 2002), “See The Glory” (Talawa’s “Manz Like Me” at the Young Vic 2008);  short stories and plays for BBC Radio Four – “Thank You for Talking To Me Africa” (1994), “Man Talk” (2001); as well as many episodes of the television series “The Story Of Tracy Beaker”, “Kerching”, “Hilltop Hospital” and “Tati’s Hotel”.

“He also directed for theatre, and had more recently gained a doctorate in Independent Film from the University of Glamorgan, making many short films including “‘Lulu Gay’ by Wallace Stevens” “‘When We Two Parted’ by Lord Byron” “‘Census’ by Lissa Kiernan” Shortlisted for the Ó Bhéal International Poetry-Film Competition at the Indie Cork Festival of Independent Cinema 2013, 2014 and 2015;  “The Want Of Intimacy” Selected for Paradise Cinema at Paradise Music Festival, Victoria, Australia, 2015, “‘Census’ by Lissa Kiernan” Official Selection for the Zebra Poetry Film Festival, Minster, Germany, 2016“, ‘Jazz Fantasia’ by Carl Sandburg” Official selection for the New York Jazz Film Festival, New York, 2016. “‘When You Are Old’ by W.B. Yeats” and “‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers’ by Emily Dickinson” Official selection for the Miniature Film Festival, Vancouver, Canada, November 2018 and 2019

“Othniel also wrote the books “Yer Blues”, “Miss Hanley’s Letter”, “Sons of Nervous Lovers”, “Gurls With Guitars” and “The True Story of my Alien Abductions: by Adrian Longton”.

"Othniel’s presence will be very much missed by so many, in so many spheres, particularly in Cardiff, and he will be long remembered. Ever modest, quiet, thoughtful, and above all else, so very gentle and kind. I will personally miss him hugely, and will remember how wonderful it was when something made him laugh or smile.”

Phil Morris:

“Social media tributes to him have rightly noted his personal qualities of gentility, generosity and thoughtfulness; while many have gone further to express a deep sense of loss to our theatre community, for he had given so much of himself, in a variety of roles, as both an artist and hardworking supporter of his fellow artists.

“Over the past decade, Othniel’s prolific work as a theatre critic had come to overshadow somewhat his own creative writing. He was a constant presence at press nights, and the sheer volume of his reviewing, for the online British Theatre Guide and his own Blakeson blog, was impressively prodigious.

"His criticism was welcomed by most theatre-makers because of its generosity of spirit – he could never be accused of seeking to wound someone merely to draw attention to his own intelligence and wit – and the insights he had gleaned from his practice as a working playwright.

"Othniel knew how cruel a cutting remark could be because he was brave enough to risk committing his truth to the stage and had experienced his fair share of artistic vicissitudes and frustrations. His reviews were intelligent without being ideological, shrewd in practical matters of staging and careful to note the contributions of designers and technicians when applicable; most of all he seemed concerned that good work would somehow find the widest possible audience.”

Tributes in full from Manon Eames, Sian Gale, Michael Kelligan and Mike Smith can be read at:

https://www.asiw.co.uk/reviews/tributes-to-othniel-smith

Phil Morris in tribute can be read in full at :

https://www.walesartsreview.org/a-tribute-to-othniel-smith/

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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