Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Pijin & The Cost of Living: National Companies Poorly Received

National Theatre: Comment

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru & National Theatre of Wales , Theatre In First Half 2023 , June 29, 2023
National Theatre: Comment by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru & National Theatre of Wales The review of “Es and Flo” contained a sentence “it is theatre that wants to be theatre.” The review makes a comparison with “the Ministry of Lesbian Affairs” by Iman Qureshi.

The Wales Millennium Centre's production slots alongside other pieces of recent theatre from women writers. Margaret Perry's “Paradise Now” had shared characteristics with “Es and Flo”.

Their stories are original for theatre which means the authors can shape the action for the stage.

The emotions they display are complex and not reducible to a single perspective of rightness.

The dramatists do not present themselves as being on a higher plane of knowledge or morality to their audiences.

A Durham University philosopher has a new book on art and culture. Andy Hamilton writes in chapter 8 of “Art and Entertainment: A Philosophical Enquiry”:

“Art raises possibilities for consideration by the audience; artists do not tell people what to think, but rather present possibilities for consideration.”

* * * *

In the current time, after the two-year loss of communal life, there is increasingly theatre that keeps me at home.

There are different types. One type is where a production states its aim is “to raise awareness.”

This is not an artistic aim.

It proposes that the makers are possessed of a superior knowledge to its viewers. Mark Ravenhill: “It doesn't educate or inform or make you a better citizen. We belittle art when we make it into information.”

* * * *

The national companies of Wales are among those who kept me at home in 2023; or rather sent me to England to seek out nourishing theatre.

Novels come in all forms, sizes and shapes. Aaron Sorkin's reworking of Harper Lee has been a big success, winning Aberystwyth's Gwyneth Keyworth an award as Scout. It has a natural drama to it, being based around a court case.

This is not the case with “Pigeon”. Alys Conran's novel is a bildungsroman spread over years. “Give the protagonist a short time limit. Then shorten it.” It is a useful guide for drama. Re-reading “Pigeon” I could not see where its dramatic centre lay for a theatre adaptation.

In interview the adaptor said: “I kind of honed in on the fact that so much of the story is about friendship, the friendship between Pijin and Iola, and then anything that helped me to tell that story is what I kept.”

But this is not a subject for the stage. Theatre is the art of dilemma. A production can be pumped up with great actors, and a strong team backstage; but they cannot animate what is little fit for the medium.

So it was for “Pijin/ Pigeon” a joint production from Theatr Iolo and Theatr Genedlaethol. The reviewers at Radio Wales' the Review Show noted the decline towards a series of short scenes, a sure sign that the drama is not working. "Ultimately...it didn't quite work me as a piece of theatre...a series of very fast scenes...very jarring.” “Act 2 a series of short exchanges, sometimes they weren't even scenes.”

The Stage too tried to find praise, for the actors, but concluded:

“The production's fussy design falls somewhere between minimalism and epic naturalism, sadly committing to neither. The stage is somehow sparse but cluttered at the same time.

“Short punchy scenes are punctuated by overlong changes and the moving of countless props and apparatus, meaning the 100 minutes feels [sic] slower than it should. Similarly the action is caught between two stools- lurching from very literal combat scenes to stylised capoeira evocations of movement- meaning the production loses clarity.”

* * * *

A production “the Angry Snatch” played in Aberystwyth 27 April and 28 April. The promotion kept me at home. It spoke of “mapping in real time the traumatic effects of controlling and coercive behavior [sic] and moving through the healing process.” It is a performance. It cannot map in real time.

The real red light was that performer, writer and deviser were one person. Theatre is collaboration. Without a director it is unlikely to have the depth or the distance that art requires. The Arts Council of Wales did not see the same red light.

* * * *

National Theatre of Scotland played the Brighton Festival and went on to tour. In the USA “Let The Right One” was at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California 20th May to 25th June.

The National Theatre of Wales performed in one venue in the first half of 2023. 173 days of the six months were spent not presenting public performance for audiences of Wales.

In Swansea “the Cost of Living” coincided with Grand Ambition's debut “Sorter.” The timing made more glaring the contrast between a top-down organisation and a company rooted in a community of Welsh artists.

The language around “the Cost of Living” deserves a full close-up scrutiny. Managements reveal themselves in the detail. “We were founded in 2011 as Wales’ English language theatre company” declares the management.

No, it wasn't. There was English language theatre before. It was founded as a national theatre. The year was 2007. Much else in the 40 pages that accompany the production is tendentious or false.

The company stretched the obligations under which charitable status is granted.

The company has internalised nothing from its shame at the Unboxed Festival. The CEO there, Martin Green: “I would never develop any event that speaks to a particular agenda.” Ned Glasier: “when artists allow themselves to be harnessed by governments to suit their agenda, it ends badly.”

The major press was not there. BBC Cymru Wales did not review the production of a national company, Swansea being a distant place from CF1.

But the word went out. It was very much in line with the company's aesthetics and values: budgetary profligacy, thematic vacancy, directorial gaudiness. There was reportedly small attention to its subject, the inflation of the last year.

A viewer spoke of “the soupy headache of the play’s irregular narrative...heavy without enough levity...themes beaten into you repeatedly while at the same time, not explored with enough depth to uncover new ground.”

Another: “the script is underwritten and superficial....so many aspects of intersectional identities and experiences of oppression that it leaves all of them unexamined in favour of a series of strident vignettes...lack of subtlety to the protagonists’ experience...hollow and cliched.

"...the script’s ham-fisted insistence on rehashing already well-trodden avenues...crowds out any opportunity for the characters to become more than generic stand-ins for a series of topical issues...cannot make up for poor writing"

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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