2013: A Year in Welsh Theatre

How lucky we have been once again with theatre production in Wales. This year has been a great year in particular for emerging companies bursting onto the scene with immersive, ambitious productions. It’s also been a great year for rejuvenations of Wales’ best productions with many shows making a successful comeback. Last year at Edinburgh saw a fair few Welsh companies, but as highlighted in my article on Edinburgh Fringe 2013, my visit to the Fringe this year was dominated by Welsh productions. This clearly indicates the growth of Welsh theatre during this past year.

New companies have not only emerged with one great show but several. Newport’s finest Tin Shed theatre company have impressed audiences with their innovative productions. Since my first encounter with them at the Fringe this year, Tin Shed seem to have become regulars on the Welsh theatre scene. After a truly terrifying Halloween performance with The Ritual, they are now working towards something completely different, a children’s quest to find the missing Santa Claus before Christmas. This only highlights their ability to create different pieces of theatre for a variety of audiences and situate them in any type of venue. They have been busy touring and promoting themselves, and I have no doubt that this company will expand massively during the next year. I look forward to seeing what they will come up with next.

Another company that has made a lasting impression on me this year simply has to be the wonderful Gagglebabble. After seeing their Bloody Ballad for the first time in Volcano theatre Swansea I couldn’t get enough, and I kept persuading friends to come along and see it again with me. It is a production that keeps on giving, and even after the third time seeing it I kept uncovering new aspects to the production, new funny bits, new beautifully written parts, new meanings to the songs. They also followed suit with a Halloween experience this year with their production The Forsythe Sisters. I can only hope they keep developing this production and that they will perform it again and again for my own indulgence.

Dafydd James has always been a favourite of mine and on seeing My Name is Sue for the first time this year, I did exactly the same as I did with Gagglebabble and simply kept going back to see it (shameless, I know). James worked particularly hard on the show’s promotion for the Fringe and produced many videos, a delightful treat for the hardcore fans (ahem, me). Following on from a sell out Edinburgh tour, James and his writing partner Ben Lewis brought Sue back for Christmas. Without saying too much, (you can read the full review of the show here) the reprise was everything it should have been: hilarious, bizarre, hysterical and unforgettable. Sue Timms is an ingenious character, and it’s wonderful to have her touring Britain, boasting her Welsh pride.

Although this year for me seems to have been dominated by comedy, I will refer to a few performances that have impressed me by their sensitivity and poignancy. Theatr Genedlaethol produced the wonderfully touching Tir Sir Gar, a promenade performance which was aptly situated in a Carmarthenshire Agricultural Museum. The production explored a real deep rooted Welsh issue; the inheritance of land. It raised all sorts of modern questions: ‘What does one do when the family don’t want the land?’ and ‘do these issues have a place in contemporary Wales?’ The performance brought to light old versus new, traditional versus contemporary, and with fantastic production values and beautiful acting it really was a production to be proud of. Tir Sir Gar for me was Theatr Genedlaethol’s stand out performance this year.

Similarly another Welsh language production right at the start of the year was one which really illuminated a sensitive issue. Rhian Staples’ Cynnau Tan told the story of an anonymous suicide pact, two strangers who meet online and arrange to kill themselves in a hotel room after a night of grand indulgence. Such topics are not readily discussed in Welsh language productions, and this signified another certain step forward for Welsh language theatre.

Unfortunately a few disappointments also reared this year. Tim Price’s greatly anticipated I’m With the Band in particular raised some thought provoking questions, questions about the representations of the Welsh. Although I did agree that not only was this portrayal an unfair one but the production was genuinely just a big disappointment in general. A lazy script and stock-type characters didn’t inspire. What can be said however, is that Price’s piece did stir up some interest and did get people talking passionately about something that was obviously important, and ultimately, isn’t this is what a piece of theatre is meant to do? At least Price’s production forced people to stand up for what they believed in, and so something good did come out of it after all. Other disappointments included Mark Jermin’s Children of Mine, a dramatisation of the Aberfan disaster which stirred up some frustration, particularly from survivors of the disaster which is never a good sign. National Theatre Wales’ DeGabay was also an anti-climactic, seven hour unfocused amble through Butetown which left many members of the audience feeling underwhelmed and confused.

The fact that this year’s theatre was so mixed however, does indicate that there is simply a greater quantity of work being produced, and whether it stirs up positive or negative reactions, the important thing is, is that it is generating reactions in the first place. Being able to recount the numerous productions, good and bad can only signify that Welsh theatre is still expanding, still learning. With the Theatre Critics of Wales Awards in January I am confident that it will be plain to see that our ever-growing industry is producing some of the finest theatre in Britain, and with award ceremonies to recognize the great work and talent, it will only inspire more great theatre in Wales.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis