The timing could not have been more perfect. On the same day that Arts Council Wales announces its Corporate Strategy for the next five years, National Theatre Wales is preparing for press night. Bold statements come from ACW headquarters, with Chief Executive Nick Capaldi declaring that breaking down cultural, social and economic barriers “will be one of our defining priorities over the duration of this plan”. A hundred miles away, in overcast but picturesque Tenby, Tide Whisperer is offering the entire world a nation’s artistic response to the global refugee crisis. Only: it really isn’t doing that at all.
Look at it in a vacuum and you’ll find a lot to appreciate about Tide Whisperer. Top of that list is its design, which is almost flawless. A darkening Tenby is lit beautifully by Ceri James, yellows and oranges shimmering along the sea and bouncing off the rocks. John Hardy’s ambient score of strings and piano is haunting, bringing an urgency to the piece that is sometimes lacking in Kully Thiarai’s direction. Thiarai is able to get some strong performances from her cast, but it’s the immersive aspect that she doesn’t quite get right. Rather than mimic the chaos of the refugee experience, the ‘action’ is made up mostly of lengthy monologues, the audience standing still until each one ends. When you consider that a good portion of the beach was at their disposal, it’s a badly missed opportunity. However, there’s no denying the complexities of tackling such an epic piece, and Thiarai deserves kudos for getting all the pieces to fit neatly together.
We can’t look at Tide Whisperer in a vacuum though; to do so would be damaging. Creative decisions have been made that, in the past, would have been attributed to Wales’ stunted growth, or even naivety. In 2018, these decisions seem misjudged and ignorant; worse still, they seem deliberate. The play wants to give the audience a glimpse into the refugee crisis but the true horror of the situation is held back in favour of an uplifting and remarkably whitewashed climax. All of the characters meet at the harbour, washed up on the shore by the chaos of their lives and searching for somewhere to call home. Along comes the white man, arms outstretched, saving the day. A chorus of white women in the distance sing in harmony: “we’ll stand by you.” What was the voice of the refugees has somehow become the voice of the saviours. Misjudged, sure, but not naïve. This is a company that should – and does – know better.
Interestingly, only two of the eight actors in Tide Whisperer have any connection to Wales – should our country’s national theatre not be doing everything in their power to cast from within? Or are we to deduce that there isn’t enough quality Welsh talent? I certainly don’t think that’s the case. If the argument is that the characters were all played by actors from those same communities then, quality of performance aside, London-born Susan Aderin should never have been cast as Cardiff resident Pearl. Writer Louise Wallwein could also fall under that umbrella. While she certainly has the experience and the ability to pull off such a project, why wasn’t this golden opportunity given to a writer from this country? Again, doesn’t this suggest a lack of faith in Welsh writers?
Tide Whisperer is NTW’s biggest show of the year by a long way but, outside of the company’s own staff, the number of Welsh artists involved is severely lacking. Granted, other NTW shows this year have had more of a Welsh presence, but they also haven’t had the scale or the publicity that this piece has. It’s on the biggest stage that talent will truly be recognised, but its on the biggest stage that NTW decided to look elsewhere. As we enter this new five-year cycle, this very important question needs to be answered as soon as possible: if a national theatre isn’t championing its own artists when it really matters, is it really a national theatre?