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National Theatre: Comment

National Institutions , Culture of Wales , February 13, 2021
National Theatre: Comment by National Institutions It has been a season of bleakness blended with hope. Culture is muted but two subjects have flared up. One is in Cardiff Bay, the other in Ceredigion. Butetown is to get itself a museum, imported wholesale from Surrey. The public authorities have decided on it and there is little- debate aside- to stand in its fulfilment.

In Aberystwyth the running-down of the budget for the National Library of Wales continued. The statement from its supporters said that the Government did not understand what the Library is for. Then an about-turn was announced . The conditions were the same as when the government aborted the monumental sculpture intended for Flint. Cymdeithas yr Iaith did not mince their words. The Deputy Minister for Culture was guilty of “attacks, criticism and neglect” of the institution.

“I’m sorry to say that we have lost confidence in you as a Deputy Minister to do what is right for our heritage, our language and our communities. Unfortunately, your legacy as a Deputy Minister will be a poorer culture and heritage. We urge you to reconsider your intentional attacks, and, instead, increase the National Library’s grant so as to defend jobs and services for the sake of all of Wales’ cultures and heritage.”

This condition feels similar to the situation with national theatre. National theatre has existed in Wales for a century. For the bulk of that time it lived as an idea, coming on three, or four, occasions, into being as a reality.

Comment on national theatre has a long heritage.

In 1904 William Archer and Harley Granville Barker set out their proposal in “A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates”:

“It must not ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakeably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community.”

Fifty years ago the Stage was on the case. In its issue for 24th July 1969 it reported on hope and action.

“It had been hoped that the first sod would have been cut in connection with the Welsh National Theatre at Cardiff this year, to mark the Investiture of the Prince of Wales.

“The latest step to be taken is an urgent review by the Welsh Arts Council, following a report and recommendation of the estimates committee of MPs who deal with grants for the arts. It is now stated that the difficulties over the title have been worked out, for reference is now made to the Welsh National Theatre Company.”

Its national status was to draw in Wales' local authorities. In the event the latest manifestation was to be strictly an affair of central government.

“The Members of Parliament have recommended that the Arts Council should start negotiations with local authorities in Wales with a view to financing a national professional drama company.”

The campaigners over the years knew what it was for. It could hardly be simpler, theatre for the nation.

Organisations are driven by culture. Corporate culture is powerful; it is what an organisation believes about itself; its elements are habit, practice, statement. Corporate culture's fit with external fact- the larger pool in which it swims- is always partial; the degree to which it diverges varying.

Scotland is different. “Of course, there are many things which haven't worked”, wrote Vicky Featherstone. “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.”

These words of realism and candour addressed to a general reader, would not occur within the public forum of Wales

Organisations are adaptive systems to which the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies. They decay in the absence of negative feedback. This is the source of energy that acts against entropy. Boards should best compose themselves to embrace a diversity of views, voices being welcome to contribute trenchantly from a perspective that is systemic, syncretic, ecological. .

Institutions speak and their words reveal much. Organisations have origin stories. These are treasured and embellished. The National Theatre of Wales has an origin story with which it is uncomfortable. Until the new management arrived, the entry on Wikipedia started with a blatant untruth. It is ill at ease culturally with where it came from. To be ill at ease with the past is to be ill at ease with present and future.

Organisations are teleological. They have a purpose. The article on this site of 23rd February 2020 last year was about the beneficiary doctrine.

“Organisations are artifices, teleological, formed to benefit certain people, specific and nameable.”

“An organisation is a group of people acting together to generate a satisfactory benefit for its intended beneficiaries...No organisation should serve more than one set of homogeneous set of intended beneficiaries- that is, the person or persons for whose benefit the organisation was originally formed or for whom it now exists should be unequivocally defined and limited to one set, class or category of people.

“No organisation should include any incidental beneficiary, or stakeholder, or interest group among its intended beneficiaries. The more unambiguous and consistently its intended beneficiaries are identified the more effective an organisation is likely to be seen to be.”

The beneficiary is the nation. John McGrath wrote about what a nation wants. See below 3rd May 2010.

“A working-class audience likes to know exactly what you are trying to do or say to it.” “Working class audiences like laughs”. But with a proviso. “Comedy has to be sharper, more perceptive and more deeply related to their lives.” As an audience they “like music in shows, live and lively...they like melody above all.”

“Theatre is the place where the life of a society is shown in public to that society...where that society's assumptions are exhibited and tested, its values are scrutinised, its myths are validated, and its traumas become emblems of its reality rather than a place to experience a rarefied artistic sensibility in an aesthetic void...It shows the interaction of human beings and social forces.”

“Any serious piece of theatre...questions all assumptions...scrutinises contemporary reality with a sense of history and without fear of engaging in politics...the specific qualities in a work that allow it to pass from one mind to another. These qualities are to do with this emotional struggle-trajectory, this playing out of the deeply felt, the profoundly personal, through the other layers of theatre: through observed, social manners dissected, through conflict of classes and interests and so on.”

These have not been the values, or the actions, of Wales' national theatre. Archer, Granville Barker and McGrath in their different eras spoke for the true values

So too should they be the values in Cardiff.

There is the opportunity now for renewal.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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