The appointment of David Mercatali as new Associate Director at the Sherman Theatre has proved a controversial move amongst the Welsh theatrical community. But beyond the issues surrounding the operations of the theatre itself, has this shone a light on a deeper problem within Welsh theatre. Gary Raymond explores what that might be.
Every now and again something happens that forces us to consider what exactly is the role of “the arts” in a country. What do we want “the arts” to do for us as a society? In Wales this seems to be a question asked more frequently than it would be in a truly confident, focussed nation. A recent controversy surrounding the appointment of a new Associate Director at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, David Mercatali, has raised such questions. The theatrical community across Wales asked, with some moral authority on the subject, why the appointee was not a Welsh language speaker, seeing as the Sherman has a deficit in this area, and has the charge of “developing and nurturing the work of Welsh… artists.” Wales, you see, is a bilingual country, and so many of its artists may want to write, direct, act, produce in Welsh. Sherman Theatre – which up until recently was called Sherman Cymru (I missed the press release announcing that change of name) – currently has no Welsh language speaker on its creative staff. If you send a Welsh language script to the Sherman, there is nobody there who can read it. The appointment of a new associate director seemed to many the perfect opportunity to address this shortfall.
It seems the Sherman was caught a little on the hoof by the disappointment expressed on social media at Mercatali’s appointment. Mercatali is an excellent director, who comes with good pedigree, but the interpretation that this was step away from the artistic community of Wales rather than a step further into it was widespread. Oversight is one thing, but it is genuinely surprising that anyone who works in the arts in Wales could have not seen this reaction coming. The associate job was readymade to redress the balance and help fulfil part of the Sherman’s remit by bringing in a Welsh speaker. The whole sorry affair suggests a lack of understanding of the politics of Welsh language provision. Unless, of course, it wasn’t ignorance, and was just disregard.
Two questions, then: there are a number of people in Wales qualified for the role, and if they did not apply for the job, why did they not? The second question is, on seeing the lack of applicants with Welsh language, why did the Sherman not stop the process and ask themselves this question, and, more importantly perhaps, ask the community why applicants were not forthcoming?
Did they not think it mattered?
There is a mindset that can be heard to argue all that matters is an abstract notion of excellence, and that the buildings in which the excellent is put on is where the argument begins and ends. That many of the people in positions of power in Welsh theatre are not Welsh is because excellence wins; these people are substantial people with substantial CVs. Their Welsh equivalents simply did not make the cut. Is it too obvious to say that this attitude is part of the problem and not simply an end to the debate?
This is not about Welsh jobs for Welsh people; this is about addressing the causes of a palpable prejudice; one that holds back Welsh theatre, and ensures it develops as English regional theatre rather than theatre of the Welsh nation.
One of two things happened with the Sherman appointment: either the Welsh applicants were not good enough, or one of the most attractive positions in Welsh theatre was not coveted by Welsh directors. Whichever it is, these are vital questions that go to the heart of Wales’ problem with developing artists.
The Sherman Theatre (neè Sherman Cymru) are by no means the whole story (there are questions here to be asked too of Torch and Theatr Clwyd, Wales’ other two building-based production companies), but in this instance it is they who have thrown open the doors to what must be a deep-reaching search for this question of what is it we expect from our art.
At some point there must be a recognition that Welsh theatre is not English theatre and that if you want to run a theatre that ignores the Welsh language, then there are plenty of them over the border. The language is not an inconvenience, it is part of the job at hand. Twenty years after devolution, Wales is still nation building. Part of that process is nurturing a vibrant artistic community that is Welsh, and speaks about Wales, and it must do that in both tongues, working to bring them together.
Wales does not have Shakespeare, does not have Olivier, and does not have Sir Peter Hall, but one day we might if the energies of the people at the top are focussed in the right direction. So coming to Wales to work in Welsh theatre carries that responsibility. Working here in the arts means you are contributing to the construction of a country. Despite noble protestations by the Sherman, the lack of consultation with the artistic communities of Wales as to why Welsh language directors did not apply for the associate role speaks enough about the lack of understanding of this from the board on down.
The truth is that the task of running a commercially and critically successful theatre that incorporates Wales (and that, I’m afraid, includes the Welsh language) could very well be an impossible task – it could be that the two things are incompatible – but it is the task. The Sherman may not be to blame for the complex reasons we are where we are, but it sure as hell can play a part in sorting the problem out. If it wants to. I am all for excellence. I am passionately in favour of Rachel O’Riordan’s excellence. I am passionately in favour of David Mercatali’s excellence. I guarantee the Welsh directors who are not being appointed to the associate position at the Sherman are too. But can we not agree that excellence in Wales is about excellence for Wales, which means amongst other things embracing the Welsh language into the fabric of your organisation. Welsh theatre is not English regional theatre, and the Sherman Theatre cannot just be a line on a CV.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, poet, critic, and editor of Wales Arts Review.