Theatre in Wales

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More Comedy Needed

Summing It Up

Why Do Audiences Not Get to Laugh More , Theatre of Wales , November 27, 2020
Summing It Up by Why Do Audiences Not Get to Laugh More The critics on BBC Wales' Review Show of August 7th discussed Myfanwy Alexander's “Bloody Eisteddfod”. “Wales doesn't get to laugh at itself enough” was the view of one of the reviewers.

It is true. Sondheim put it into the mouth of his character Pseudolus,

“Something convulsive,
Something repulsive,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!”

The song was gleefully sung at the Arad Goch Theatre a few summers back, directed with aplomb by Timothy Howe.

It is true; more than any other strand of theatre comedy is for everyone.

Kwame Kwei-Armah won acclaim for his opening production as Artistic Director at the Old Vic for his diverse casting and community company. That was all true but it was loved because it was wildly, joyously funny.

The summary below 3rd June listed 101 productions. The audiences laughed at 13 of them.

Only three were seen nationally- defined by playing venues on north, south and west coasts. “How to Win at History” and “Lovecraft: not the Sex Shop in Cardiff.” are so intertwined with their makers as to be joyful one-offs. “How to Win at History” was so popular in Aberystwyth that extra performances beyond the schedule had to be booked.

Frapetsus, the company of Jack Llewellyn, constructed multi-cast situational comedies that could play Colwyn Bay to Cardiff. It was genuinely national theatre that ran bang into a Catch-22. If it were popular- like Frank Vickery-, there was no ground for public finding.

Paradoxically, a cultural policy that is supposed to be subordinated to what is deemed to be national purpose is ill-at-ease with the vehicle most likely to create a common national, and bonding, frame of reference.

Far more citizens of Wales have seen Hytner's “One Man Two Guv'nors” than any Welsh theatre production. The reasons can be surmised.

Culture runs deep, deeper than individuals are aware of. Edward T Hall: “culture is never so powerful than when it acts invisibly.”

The heritage of non-conformity runs deep. Puritanism has always featured as a strand in cultural life. Cultural conservatism has been joined to political radicalism from Lenin onwards. George Orwell inveighed against it. Doris Lessing protested against “the deeply puritan pleasure-hating strand in socialism.”

The novelist Jack Jones- also book-buyer for the Blaengarw Miners Institute Library- sold sweets in Merthyr's theatre. Exposure to opera and the whole of drama from Shakespeare to Wilde undermined the puritanism of his upbringing “making inroads on the narrowness of the outlook of different sections of the town's growing population”.

The identification of the left-of-centre with culture has varied with time. Harold Pinter and Peter Hall both cast their votes in 1979 for the Conservative Party.

Puritanism has, from time to time, erupted in public life. It was evident when Parliament came to debate extending television beyond one channel. (This was some time back.)

The alliance that formed to stick to the status quo of one-channel television and oppose a non-state-funded channel was formidable. It called itself the “National Television Council” and was made up of film producers, trades unions, teachers, vice-chancellors, virtually all of Labour. The threats were dire: “Britain can enjoy standards of entertainment and citizenship never before known. |If they are bad they can undermine...our whole national culture and way of life.”

It is always a bad sign when Ministers make themselves synonymous with nation. Herbert Morrison declared commercial television as “totally against the British temperament, the British way of life.” In 2020 its arrival in Gwrych Castle is a cause of cheer in dispiriting times and a lead story for BBC Wales

In the theatre of England Nicholas Hytner openly talks of the pleasure in mounting comedies. A counterpart in Wales would not- perhaps could not- say the same. It is not just a matter of words. In 2007 Hytner directed “Rafta, Rafta”, Ayub Khan-Din's reworking of Bill Naughton’s 1963 play “All in Good Time”. Its theme was a marriage unconsummated, its setting a crowded Bolton home, its company of actors all of south Asian heritage. At its heart was a portrayal of a patriarch driven to dominate his son. It was comedy but serious stuff.

As reported below September 4th theatre was a wave of cancellations in March. Among the shows foregone was Birmingham's relocation of “Tartuffe” to a Brummie-Muslim family. In the present cultural order it is not easy to see this kind of theatre being welcome in Wales.

The inhibitions are several, puritanism and state boosterism among them. There is certainly an information deficit. The topic, perennially repeated, made it to the Senedd this month, Delyth Jewell raising it at First Minister's Questions on 10th November. Another reason can be sighted in Derrida. His concept of Differance is notoriously difficult to pin down. The philosopher Julian Baggini put it as “Every concept, every distinction, carries with it the ghost of an alternative conception or distinction not made.”

A ghostly distinction of comedy most likely haunts Cardiff's inner circles. Comedy is undignified. It is not serious. It is lacking in the promotion of the government's interest. The National Theatre of Scotland can take raucous, irreverent shows to the West End. To the puritans that is a badge of shame.

Wrong. There is nothing so serious as comedy. The public words go on and on about art for everyone, while being uncomfortable about the art most likely to be for everyone.

“You can study Shakespeare and be quite elite
You could charm the critics and have nothing to eat
Just slip on a banana peel, the world's at you feet
Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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