Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

This is Truly Shocking

National Theatre: Comment

Galwad , Swansea, Merthyr & Blaenau Ffestiniog , November 10, 2022
National Theatre: Comment by Galwad “Festival UK” was the first name for a nationwide festival announced by then Prime Minister, Theresa May, in October 2018 at the Conservative Party Conference. The promise was of a year-long, post-Brexit festival that would put on show “the best of British creativity and innovation, culture and heritage”.

It promptly acquired a popular name “The Festival of Brexit”. In the winter of 2020 twenty artists and companies called for its cancellation. Many artists were of the view that participation was receipt of tainted money disbursed for political purpose.

David Jones, MP for Clwyd West, was reported in Nation Cymru: “Brexit is the rebirth of the United Kingdom as an independent nation. It is something that we should be celebrating and this is a huge opportunity to do so. I very much hope that reference to Brexit will be made.”

Its official name became “Unboxed: Creativity in the UK” with a budget from Westminster of 120 million pounds. The Chair of the Festival is Lady Jones. Her husband, Sir Clive Jones, is Chair of the National Theatre of Wales.

The Stage of 8th September cited Martin Green, director of Unboxed: “Rule one of major events- don't politicise them. And, unfortunately, a few chose to politicise it from the beginning. I would never develop any event that speaks to a particular agenda.”

Ned Glasier from Company Three is cited: “when artists allow themselves to be harnessed by governments to suit their agenda, it ends badly.”

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigated. Their report saw an “irresponsible use of public money” and criticised the planning as a “recipe for failure”.

“That such an exorbitant amount of public cash has been spent on a so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness raises serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery,” said MP Julian Knight, Chair of the cross-party committee.

The Festival is now subject to an examination by the National Audit Office.

The provisional numbers indicate that the projected audience numbers have fallen short by 99.6%. In particular it is reported that significant expenditure went to non-artistic recipients in the form of advisors and consultants.

“Galwad” featured on “Front Row” on 26th September and on “Radio Wales Arts Show” on 23rd September. The Welsh programme was a gushing chit-chat. The interviewer's primary objective was to make an advertisement.

Tom Sutcliffe in London conducted an interview of the kind that BBC Radio Wales will never, ever do.

Tom Sutcliffe asked as to the budget. Director Claire Doherty tried to evade answering. Sutcliffe persisted and the budget was put into the public domain. English broadcasters do what the Cardiff media will not. The budget for “Galwad” is £6,000,000.

Tom Sutcliffe had to ask repeatedly: “What counts as success for you?” The first answer he dismissed as simply subjective and he asked again. The reponses given by the interviewees were evasive candy floss.

* * * *

Some of the projects have won public and critical acclaim. “Dreammachine”, attended by 14,000 people, had a five-star review in the Guardian.

44,000 visited “Dandelion” at Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow. When the Dandelion press office drafted a release with this number, 44,000, who had attended over the weekend it was reported that senior figures at Unboxed demanded the numbers be removed. Their reason was that it would make all the other events look bad. Dandelion’s executive director was said to be furious. But they were too late: the release had already gone out.

60,000 walked the trails of “Our Place in Space” along the river at Cambridge. 120,000 people watched “About Us” in Hull.

“Polinations” in Birmingham had its weirdness of sculpture. Children and their parents were to be seen, looking with curiosity, on its winding paths. At Cambridge a grandmother told me of her two grand-daughters. The interactions on offer were of such enchantment that the two did not get past first base.

* * * *

A first obvious feature of “Galwad” is that it has been designed that there be nothing for children in it. Children and their parents, a million or so people of Wales, are unwanted by the producers. Collective Cymru comes with its own definition of collective.

The subject of “Galwad” is the meeting of a present and a future Wales. It is not an original subject. The publicity makes no mention of “Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd”. It is perhaps due to the makers' unawareness of Islwyn Ffowc Elis. Composer Gareth Glyn adapted the novel as an opera. An award-winning production played to more people than “Galwad”.

“Galwad” is recorded in two films. The first lasts three hours and thirty minutes. The first section, filmed in and around Swansea, lasts 53 minutes. It has the quality of an unedited home video. The language is banal. The group of young actors play to no audience. It is wholly bereft of any artistic quality.

The sequence in Merthyr lasts 48 minutes. The amateurishness of surface remains although a drone has been used to catch the grandeur of the viaduct. The sequence has more words in the form of disaggregated monologues.

Other elements pertain: the directorial indiscipline, the languor of the pacing, the flatness of the dialogue, the preachy banality of subject. Not a citizen of Merthyr is to be seen. The actors perform to no audience.

The sequence filmed around Blaenau Ffestiniog continues in the same vein. A sample of the scintillating language: “I just hope that they will listen. That we will all listen. That we haven't forgotten to listen. To her. To ourselves, I suppose. So many questions. That's the only one that matters.”

The disaggregation of the language has a cause. A “writing mentor” on Front Row revealed the number of writers to be sixteen.

A major difference in the North is that there are some people present, maybe a couple of hundred. A scattering of children is to be seen. The slackness of pacing and monochrome preachy banality persist. 39 minutes are spent recording a march where the only words are the chanting of slogans.

* * * *

Over many years I have seen many art works of many kinds. Some have been great, many have been good, and some have been not so good. I have been irked but I have never been shocked.

This is a shocking event.

And yet.

It is not accidental. The seeds were long planted, then nourished by a tiny number of people who occupy the seats of power across Cardiff.

They are possessed of a novel notion that public budgets for public art avoid a public. Here, in addition, the base principles of art itself have been jettisoned.

“Galwad” is a natural culminating point of the ideology of the National Theatre Wales, that theatre budgets be diverted to reduce performance for the people of Wales.

Three factors have been necessary, in place independently but in alignment, to make “Galwad”. The first is the regulatory posture of the Arts Council of Wales. It has quality standards and policies that are waived when it comes to National Theatre Wales.

A second film, a television drama of an hour's length, remains to be seen and reviewed.

The difference in the public interest standards of the BBC in Cardiff and in London can be compared below.

The director is interviewed 17th November.

The corporate structure is unravelled 19th November.

The formation of a private company by the Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales is reported 19th November, an unusual and yet-to-be-elucidated event by the holder of a full-time public position.

Postscript: To the complex corporate structure can be added Creative Wales, the commissioning organisation. That brings the Government of Wales into the frame.

Should the National Theatre of Wales, the Arts Council of Wales or others involved have a wish to participate comments or notifications of error are welcome at editorial@theatre-wales.co.uk.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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