Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Looking at the Gap

Theatre in Wales: Comment

Othneil Smith Recalled , Diversity in Theatre of Wales , April 16, 2021
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Othneil Smith Recalled One year ago, April 16th 2020, the tributes flowed in memory of warmth and admiration for Othneil Smith. He was the author of the last play by a non-white dramatist of Wales to be produced by a Welsh company. It took place in the last century. The article of 2nd March below looked at the resolve that change take place in the arts in Wales.

It was not in Cardiff, where he lived, but in the north that “Giant Steps”was remembered. A rehearsed reading of “Giant Steps”, directed by Tinuke Craig, was presented by Theatr Clwyd last autumn.

Some thoughts were left on social media:

“It was lovely to see Othniel’s play “Giant Steps” read by Theatr Clwyd. But I was also filled with sadness about talent ignored and never fully developed. The play, a first, was full of raw talent, that if we’d had a proper regularly, consistently funded play development system in Wales surely would have been better realised.

“...I remember Jeff [Teare] was so excited about “Giant Steps”, it was an unsolicited script, it was a play by a good undiscovered Black Welsh playwright, mainly it showed brilliant raw talent above and beyond what we normally saw in the slush pile. I still have somewhere letters from all the theatres in Wales who turned it down.. .Oth found opportunities in TV, but never so much in theatre, not in the way he deserved.”

Wales Arts Review, in an eloquent tribute, made the same point about Wales' attitude to diversity last April.

“His full-length play “Giant Steps”, described by Time Out as ‘inspirational’, was staged at London’s Oval House by Made in Wales. When “Giant Steps” was later anthologised in “New Welsh Drama II”, editor Jeff Teare observed in his introduction the many difficulties Made in Wales faced at the time with regard to attracting the necessary funding and desired audience for the play.

“Teare recalled being “met with a long silence” on a phone call to the Arts Council of Wales, after explaining that he understood the term ‘multicultural’ to apply to “Welsh writers from non-European backgrounds” rather than simply those who spoke Welsh and English.

“The production of “Giant Steps” was ultimately funded through a special grant from the London Arts Board to promote Black and Asian writing. The question arises as to whether such an ambivalence or confusion, regarding multicultural identities within the context of cultural debates surrounding notions of ‘Welshness’, which have been ‘whitewashed’ for generations, was a factor in stymying the development of Othniel’s play-writing career in Wales, for he was never again to receive a major commission for a full theatrical production from a Welsh theatre company.

“He was a good playwright who had the potential to become a really good one, and while it is ill-advised to point any finger of specific blame at any one door, it is perhaps a collective failure on the part of the theatre community in Wales that so little was done to provide a prominent platform for Othniel as a playwright. A few companies, notably Made in Wales and Dirty Protest, staged readings and scratch performances of his plays, yet as is the nature of these companies with limited means they were unable to provide adequate resources to aid his career development further. “

The state of Wales, decades behind England, has difficulty with diversity in theatre.

This is a large topic and not an easy one. Diversity in theatre has different strands. One of the high-profile casualties of lockdown was a version of “Tartuffe”. The location was transferred to a Brummie-Asian household, the religious hypocrite an Imam. The production echoed “Rafta Rafta”, reviewed on this site February 2008. The Hytner-directed play transposed Bill Naughton's “the Family Way” to Bolton with a large, all non-white cast.

Other transpositions have included an acclaimed “Death of a Salesman.” Harold Brighouse's “Hobson's Choice” was moved from 1880s Salford to Manchester in the 1980s. In 2019 Rachel O'Riordan directed Tanika Gupta's version of “A Doll's House” re-located in colonial Calcutta. Sarah Frankcom directed a sizzling version of “West Side Story” re-set in Harlem. Its revival, set for a six-week run, also fell victim to the pandemic.

This kind of adaptation has not appeared in Wales.

Then there is newly minted theatre. Mustafa Matura was the first British-based dramatist of colour to have a play in London's West End, “Play Mas”in 1974. I was there in 1983 for Hanif Khureishi's “Borderland” for the Royal Court. Mustafa Matura was to be seen at the National Theatre in 1991. “Elmira's Kitchen” was another milestone. Kwame Kwei-Karmah went on to write “Statement of Regret”, a play zinging with dialectic. Its theme, according to the Guardian:“A fixation with history can also be corrosively damaging.”

In more recent years Anchuli Felicia King’s “White Pearl” was set in Singapore with Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese characters. Angela Gordon's “Nine Night” took apart, with high humour, a family divided across the United Kingdom and Jamaica. In January 2020 “A Kind of People” was performed at the Royal Court, Amy Morgan in the cast. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti presented, with boldness, a multicultural Britain coming apart.

Seven characters, four women and three men, are working-class in heritage, their backgrounds, including British-Asians, black Britons and a mixed-race couple. It is a play with an inner architecture of great skill which only reveals itself at the end, the implosion of love and friendship revealed as an inexorable step-by-step.

Nor is it a London thing. The Door in Birmingham staged more non-white writers than the rest of the United Kingdom put together. (Source: David Edgar.) Certainly Wales has no authors with names like Gupta, De-La-Haye. The last play, probably the first, by a Welsh-Asian play, “Safar” was anthologised by Parthian Books in 1998.

The link between these pieces is that they are theatre first, presenting formal complexity, difficulty. They are about things that matter. A marriage goes unconsummated, race prejudice is endemic across Asia, women are in the domain of men, men who do not earn. Tamasha Theatre's “Does My Bomb Look Big in This?” was about a teenager who becomes an ISIS bride and media celebrity.

Wales by contrast in this century is slim. There is how the record looks.

Give It a Name put on “Rude- a Ska Musical” at Chapter. Directed by James Williams it received no press coverage. It was described as “1980's. Life for a young mixed race guy growing up in Splott was not a lot like Dallas:”

“Wild Scenes in Cardiff” was performed at the Tabernacle Church in Cardiff. “Come Back Tomorrow” took place in a room in Singleton Hospital. “De Gabay” took place on a cold Sunday in March in Butetown, “Sisters” in a subsidiary space in the Millennium Centre. “The Soul Exchange” was performed in the Coal Exchange prior to its development.

These five productions in aggregate- all together- managed to run to nine performances. Critical attention was minimal. The paucity of performance, the lack of interest in audience, the cost are distinctive to public sector theatre in Wales.

On 3rd January 2019 I was in a joyous theatre audience, the majority of whom were from South London, Windrush generation, their children and their grandchildren. The atmosphere was high in conviviality. They, we, were there to see “Nine Night”. The Guardian's view: “Gordon’s theme- the ability to inhabit two cultures and to acknowledge one’s ancestral past while living fully in the present....the joy of the play is that it is exuberantly funny while arguing that it is possible to dwell in seemingly antithetical worlds. “

That was in London. Whether an auditorium in Cardiff will ever swell with women and men from Butetown I wonder.

Photo credit: “Giant Steps” by Othneil Smith, Oval House Production in 1998

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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