Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Writer of Breadth, Wit & Passion Lost to Wales

In Memory

Phil Morris , Writing on Theatre, Literature and Film , December 28, 2021
In Memory by Phil Morris Phil Morris left a legacy of critical writing that is unique for Wales. There is first a breadth that is remarkable. The occasional writing on cinema went from D W Griffiths to "Zulu" and "Black Panther." He interviewed literary figures like Meic Stephens and Jonathan Edwards. But the most constant art form was theatre.

Re-reading the reviews, over the strange week that divides Christmas and the new year, one quality stands out. Phil Morris was a superlative critic and Wales has not so many critics that the loss of one is not deeply felt.

The borderline between reviewer and critic is clear-cut. With the latter the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Kael in cinemas, Januszczak in galleries, Larkin listening to jazz, they wrote individual pieces that cohere into something bigger. They also share in common a depth of perception and the ability to translate that perception into language. The prose that ensues has a chiselled concentration to it but is also a voice that is its own. Underneath there is persona, conviction and a double motive. They want to be thrilled and they want to tell the world of that thrill.

Good writing starts with a flourish. It wants to grab you. Phil opened a review with:

"Satan is real, working with power – that’s the warning offered up by Gagglebabble’s raucous and hilarious southern-gothic pastiche "The Bloody Ballad."

Critics have a sense of context. The review goes on to mention Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy. the Mason-Dixon line, Loretta Lynn, Tarantino, Eisenhower, "Natural Born Killers", "Gun Crazy", "They Live By Night". The writing is exuberant certainly but it is not display. The reader comes away with a heightened appreciation of how much there is within Lucy Rivers' production.

Critics oscillate between attention to close detail and big-picture awareness. Phil looked at a Dirty Protest production and asked:

“At what point can we describe a nation’s theatre culture as mature and self-confident? Surely it is when the themes of its plays no longer hark back to that nation’s past but emerge, instead, from a pressing contemporary moment.

"Perhaps it is when the subjects of its plays are rooted in specific geographical places though remain nonetheless applicable and meaningful to the lives of people living outside its localised context.

"Katherine Chandler’s new play "Parallel Lines" reminds us how exciting and challenging Welsh drama can be, once we set aside – albeit temporarily – mining, Max Boyce and the Mabinogion, and interrogate the problems of modern life in twenty-first century Wales...In order for ‘great’ plays to be produced in future by Welsh writers in Welsh theatres it is first necessary to build a ‘great’ audience. This will only be achieved when fine playwrights engage contemporary audiences with dramas that reflect – though not necessarily mirror – their contemporary lives."

As for the style this is the opening paragraph of a review in the year of lockdown.

"Lisa Parry’s gripping two-hander The Merthyr Stigmatist arrives on our digital screens as a filmed play. Delayed and deprived of its original live-performance format by the pandemic, the play has lost none of the urgency and topicality that saw it shortlisted for Theatre Uncut’s ‘Political Playwriting’ award. The title indicates a strong religious theme, but the target of Parry’s simmering anger is political rather than theological. Her play is less about the metaphysics of faith than it is pained by the social stigma of unemployment and poverty, which makes for a potent polemical drama that is disappointingly less complex than it might have been."

Just one hundred words but they fuse fact, dramatic intent and interpretation. See the artfulness in the alliteration of "delayed and deprived."

Critics are democrats. Companies can be powerful or poverty-stricken, established or start-ups, privileged or starved; all are equal in the eyes of the critic. The critical personality is implicit. Phil made a rare revelation of himself in an interview with Jonathan Edwards:

"I grew up in Risca, which isn’t quite the valleys but getting there, so I experienced several nostalgic twangs on reading "My Family and Other Superheroes". I had a very quiet, bucolic childhood in a small town and then, during the 80s, video rental stores opened up and in came satellite television, and suddenly pop culture burst in from the outside world. So I was experiencing a strange insular existence while being connected to the wider world, culturally speaking, at the same time."

There is an empathy to the writing. A writer can leave Gwent but Gwent is not going to leave the writer. When it came to Newport theatre:

"Tin Shed has been an integral part of Newport’s small, underfunded, though raw and vital theatre scene for about half a dozen years. After graduating from the city’s university, Georgina Harris and Justin Cliffe have continued to plough their own idiosyncratic furrow of anarchic comedy happenings and quirky literary adaptations, which has won for them an enthusiastic, and notably youthful local following.

"So it’s only fitting that for their most ambitious production to date, Tin Shed selected Newport’s iconic Transporter Bridge as a venue for a site-specific spectacular that celebrates the unheralded lives of hard-working men who once put their lives on the line in order to make a living. The bridge has long been a totem of civic pride, a testament to a time of former industrial might and full-employment – it now haunts the city skyline like one of the phantoms that populate Melville’s ultimate fish-that-got-away story.

"By staging "Moby Dick" on a gondola, dangling metres above the murky River Usk, Tin Shed not only conjure up the moody atmospherics of a ship at sea, they also pay homage to their home city’s past in a manner that valorises manual labour – linking the tough whalers of Nantucket to the hard dockers of Newport through the near-ceremonial heaving and rattling of chains, and the grim mirth of working-class fatalism."

Critics are champions. They care for the art. That care at times requires that at times its opponents need seeing off. Phil never shied away from defending the integrity of theatre, the craft, its power, the fact that it had to be about something that matters.

When the makers deviated from what they are here for, his discrimination was clear-cut:

- "The failure of the production...is not attributable to its writers or performers, who made their protests with humour and vigour, but to the director and his production team”.

- "The notion that art and culture can be separated from politics and society is a complacent illusion, they are inextricably intertwined."

- "First foray into theatre has all the strengths and weaknesses of a first play; it is personal, honest, passionate, angry and heartfelt on the one hand, but on the other lacks certain elements of craft such as dramatic rhythm and depth of characterisation."

- "The dialogue does not rise above a flattened-out realism that is too often banal; when what is required is an imaginative arranging of colloquialisms and dialect into a convincing though poetically-heightened rendering of demotic speech."

- "This is a profoundly irritating piece of staging that only works to dilute the family intimacy indicated in the text."

- "What is sadly lacking, however, is any penetrating analysis of its subject matter, or intellectual rigour in terms of allying its formal experimentation with having something new or insightful to say. "

- "What is the point in livestreaming a play? Not much, to judge from the plethora of ho-hum monologues performed in a so-so style, which is neither stage nor screen acting, which have grown up like Japanese knotweed across my social media."

- "Commitment to privileging visual spectacle over language and ideas. Someone should explain to them that snazzily executed back-projections aren’t a sufficient substitute for insight."

There was a bonus side to the writing. Satire is a sign of cultural vigour, mockery of rulers a sign of good health.

Booming London produced Wilkes, Hogarth, Swift. Weimar Germany was the place of Grosz, Heartfield, Simplicissimus. The great Edinburgh trams fiasco was savaged on a Scottish stage.

In Wales £143,000,000 goes on a road to be never built with not a response. There are no cartoonists, no satirists.

From Phil's occasional pieces of satire there are no selections because they need to be read in their whole.

Start with "Recommendations for the immersive theatre producer" at:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/comment-national-theme-park-wales/

Continue to:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/rhod-beards-cultural-missive-4-making-it-good/

Gary Raymond is author of a tribute and guide for Wales Arts Review's first Managing Editor. It should be read at:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/a-tribute-to-phil-morris-1973-2021/

Other sources and references:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/the-bloody-ballad/

https://www.walesartsreview.org/parallel-lines-dirty-protest/

https://www.walesartsreview.org/the-merthyr-stigmatist-digital-world-premiere/

https://www.walesartsreview.org/theatre-moby-dick-tin-shed/

Phil Morris 1973-2021

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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