Theatre in Wales

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Looking at the Gap

Summing It Up

Things In Short Supply , Culture of Wales , January 29, 2021
Summing It Up by Things In Short Supply The concept of negative space is crucial to acquiring skill in drawing. In Japanese aesthetics the concept “ma” relates to the artistic interpretation of an empty space. It is held to be of equal importance as the rest of an artwork. A foremost portrait-maker in pastel, Ellen Eagle, writes that her students have a tendency to under-value background for setting tone and value.

In short, what is not there throws into relief what is there. There are three areas where theatre could have done better.

I passed the first three months of the first lockdown in making a list. The summaries that appeared here selected 101 productions from 14 years. Audiences laughed at thirteen but only two were seen widely beyond Wales, “How to Win at History” and “Lovecraft: not the Sex Shop in Cardiff.”

At year end the Review Show picked out Myfanwy Alexander's “Bloody Eisteddfod” for commendation.

“Wales doesn't get to laugh at itself enough” was the view. It is true. Comedy is a great cultural binder, in truth the greatest.

Comedy leads to the second gap, political theatre. Government in Wales is less Leviathan, the guardian of order and justice, than a source of exhortation to affect private psychology. Examples are many.

“Our aim is to build a nation where people take pride in their communities, in the Welsh identity and language, and our place in the world.”

“Our aim is to instill in everyone a passion to learn throughout their lives.”

The first is at best wishful thinking, at worst a nonsense of confused categories. Nation is antecedent to state. But that requires Cardiff to look at the world as it actually is. The second is declamation; no more, no less. It ignores rigour and any nod to the facts of cognition. There is small tradition of declamation in the language of government in Britain. The reason is strong; it achieves nothing.

The paradox of the crooked timber of humanity- which is after all the earth's most co-operative and disputatious species- seems a disappointment. There cannot be comedy or politics in art as long as political and civic leaderships are outside the frame. For the ruled to laugh at the expense of the rulers is a sign of a society's good health. And its maturity.

In Wales authority as a target for critique is off-limits. That is an indicator. It becomes circular. Awareness of what the government actually does is shockingly low. Its ignoring in culture perpetuates its low visibility. The low visibility has a consequence. The polls indicate that in twelve weeks' time a fifth of citizenry may vote to abolish the government. These polls are truly shocking.

In Scotland the fiasco of the Edinburgh tramway got a satirical pasting at the Traverse Theatre. In Wales £143,000,000- if that is the right figure- spent on not building a motorway has no cultural echo. Of any kind. It gets no mention.

The reluctance, the timidity, for art to engage with public issues is nothing new. Thirty years Carl Tighe looked back on a decade of theatre of Wales:

“The issues that should have concerned playwrights, the central issues of Welsh society over the last 20 years, have hardly figured on the Welsh stage. The language issue, holiday homes, the behaviour of the police, devolution, have hardly been given an airing.”

Robert Minhinnick wrote an article for Planet 200 “A Cancerous Culture”. This was his view on the state culture: “Not a word about politics or the environment. No mention of drugs or poverty of aspiration, those deadly Welsh scourges.”

This is now not entirely true. “Bruised”, “Llwyth” and “Sugar Baby” all had drugs within them. But look further to some specifics of our world. Young men from Wales this century have vanished from their homes and appeared in the wars of the Middle East. This appeared in a review from a production a dozen years ago:

“A government minister warns that a hidden army of young men is primed for violence under the inspiration of a foreign religious power. Paradise is promised as the reward for martyrdom. Dubious statements extracted under torture are paraded as grounds for state action.”

The event was Terry Hands' directing Schiller; it was theatre written in 1805. Contemporary theatre about suicide bombers can be seen in England but does not exist in Wales. Indeed it could not exist. The nexus of authority would not tolerate it. To embrace the world dramatically requires a culture of emancipation. Artists are supposed to be nicey-nicey people. If they are not prepared to be nice the grant will not be forthcoming.

But artists challenge. In his own country Orhan Pamuk has run into serious trouble. In “Other Colours” he wrote about his encounter with politics:

“When a novelist begins to play with the rules that govern society, when he digs beneath the surface to discover its hidden geometry, when he explores that secret world lie a curious child, driven by emotions he cannot quite understand, it is inevitable that it will cause his family, his friends, his peers, and his fellow citizens some unease. But this is a happy unease.”

The Arts Council of Wales should add this question to its form. “How do you intend to cause a happy unease?”

The overwhelming urge to avoid unease is behind the infatuation with the past. Charles Dickens, a scourge of his present day, knew it: “If the past makes such a bid for our attention, the present may escape us.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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