Theatre in Wales

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National Theatres Wales & Scotland: The Difference

National Theatre: Comment

Reporting, Touring, Feedback , Theatre of Wales , May 9, 2024
National Theatre: Comment by Reporting, Touring, Feedback The annual report by the National Theatre of Scotland for 2022/2023 was submitted on time, five months before that of the National Theatre of Wales.

It includes twenty-one illustrations and graphs for ease of explanation; its opposite number in Wales has none.

The Scots text is laid out in easy-to-assimilate double columns; Wales offers a dense continuity of text.

Scotland offers analyses of its audience by gender, ethnicity and age group, with a comparison with the prior year.

A graph shows the location of the audience based on the Scottish index of multiple deprivation.

The number, as illustrated, “76,751 people attended our productions and events” is printed in large-format text and repeated.

It is intrinsic to the culture of the National Theatre of Wales that audience data is restricted. No analyses or feedback are admitted into the public domain.

The word “transparency” occurs five times in the Welsh report. Its last occurrence reads on page 21:

“NTW is developing a new communications approach... centres audiences and prioritises transparency, including a new tone of voice and website.”

The new website, as recorded, removed the decade-long record of community participation.

The format for the annual return for 2022/2023 remains the same with one exception.

The auditor has added a note that relates to the company as a going concern.

“We have concluded that the trustees' use of the going concern basis of accounting in the preparation of the financial statements is appropriate.”

* * * *

To round off the last production.

“Feral Monster”, years in the preparation, aimed high. Nicola T. Chang was with the Royal Shakespeare Company for its wonder of a production “My Neighbour Totoro”. She is composer for the West End transfer of Ryan Calais Cameron' “For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy.”

Izzy Rabey was Aberystwyth's youngest director with an Ed Thomas production in 2014. In 2023 her ascent in theatre took her to directing at the Royal Court Theatre.

The music for “Feral Monster” was a strong feature. The direction was powered with animation and visual verve. But composer and director can only work with the material that they have been given and is in the gift of the producers, “Feral Monster” faltered on several counts.

* * * *

The title itself was not good. It bore little reference to the nature of the lead character.

From the Guardian: “..There isn’t much that feels particularly feral or monstrous about this new musical.”

The book suffered from the same errors suffered as in 2023's adaptation of “Pijin.” An excess of micro-scenes inhibited dramatic flow. Characterisation was fixed.

From the Guardian: “there’s little dramatic build-up and little to resolve...causes the narrative to feel inconsequential.”

That is correct. The production did not gain in dramatic traction; the basics of theatre-writing were not there. As a revealing of sexuality it lacked the richness, the craft, or indeed the merriment, of a play like Iman Qureshi's “The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs.” Nicola T. Chang was a member of the company that made that memorable theatre.

The off-stage crew was extensive. Notable for a work of musical theatre was the absence of a credit to a lyricist. It showed. It showed mightily in lines without rhymes. It showed in the absence of novel imagery or metaphor. Instead there were words like “It twisted my soul” and “this is our world/ this is our world.” The Arts Centre in Aberystwyth has been making music and receiving music for a half-century. “Like something put together by the sixth form” said an observer of long experience.

Theatre writing is a hard discipline; its art is the commandeering of action across space and time. A 75-minute length is a common give-away that insufficient attention has been given to form. The dynamo of art is point and counterpoint. It powers a piece of contemporary musical theatre like “Then, Now and Next” by Christopher J Orton and Jon Robyns. Point and counterpoint were not evident in “Feral Monster.” But then its motivation appeared to be semi-detached from art. “Celebration” is the phrase for a pageant. It is alien to theatre.

* * * *

If “Feral Monster” were a fringe company on tour it would be seen as likeable enough. But it is not; it is the national theatre. It is also the one new production in a financial year. The other production was a revival of “Circle of Fifths.”

The reviewers, collated below 7th March, were warm but they did not write of the production as if it were national theatre.

As an example take Buzz Magazine: “as is often the problem with smaller productions, the choreography and limited cast can’t always match the scope of the score, and at times, performers don’t look wholly confident or seamless in their dancing or transitions.” And at the Stage: “some of the lyrics difficult to hear.”

The leads were outstanding. From the Guardian: “Rebecca Hayes carries proceedings with a sharp focus and Carys Eleri’s funny and moving performance as Nan is especially lovely.” Others were less so; the movement was less assured in quality than that of the Wardens, Aberystwyth's decades-old community company and a formidable crucible of talent.

The casting director either lacked competence or there was producer over-rule. It is all there in the publicity. It projects a company where private attributes are valued over artistic prowess.

The reviewers did not wonder why national theatre was so small. In particular, it was musical theatre that toured without a band. An academic paper was published in 2023 to the effect that live music sparks a response in the amygdala significantly beyond that of recorded music. Theatre is live performance. The little Hope Mill Theatre has had a hit with “Lizzie”, which returns again in the autumn. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer’s score has a six-strong all-women band led by Honor Halford-MacLeod. National theatre in Wales toured musical theatre with a sole musician on stage.

The company received £1,664,920 in arts subsidy in the last financial year. But the tour was not extensive: the Sherman, Aberystwyth, Pontio, Ffwrnes and Theatr Brycheiniog.

Pembrokeshire, Flintshire, Wrexham, Gwent and more; they have sight of small companies like Lighthouse and Black Rat. But most of the counties of Wales had no sight of their own national theatre doing a musical. The issue reverts again to the question as to why the national company has such difficulty with theatres.

Lorne Campbell, interviewed on television, 15th October 2023, spoke of “one of the great fundamental assets of Wales, it's a deep belief, and a deep understanding that cultural practice, cultural experience, doesn't live inside cathedrals of culture.”

A response might be is that people, many people, enjoy and are inspired by cathedrals. So too with the theatres of Wales.

* * * *

Jak Malone spoke at the Royal Albert Hall on 14th April, the night of the Olivier Awards. He hailed “a huge influx of new musicals and new talent.” Zoe Roberts, also of “Operation Mincemeat”: “it feels as though there's this real wave of grassroots shows coming from the fringe and smaller venues.” Nica Burns at the UK Musical Theatres conference the week before said musical theatre “was in the best place it had ever been.”

A strange gender-fluid musical arrives in Cardiff's New Theatre, on 7th May. “Unfortunate” is of a true weirdness but also has a wonder to it. It is being seen all over. In this surge of plenty “Feral Monster” as an example of new-era musical theatre does not rank.

“Feral Monster” was sponsored by the Principality Building Society and supported by PRS Foundation’s The Open Fund, John Ellerman Foundation, as part of NTWs’ Dramaturg programme, Jack Arts and by the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is being administered by Cardiff Council.

* * * *

Note: This survey has made mention of other pieces of musical theatre. This is deliberate. The Handbook that confers national company status sets the activities for “Your role as a national company.”

Page 14 states the requirement: “benchmarking against the best, in the creation of work.” That is a requirement. Quality Management is not there for a dip in or out according to fancy.

In the last five years there is small evidence that anyone, board or management alike, in the national company read the Handbook. There is no evidence of implementation.

There is a new Chief Executive in place. If indeed notice was given to the obligations that govern the status of a national company, such information will be gratefully received at editorial@theatre-wales.co.uk.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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