Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Valuable Re-assessment of Theatre Tradition

Theatre History Book

A Dirty Broth , Parthian Books , November 5, 2020
Theatre History Book by A Dirty Broth The assessment of Wales' theatre heritage has a striking parallel with the redefining of the visual arts twenty years ago. A while back, October 5th 2007, a lively critical gathering had a tier-one director declaring that Wales had no dramatic canon. “Rubbish!” went a spontaneous cry from a knowledgable voice in the audience.

Whether theatre has a canon or not readers have a fresh opportunity to make their own judgement. The overlap between scholarship on visual arts and performance has another revealing aspect. The capital plays small to no part. Peter Lord reported an encounter with a Keeper of Art at the National Museum. Wales' arts grandee asked the youthful researcher about his work. “Well”, he said on hearing, “there's no rubbish like your own rubbish, is there?”

Theatr Genedlaethol has done revivals of Saunders Lewis. “Siwan” features 18th May this year in the retrospective series “101 Nights to Remember.” But the English-language equivalents are unperformed in Cardiff. “Accolade” is an astounding piece of drama from Emlyn Williams. But it took an English director, Blanche McIntyre, to bring it back to life for London audiences. Michael Billington's assessment is given in the link below.

This year of disease has felled many productions. One of the productions, now reset for 2021, is “White Collar” written by Philip Burton in 1938. Burton is a cultural figure of fascination. It is both a curiosity, but a sign of cultural heterogeneity, that it has taken a theatre company outside public funding, Fluellen Theatre, to bring his drama to life. “Granton Street” invited a substantial interest both in performance and subsequent publication. Alun Books' reprint appears in this strand of theatre history below November 28th 2017.

So too, in that same season, Mary Owen published a monograph on J O Francis, below October 25th 2017. “Change”, one of the trio in “A Dirty Broth” toured the United States. Its audience included the nation's 28th President. In this year of arts quiescence Francis along with Caradoc Evans with “Taffy” and Richard Hughes with “A Comedy of Good and Evil” receive a substantial 5,000 word scholarly essay-introduction.

Parthian Books was active in its early years in publishing new drama in the 1990s, Wales' most prolific period for diversity of theatre writing. This important book, one of two, is a return by the publisher to drama publishing after a gap of nearly twenty years.

Alyce von Rothkirch and David Cottis, of Swansea and Middlesex Universities respectively, start with the extant scholarship, which is not extensive. Elsbeth Evans in 1947 is the baseline. The authors note a gap between practitioners and scholars citing Ed Thomas: “theatre hasn’t got a rooted tradition in Wales; it’s not central to the cultural life.” “Central” may be argued. Whether Frank Vickery, for instance, was central is moot. He was certainly present. It is a rare town that has, as does Aberystwyth, a through route named “Thespian Street.”

The introduction navigates Gwyn Alf Williams: “Wales is an artefact which the Welsh produce. If they want to. It requires an act of choice”. Geography is core to national experience. It is not the length of the border that counts so much as that the two rivers, Severn and Dee, contain sizeable populations both sides. Wales has more similarity to Michigan or Texas in this respect than to Scotland. Linguistically Wales is in a similar condition to the constituent nations of the late-Hapsburg Empire.

So to the playwrights. “J.O. Francis probably had his Welsh “educated out of him” in the system of his era. “He learnt Welsh as an adult, memorising verb tables while on guard duty in the army, but was never confident enough to write in it.” By contrast Francis said of Richard Hughes, who never learnt the language, that he “would do well to acquire that modicum of Welsh speech without which he will not make the race yield up the heart of its mystery.”

’Caradoc Evans was raised as a Welsh speaker. Provocatively, say the authors, “he used his intimate knowledge of Welsh to create an idiom that worked as a distorting mirror: an emblem of hatred, and, arguably, self-hatred.”

The discussion of the plays connects to later writing-: Gwyn Thomas, Alun Osborne,, Ed Thomas- and goes back in time. The need for a “school of Welsh Drama” was made at the 1902 Bangor National Eisteddfod. The National Pageant of Wales of 1909 is omitted in this account. Not strictly theatre it was certainly performance of significance, with its company of 5,000 and audience of 200,000.

The chronicle moves to Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, Lord Howard de Walden and his sponsoring an annual prize worth £100 for the best new play. That led to productions of six plays at the New Theatre in Cardiff in May 1914. The influences could be seen: Synge and Yeats from Ireland, Stanley Houghton and Githa Sowerby from England. This critical history continues with a richness of detail which marks a significant work of scholarship. Strictly 2010 was the year that National Theatre of Wales first performed. Its foundation took place in 2008, the year of the Coalition in Cardiff Bay that decided on its setting-up.

“The most difficult thing to predict is the past.” It is a phrase Peter Lord has used. He has grappled with the notion of tradition. Tradition is the story that a culture devises to relate to itself. Lord says that a version of the past where Wales was unable to sustain an ecology of painters and patrons is “a historical nonsense.”

It is most likely the same with theatre. A tradition becomes itself in the telling. “A Dirty Broth” is a part of that retelling.

Michael Billington at “Accolade”

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/nov/18/accolade-review-emlyn-williams-1950-revival-st-james-theatre-london-review

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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