Theatre in Wales

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“To Be ‘National’ is a Privilege, Not a Right”: Arts Council of Wales

National Theatre: Comment

National Company's Move to Fringe Position , Public Culture of Wales , December 31, 2022
National Theatre: Comment by National Company's Move to Fringe Position This article is not written lightly. It has a cause.

This is the cause.

A review wrote of a production:

“bubbles with youthful zest. It got itself a raucous audience in Neath, a cheering one in Aberaeron. The company has another winner on its hands... There hasn’t been anything quite like it on a Welsh stage.”

The production had a seasoned cast, form and structure, a surreal humour, music and song. It was national theatre that went to all points of Wales.

The review was written on 28th October 2011.

It was the last occasion an audience of Ceredigion filled a hall to see its own national theatre.

In the ensuing eleven years the company has done nine performances in Ceredigion.

That figure is not productions but performances.

Attendance at the nine was low. This was due to the material lacking appeal, the locations being not easily accessible and the advertising minimal.

The Cambrian News quoted the company on one visit: “the locals have been very welcoming and helpful.”

References:

Cambrian News link below 01 April 2018.

Review in the sequence “At National Theatre” 28th October 2011.

* * * *

The National Theatre of Wales made its debut in March 2010 with a production that paid explicit homage to John McGrath (1935-2002), the founder of the company 7:84. From McGrath's book from 1981 “A Good Night Out” subtitled “Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form”:

“A working-class audience likes to know exactly what you are trying to do or say to it.” “Working class audiences like laughs.”

“Comedy has to be sharper, more perceptive and more deeply related to their lives.” “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.”

The spirit of McGrath was there in the company's first chapter and has now been lost.

References: Link to “A Good Night Out” below 3rd May 2010

* * * *

Anwen Jones, Pro-vice Chancellor at Aberystwyth University, wrote her doctorate on the national theatres of Wales, England, Germany and France. It became a book “National Theatres in Context” published by University of Wales Press in 2007.

The most substantial intellectual influence is Habermas with thirty references in the index. Her snapshot of modernity in his “the Cultural Transformation of the Public Sphere” reads:

“Space was cleared for the formation of a new sphere occupied by a body of private people who engaged the public authorities in a debate over the general rules governing human life and relations.”

The shrinkage of the public sphere of Wales is a constant critical theme, with an unsure authority equating the public sector with the public sphere.

In Jones' history the first century of national theatre in Wales covers 84 pages and is thick with detail. The narrative begins with a prize for drama at the Llanberis Eisteddfod in 1879. The prize was won by Beriah Gwynfe Evans. The narrative ends with the closure of Cwmni Theatr Cymru in 1984.

In its most recent iteration the National Theatre of Wales has severed connection with its origins and heritage.

* * * *

National theatre occupies the centre of cultural life.

If it is on the fringe then it becomes a fringe company; project funding is its mode of public subsidy.

In 2019, the season before the pandemic, the company returned to a high profile production. See “At the Royal Court” below 29 September.

Gary Raymond wrote for Wales Arts Review:

“Wales’s English language national theatre has found in “On Bear Ridge” that there is a hunger for big bold new writing for the stage. It is imperative now that “On Bear Ridge" not be remembered as a flawed play that some people loved and got Rhys Ifans onto a Cardiff stage. That would be a very sad legacy. The legacy you might expect from a regional theatre, not a National one.

“No, the future for NTW must be to produce four or five “On Bear Ridges” every year. Some will be worse, some will be better, but what will be certain is the buzz felt now will spread, and that confident voice will improve its vocabulary, and it will grow in distinction, and it will serve Wales, express its identity, help sculpt its politics, along whatever journey the country is to take over the next few decades. A political movement needs its artists, and those artists need their stage.”

In the ensuing time there have been no productions that caused a buzz. The record of the time after the pandemic is written. The company was the last to perform, unmemorably, on theatre's return in 2021.

A major book on artistic directors recorded from the National Theatre of Wales: “I'm trying to forget that it's a national company”.

Reference:

Gary Raymond on national theatre:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/on-bear-ridge-a-new-dawn-for-welsh-theatre/

* * * *

Joyce McMillan, the most long-standing theatre critic in Scotland, wrote in her look-back on the year:

“In a strong year for new work from the National Theatre of Scotland, the company staged Cora Bissett’s epic theatre version of Peter Mullan’s Glasgow film Orphans, and Uma Nada-Rajah’s wild all-female political farce Exodus.

“In the autumn, the NTS was associated with production company Raw Material, and Capital Theatres of Edinburgh, in staging James IV: Queen Of The Fight, Rona Munro’s rich and fascinating main stage play about the court of King James IV, the fourth part of her James Plays series...premiere of May Sumbwanyambe’s mighty and intense chamber drama Enough Of Him, brought to 18th century Perthshire as an enslaved servant, and of his struggle for freedom.”

Susanna Clapp, the most long-standing theatre critic in England, wrote in her look-back on the year: “It was an outstanding year at the National Theatre for big, consequential plays.”

* * * *

The article below of 29th December hailed the productions of Wales that mattered in 2022 across a span of reviewers. Many of the names were familiar, some were new.

The National Theatre of Wales was mentioned not once.

Nor did the national theatre make the end-of-year lists of 2021.

2020 was the year of pandemic. The records for 2019, 2018, 2017 are the same, national theatre not making the top 10 lists.

Not a production of the national theatre has been strong enough to be included in a best-of-year retrospective since 2016. The entry that year was a Gagglebaggle production with only a co-production credit for the company.

The major recipients of public subsidy occur regularly in the lists as they should. Smaller companies also appear less frequently. In the last seven years Wales Arts Review has featured 24 producing companies. This site's own best of year has listed an additional 14 producers and co-producers.

The record of the arts is not written in the boardroom or spun by the publicist. A national company whose impact falls behind three dozen others is a tale, maybe, of sadness but one that asks for a response.

A company does not receive revenue funding to occupy culture's edge. Every national theatre in the world takes its position at its culture's centre.

References to the year's best:

2022: https://www.walesartsreview.org/welsh-theatre-our-best-of-2022/

2021: https://www.walesartsreview.org/welsh-theatre-our-best-of-2021/

2019: https://www.walesartsreview.org/welsh-theatre-the-best-of-2019/

2018: https://www.walesartsreview.org/welsh-theatre-the-best-of-2018/

2017: https://www.walesartsreview.org/welsh-theatre-the-best-of-2017/

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/dec/18/susannah-clapp-10-best-theatre-shows-of-2022

https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/theatre-and-stage/arts-review-of-2022-joyce-mcmillan-on-the-year-in-theatre-3954082

* * * *

The productivity of the company has been an issue for years. It is an issue that has gone unheeded by board, management and regulatory bodies.

On 24th November Jackie Wylie announced the programme for 2023 for the National Theatre of Scotland:

“The season has five world premieres, eight touring productions visiting more than 40 venues across Scotland and beyond.”

At 31st December 2022 Lorne Campbell's theatre programme for 2023 for the National Theatre of Wales comprises one performance in Swansea in March.

References:

National Theatre of Scotland's programme for 2023:

https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/latest/national-theatre-of-scotland-announces-2023-programme

National Theatre of Wales' programme for 2023:

https://www.nationaltheatrewales.org/latest


* * * *

The follow-up article will look at governance: the articles of association to which the directors are beholden; the quality management as required by the Arts Council of Wales to hold national company status.

A guide to the sequence “National Theatre: Comment” can be seen below 10th March 2021.

Commentary, notifications of error and correction required are welcome at editorial@theatre-wales.co.uk

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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