Theatre in Wales

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Company Calls to Lobby Government to Intervene in Arts Council Decision-making

National Theatre: Comment

Political Influencing Tactic , Governance of Public Arts of Wales , October 21, 2023
National Theatre: Comment by Political Influencing Tactic Roger Williams is a figure of stature and respect in the theatre of Wales. His play “Surfing Carmarthen Bay” was performed in 1995 at the Sherman Theatre. He has been active as writer and producer over the decades since. His drama has travelled as far as New Zealand.

His advocacy for theatre too goes back a long way. In March 2000 he wrote for the Western Mail about the vote of no confidence in the Arts Council of Wales passed by the Writers' Guild of Great Britain.

His voice will be one of experience and commitment in the review that is set for the future make-up of English-language theatre.

On 15th October he was interviewed for BBC Cymru Wales' “Sunday Politics.” His words were few and carefully phrased. Of the National Theatre of Wales:

“The company hasn’t been producing enough work, especially work which is engaging with the general public.

“The company has lost a meaningful connection with the artistic community in Wales, of actors, of writers, musicians, dancers and so forth. And they seem to have become a clique.

“Unfortunately, once you start losing those relationships with your key sectors, you find yourself in trouble.

"And of course what’s happened now is they’ve lost that meaningful connections with their funders, which leads inevitably to the closure of the operation.”

* * * *

On 4th October Yvonne Connikie, Sharon Gilburd and Lorne Campbell, Co-chairs and Chief Executive of the National Theatre of Wales, were signatories to a public letter. The previous two articles ran a gauge over its content for its validity.

Accompanying the public letter Lorne Campbell issued a restricted private communication. The enquiry into the failure of a national arts company will take an interest whether the Trustees endorsed the message or whether it was an action made by their CEO without referral.

The request from Lorne Campbell attached to the public letter read:

“Please share this letter where you can – on social media, to your local Senedd Member and the members of the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee asking for them to raise it with Dawn Bowden MS.”

Dawn Bowden holds the position of Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport. The National Theatre of Wales is advocating political lobbying to rebut the decision of the appointed body of professional expertise and experience. There is no precedent in the theatre of the United Kingdom for this course of action.

* * * *

The remoteness of the company from the artists and public of Wales- as attested by Roger Williams- is equalled by its remoteness from the governance of the public culture of Wales.

The government in Edinburgh legislated early to take authority over the national arts companies of its nation. The government in Cardiff has not followed with similar legislation.

By way of background on 6 March 1940 the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts made a formal request to the Treasury for financial assistance. Dylan Thomas was an early beneficiary of the Council.

The template was set for the next 83 years, that government held no authority over the decisions of expenditure on the arts. The request to lobby is written in ignorance.

The Minister in Cardiff Bay will be aware of the tradition that goes back decades. A great Minister of the Arts stated the position bluntly: “Political control is a short cut to a boring, stagnant theatre- there must be freedom.” That was Jennie Lee.

Jennie Lee endorsed her long-standing chairman: “The Minister should exercise only the restricted functions that an autonomous Council assigns.”

In this year a veteran member of the Minister's party spoke in the House of Commons. The language of Harriet Harman on 18th January was not of the usual parliamentary kind.

“The Arts Council is an independent body, for goodness’ sake”, she said, “the key is in the name, “independent”—and if people take on responsibility for an independent body, they have a duty to that body to act independently. If they are told what to do by somebody whose business it is not, they should tell them to shove off, or threaten to resign. That is the way it is supposed to be.”

As it happens the policy of Cardiff Bay towards the institutions of culture has been demonstrated this month. An issue at the highest level of the National Museum of Wales reached its conclusion. On 16th October the Welsh Government stated its legal position unequivocally:

“We are aware of the content of the Auditor General’s report and recent governance issues at Amgueddfa Cymru, which is an arm’s length body. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on these matters.”

* * * *

At the Arts Council of Wales both Chair and Chief Executive are in the first phase of their stewardship. They will be aware of the volatility that the role regularly attracts. Geraint Talfan Davies recalled in lively manner for his memoir:

“Working for an arts council requires a masochistic streak. I lost count of the number of people who used the phrase “poisoned chalice” while giving me a look that suggested in none too-too-subtle a fashion that anyone taking on the job must be mad.”

Those in the arts are aware of the situation in England. Sir Nicholas Serota, in the twilight of a considerable career, is writing newspaper articles- the Evening Standard 7th June- headed “It is so wrong to describe the organisation I chair as a bastion of Philistines.”

The Arts Council of Wales in 2023 also has organisational precedent behind it. In the early days of what was then the Welsh Assembly Government, ministers were new to the role. One tested out the scope of his authority. Sybil Crouch is remembered in the arts of Wales with universal admiration and affection. She left for the record, and for her successors, the necessity to place professional judgement before political instruction:

“The Minister for Culture was taking an increasingly close interest in the individual decisions of ACW. As Chairman I received what was an unprecedented "instruction"...despite the lack of evidence of benefit and against the advice of officers and the independent assessor. In the event, Council defied the Minister.”

* * * *

Lorne Campbell appeared little in the media of Wales prior to 27th September. “The Stage” in London habitually attributed to him, and the company, a significance that had leached away. The editors, not unsurprisingly, looked to what the company name suggested, a title belied by the record and reputation in Wales.

His words and his action in the weeks since have revealed much. The public utterances have had a common pattern: a lack of conciseness, an elusiveness in clarity, low in regard to truthfulness.

As a tactic- to rebut a decision from the legitimate authority in the Welsh public sphere- this call to lobbying is also inept. It has served, if anything, to vindicate the judgement exercised by the Arts Council of Wales. It demonstrates the fundamentals which separate the organisation from other theatre companies of Wales. It will hasten the working-out of the appeal process.

The Trustees have not spoken. Jointly and severally they came on board to endorse a strategy that has failed. This action reveals once more the values of board and company.

If there is considered to be cause for correction in this article any items for amendment should be notified at

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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