Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Thinking About Story

Summing It Up

Craft, Villains, Audience , the Arts of Wales , September 4, 2020
Summing It Up by Craft, Villains, Audience “Where are the stories?” ran the heading on an open letter a few years back. The document was prepared by proven voices: Sarah Argent, Steve Fisher, Simon Harris, Sara Lloyd, Gary Owen, Chris Morgan, Helen Raynor, Othniel Smith, Roger Williams, It was dated December 2003 and came with the support of fifty-four signatories.

“Welsh theatre audiences are hungry for stories that reflect their lives and their concerns” ran the confident opening line. “The playwright is the expressive artist best placed to mediate fresh and contemporary representations of present-day Wales to audiences amongst our own communities and beyond the border.”

That is the half of it. But the other part is the way in which story transcends our own experience. There is an ethics too to it. The human mind is built for bifurcation. It is the root of the psychology of George Kelly (1905-1967). The mind functions via constructs defined by Kelly as bipolar categories. Its extension is stereotypy, a rich source of study in social psychology. Art is a wrecking ball of stereotypy, asserting individuality of experience and expression. It is the function of representations that count is that they swim in dark waters where we are afraid.

Live performance remains constricted within conditions that rob it of everything that gives it value. A kiss has taken place at a public performance at the Watermill in Berkshire this month. The kissers have had to take pains to make clear that they are in life-beyond-theatre partners in love.

The hunger for story persists. Lockdown has seen a return to the book. Book sales this summer have been 10% above 2019. Sales at Everyman Classics are up by 34%. On the private screen at home we are in a good age.

Television's modern era began 21 years ago. In January 1999 the critics knew that they were watching something good. The New York Times view was that “it just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century”. That was the kick-off to “the Sopranos”.

The bounty that has followed has been accompanied by debate over which is the truly best. But they have had a common strand. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Saul Goodman are all richly compromised anti-heroes. Dramatically they are set against true villainy: Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto, Gustavo Fring, the Salamancas. When it came to “El Camino” in 2019 care, and craft, were taken by the creators to make deep villains, their purpose that the far-from-noble Jesse might retain a relative victim-innocence.

A good story starts with a deep-hued villain. With television production on ice ITV has been programming James Bond for the peak Saturday night slot. “Spectre” is replete with CGI but “From Russia with Love” is stronger. A main reason is that Rosa Klebb and Grant, pictured, are more interesting that the Blofeld of fifty years later.

So too at the UK's television drama. “Giri/ Haji” got good feedback but Mr Abbott was an uninteresting villain. Look only at “Line of Duty” for the difference. From the start Jed Mercurio distinguished true badness- Cottan and Ryan Pilkington in the forefront- from a string of compromised protagonists: Tony Gates, Lindsey Denton, Roseanne Huntley. Their motives are as everyday as wanting to keep children in private education or paying care home fees for a mother with dementia.

This time of impoverishment might be a time for thinking. There are lines to be read like “Small nations have big stories – and in Wales all our stories are valuable. We’ll need ways of sharing and in our specificity and individuality we can speak across time, space and place to people who’ll hopefully learn and develop from this strange chapter.”

This sounds soggy. If there were more rich, compromised, divided characters in performance on Welsh stages the bond between makers and audiences would be firmer.

There was a piece of theatre scheduled just before the calamity fell. A version of “Tartuffe” was due at Birmingham Rep 20th March, a reprise of a popular production. Its setting was to be a Pakistani-Muslim community in Birmingham.

As the publicity told it: “Tartuffe” tells the story of charismatic chameleon and con man, Tahir Taufiq Arsuf, a religious leader for the 21st Century armed with a Twitter handle and the gift of the gab.” The characters were renamed as Damee, Imran, Mariam, Amira, Darina, Khalil, Waqaas, Dadimaa, Usman. Its director was Iqbal Khan: “I'm a Brummie and born into a Pakistani-Islamic family so the production has always felt like a very personal journey to undertake. I can't wait to see it on stage at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.”

A personal best of the theatre of Wales can be seen below 3rd June. It is no coincidence that the best drama of Wales is powered by the best villain. “Simon Nehan, shaven-headed with a tribal tattoo running from elbow to shoulder blade to ear, is simply terrifying.”

This is a time to think, to reflect. The roots of good thought are fusion; dissension, disharmonies are its lifeblood. See Matthew Syed 29th March for the necessity of cognitive diversity. Syed's own background includes a grandfather who was a minister of Wales. The Asian version of Moliere had a popularity to it. It is in truth difficult to envisage its equivalent in Cardiff. A vibrant diversity of representation on stages in Wales is decades behind England. Whatever is to emerge in 2021 from the ruins will be judged to be the result of thinking's toughness, courage and congruence with the real.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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