Theatre in Wales

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A Culture Low in Confidence

On Criticism & Critics

Critical Courage & Candour Lacking , Theatre of Wales , February 24, 2021
On Criticism & Critics by Critical Courage & Candour Lacking "It has to really open up the national conversation - get people arguing and thinking.”

The words about national theatre have been many. Those from December 2007 have a ring to them, although not in the way the speaker would have intended.

The company may have got people talking, although there was not, on the face it, a lot of thinking.

The article of 20th October, below, proposed that national theatre was simply an exercise in organisational instability. The cause of the instability, it was suggested, had its root in a deficiency at Board level. The grouping, it surmised, more than likely lacked the breadth, and indeed the frame of mind, to be effective.

The article made mention of other factors which assisted in the organisation's instability. The breadth of information feedback failed to be acted on by the company.

But the instability was helped along by a wider context of uncritical support.

Take this line, oft repeated:

“Our pioneering artistic practice is questioning: What is theatre? Who is it for? How and where is it made? Who makes it?”

Recondite, manifestly of no interest to the Welsh public. No other national theatre in the world follows such a line. Yet it was taken up and parroted by the Arts Council among others.

The word “community” was repeated over and over as though repetition rendered it a reality. Down at the Senedd real people from real communities talked to the Culture Committee about Cardiff companies who parachuted in for a while and then vanished.

A lot of expense was racked up for well-heeled folk to spend time away from their city home and put on their couple of performances. There is no evidence of any longer-term impact on anywhere or at least it is not given freely to the public domain.

At a public event “What is the Civic Role of Arts Organisations?” a bona fide community speaker observed:

“If the language we use to describe the arts doesn’t really resonate with the public we are trying to engage, then all attempts by the arts to reimagine the role of culture in society will have little traction. Why should people be interested in something that’s dressed up in a language they don’t find easy to understand?”

It was no help to the culture that any venturing far from the Canton-Splott-Penarth triangle attracted no feedback from media.

BBC Wales for ten years offered not a single review of a production. The first occurred in November 2019. It was happy instead to ignore the bulk of theatre of Wales and do feature after feature of uncritical boosterism. The trend started early in the first year, Green Bay supplying a TV feature of thirty minutes of uncritical advertorial.

When critical feedback did occur from Wales the company, the arts council and the clubby group chose to ignore it. To matter feedback had to come from London. Like the Party it is Unionist in its core. This reluctance to pay attention to anyone of Wales set the template for the response to the letter from the writers.

(As a footnote the letter made mention of a collection of photographs on show at Haverfordwest. Needless to say it attracted no interest of any kind from any media.

I attended “Our Curiosities”. It was only accessible to the public for a few hours and only in the working day. I was alone. The explanations around it were draped in drivel. It was void of any artistic content.)

That the puffery has been a regular betokens the deep lack of confidence. The contrast with Scotland is considerable. After a couple of years the artistic director of the country's national theatre had an article in national press. Her look-back included:

“Of course, there are many things which haven't worked. Pieces that suffered from a lack of preparation, skill or good ideas; plays that became tangled up in a conceit or concept and never really made the leap to an audience. But there has been more that has been good than bad.”

That kind of look-back could not occur in Wales.

There was a look-back as it happened one year ago, a Cardiff correspondent getting a large article in the Stage of 10th March 2020. It had some good points but fell back on familiar Cardiff-insider boosting. Here is a flavour

“its social media presence was ubiquitous even before it had rolled out its first show.”

Ubiquitous is a word that has a meaning. The readership peaked at a few hundred.

“It is often forgotten what a fragmented community the theatre sector in Wales was back then – in fact, the word ‘community’ was rarely used at the time.”

Fragmentation is subjective and immeasurable. This is a trope that theatre for Wales came into being ten years ago. Before a group of twelve set up shop in Castle Arcade all was void and all was dark.

“NTW created, and still does, connections that would simply never happen otherwise.”

Critical writing in Wales does not need to bother itself with the concrete, the example. This is not critical writing. It is club boosterism. It would not occur in Scotland or England.

“NTW strengthened relationships with some of the disparate communities around Wales for whom NTW remains a potent cultural force.”

Critical writing in Wales does not need to bother itself with the concrete, the example. This is not critical writing. .

When it came to a show that, after ten years, got to London the puffery declared:

“It is a significant moment in Welsh theatre as we rarely get to tell our tales beyond Wales.”

The comment is absurd. In this reading, Flying Bridge never got itself to Adelaide and the US, the Torch was never in Manhattan. “Hiraeth” or Terry Hands' “Under Milk Wood” were never all over the place. No "Caitlin”, or “Tom” or Alfred Russell Wallace. No National Dance in Tokyo. “Killology”, “Iphigenia in Splott” never happened. In the state version packed enthusiastic houses for “Last Christmas”, “Sugar Baby”, “Sinners Club”, “How to Win Against History" do not register.

“The company’s audience figures are comparatively low in relation to its ACW grant, an anathema to funders in straitened times.”

This is the nub of it. The audience numbers are kept private. In the critic's view audience does not matter. He aligns himself with the Company. But public funding is a zero sum game. One person's gain is another's loss.

The Company has reduced theatre in and for Wales. Where critics, council, broadcaster, oversight committee should be independent elements of civil society they have merged, mutual loyalty more important than service to nation.

All this speaks of a culture that is low in confidence and lacking in robustness to embrace variation.

In this year of remembering Raymond Williams he is ever pertinent. He told us about about the state:

“will attempt to incorporate ‘harmless’ subaltern narratives and cultures but when this is not possible, threatening discourses will be “extirpated with extraordinary vigour”.



Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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