Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Post-pandemic Politics-Purged Production

At the Sherman

A Hero of the People , Sherman Studio , June 2, 2022
At the Sherman by A Hero of the People “Dramatist Brad Birch deserves to be given the commission for four to six actors.” That was the last line of the review for “Tremor” in 2018. Director Joe Murphy has done the deed. “A Hero of the People”, delayed from the time-before-disease, appears as a fast-moving, interval-less variation on Ibsen for a cast of five actors.

Oliver Ryan, Suzanne Packer, Mared Jarman, Catrin Stewart and Pal Aron impart energy and the authority of stage presence to carry the wavering script to the end. For Suzanne Packer this is a first live performance since "Tiger Bay" in 2017, so her presence is a particular pleasure. Lucy Rivers is in the company as composer and sound designer. Naturally she impresses.

Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" of 1882 is about a man of science at odds with the civic power. The dramatist protests the tyranny of the majority. Dr Stockman at the public meeting in Act 4 causes uproar. In Michael Meyer's translation: "The most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom are the majority. They're the ones we have to fear!" When his windows have been smashed and he is denied employment he says of the party: "A party is like a mincing machine. It grinds everyone's brains into a pulp." And a great deal more.

Making Ibsen into a scenario for Wales runs into a challenge. There is a tradition in the theatre of Cardiff that does not hold elsewhere in Wales, and and certainly not in Edinburgh or London. The convention is that there be no representation of the civic or political texture of the city or nation. It is a theatre culture where Ministers, councillors, civil servants, CEOs, Bishops, Imams, Vice-chancellors, scientists, tech geeks are off-limits. The most recent theatre about politics in South Wales was written in 1934. It has a revival this October, but characteristically at the Swansea Grand.

Two of the company featured on BBC Radio Wales' "Arts Show" and spoke for the production's relevance. Ibsen's plot focuses on adulterated water which the public authority denies. In 2021 the upper Wye was memorably described as having the texture of snot. Natural Resources Wales- Welsh managers, a Welsh Government subsidiary- is the regulatory body. The laws governing the water companies permit sewage release after storm. The change in rainfall pattern has not been met with a regulatory change. Dwr Cymru reports over 100,000 incidents in a year.

This is ripe material for complex, challenging public theatre. The polluter here is located as an external agent. The publicity for the production speaks of the relationship with the source material: "bring it crashing in to 21st Century Wales.” The author of these words has not had sight of what we are seeing. Remarkably for a theatre in post-pandemic resurgence it depicts a Wales without a public health infrastructure. A lonely general practitioner is all there is to protest against water spoliation which is tested by a corporate body, assumed to be of England or the USA.

This is a thus an alternate world with a pick and choose approach as to what is included. So the state in its modernity exists in some manifestations. Daughter Hannah reports that her drug-taking "caused an all-campus drug inspection and three other students, including my boyfriend, got suspended."

But audiences need, and deserve, consistency. Theatre is an art of material human beings. We live and move in specific geographies. Theatre started, more or less, at a cross-roads outside Thebes. Place has always asserted itself from the Forest of Arden to Grover's Corner to Flintock. This month the Sherman itself has seen audiences on their feet in acclaim. Milky Peaks is a specifically described location in Gwynedd.

“A Hero of the People” does away with this specificity. The actors themselves were uncertain, poised on radio between Powys and then Caerphilly. The play says Powys but the way the town is talked about has no resemblance to the towns of Powys. The reason for the locality may well be tactical. If a character is a compromised Member of Parliament he has to be a Conservative. To set it in the Valleys would mean it was in the bailiwick of the Government.

The depiction of Mick Powell is a part of the alternative reality. Back-benchers have no executive authority but Mick here appears to have significant power in his grasp. The political blurriness extends to the linguistic detail. Towards the close he says “there's talk of a junior cabinet role for me." There is no such thing as a junior Cabinet. Writers have only one area of authority. Theirs is the domain of words and the words they use should be the right ones.

This is a slow world weirdly without the Internet, without the frenzy, the malice, the bile, the trolling. At the other end of the M4 this spring, at the Lyric Hammersmith, Mike Bartlett did that world thrillingly with “Scandaltown”. Elin the local editor here is back in a time and a role akin to James Cagney in the film "Johnny Come Lately". That was 1940, the campaigning editor a regular of classic Hollywood as a force in the community. Local newspapers in the 2020's are a site of wreckage. The sport reports count for a bit. Here a line runs: "I don't know what you expect here. For me to hold tomorrow's front page?" "Crashing into 21st century Wales"?

Stage action is animated by its gaps of silence. It is the nature of our social condition to be separated by the things that are unsaid. These characters like the declarative. "This country carries its history too heavily." "Societies have rules for a reason. They create a shared language, shared values, a shared understanding of the world." In this sentence the nouns could all be swapped around.

There is a tradition of good playwrights losing it when they go rural. A virtue of "Jerusalem" is that real Wiltshire people say that Jez Butterworth has got country life right. Here farmer Patrick has a family problem. "You ask an old man to stop farming. It's an existential quandary for him." It is true that farming faces multiple threats. But in the New Inn at Llanddewi Brefi the drinkers do not muse over their existential quandaries. It is a metro-fantasy anyhow. Farmers retire like everyone else and enjoy it.

A Hero of the People” is a peculiar, lop-sided, elusive, unsatisfactory endeavour. It is Ibsen rinsed and a dismaying production for a new era for the Sherman. It comes in the wake of a dismaying appearance by one of the literary team, again on Radio Wales Arts Show. The values were wholly in divergence from that of new writing hubs in Edinburgh or London.

The reviewer for Wales at the Guardian is a generous spirit as critic. He gave "A Hero of the People" two stars. The heroes are the actors, but then actors are always heroic. The actors drag it up to that second star.

As for the future this site has recommended benchmarking as part of a quality process. It has to be said it is not used in the governance of Wales. The Sherman operates to the same quality level as the Hampstead Theatre or the Crucible or the Lyric Hammersmith. This script would not have met the quality thresholds of those theatres. A post-pandemic gap has emerged between the theatres of Cardiff and Edinburgh or Birmingham or Sheffield. There is work to be done.

Other reviews and articles:

An article "The Value of Benchmarking for the Culture of Wales" was written during the worst lockdown days in the sequence "Theatre of Scotland" 3rd February 2021. It also features in the sequence "My Year of Theatre" 1st January 2020.

Previous productions of plays by Brad Birch:

"Tremor" is reviewed in the sequence "At the Sherman" below 17th August 2018

"Black Mountain" is reviewed in the sequence "At Theatr Clwyd" 20th February 2018.

The culture of the representation of political life in Wales can be seen in the sequence "At the Wales Millennium Centre". The review for 20th November 2013 is titled "No Politics Please!- We’re Theatre from Wales."

Political theatre is discussed below in the sequence "At the Sherman" July 12, 2018.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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