‘Who the hell do we give them to?’: Wales, Critics and Awards

 

Michael Kelligan, veteran theatre critic, set the tone right at the start. ‘We talked about Awards thirty or forty years ago,’ he said. ‘But the next question was always, well who the hell would we give them to?’

Kelligan’s recollection is met with knowing laughter from an almost-full Sherman Cymru. Both are welcome, the laughter and the knowingness. By definition it is an educated audience at an Awards ceremony; the room is full of ‘industry people’: writers, directors, actors, singers, dancers, movers, shakers… and critics.

For perhaps the only night of the year, Wales’ theatre critics – print and online, radio and television, young and not-so-young – have to step out of the relative safety of the stalls and into the full glare not only of the lighting rig but of the entire community on whom we have been passing judgement over the last twelve months and more. Those lights are pretty bright, aren’t they?

The inaugural Theatre Critics of Wales Awards are the brainchild of Guy O’Donnell, Arts Development Officer for Bridgend Council, who has for the last three years been running the Young Critics programme. Growing out of National Theatre Wales’ visit to Bridgend with the Gary Owen play set in the town Love Steals Us From Loneliness, the core group of young critics on the scheme – Chelsey Gillard, Rachel Williams, Harriet Hopkins, Elin Williams, Bethan James – have written for a range of outlets (including Wales Arts Review) and it is they who have spurred the rest of a previously moribund critical scene into action.

What is remarkable about the TCWA is the support they have garnered across the spectrum of media outlets in Wales. I have written previously about how Wales is too small a country to withstand a culture of cliques and cabals, and the Theatre Critics of Wales Awards is hopefully a symptom of our recovery from such a malaise. For the most part, the evening rattles along with a breezy disrespect for the stuffiness and formality that often make such events a bore for all but the winners.

Wales is too small a country to withstand a culture of cliques and cabals, and the Theatre Critics of Wales Awards is hopefully a symptom of our recovery from such a malaise

Much of this, it has to be said, is down to Nicola Heywood-Thomas, a great choice of inaugural host for such a ceremony. Heywood-Thomas commands immediate recognition and respect from the theatre community, and her easy presenting style, born of being a veteran broadcaster, makes her a safe pair of hands. She laughs when she needs to laugh, adopts a serious tone when things get a little too raucous and throws the occasional curtsey. She even comes over like Mam when Simon Watts touchingly uses his speech when picking up Best Male Performance in the Welsh Language to tell his girlfriend he loves her. ‘Aww, bless him,’ she coos.

Not to be outdone, Llwyth writer Dafydd James gets in on the act when his play receives Best Production in the Welsh Language, dedicating the award to his partner Hywel, who, we are told, early in the pair’s relationship, asked James how much of Llwyth was true. ‘And he’s still with me!’ he announces. Those who know the play – and there are many here in support of perhaps the night’s most deserving winner – roar with laughter at the autobiographical roots of such a naughty piece of work.

Laughter becomes a welcome feature of the evening. There is more of it when a caption on the Powerpoint behind Dai Smith announces that ‘Windows is not genuine’ just as the Chair of the Arts Council quotes Martin Luther King’s ‘fierce urgency of now’. Smith’s speech is a fine and thoughtful one, and he is right about now. It is the enthusiasm and talent of young people that has made this evening happen; by and large it is the enthusiasm and talent of young people that is being celebrated too.

Not that there is any kind of generational divide in evidence either. One of the best features of these inaugural awards is the easy way they reflect the realities of modern Wales. There is none of the tick-box equality that makes so many equivalent events in Wales so dry and joyless. Many of the award recipients make their speeches entirely in English, others entirely in Welsh; still others switch easily between the two languages, the way they are used to doing in daily life. Dafydd James, ‘appropriately for Llwyth’ gives his speech in Wenglish. What it means for the audience is that everybody understands. Monoglot English speakers (like myself) may not literally understand every word, but everybody understands that we live in a bilingual country.

It is the enthusiasm and talent of young people that has made this evening happen; by and large it is the enthusiasm and talent of young people that is being celebrated too.

What is absolutely key to the ceremony is that nothing seems forced. Some of the categories are language-specific, but awards for Music & Sound (won by John Hardy and Mike Beer for Coriolan/us), Children and Young People (Theatre Iolo’s Grimm Tales), Director (John E McGrath) and Playwright (Katherine Chandler) know no divide. The breadth and number of awards are expertly judged. Opera gets its own section, as does Dance, which inadvertently seem to disqualify the genres from the rest of the evening, but it is not as if – especially with the strong presence and influence of National Theatre Wales on the night’s proceedings – there is such a thing as a ‘straight play’ in Wales any more. There is even an award for Digital Content, deservedly picked up by Tom Beardshaw, the tech wizard behind many of NTW’s multimedia productions. Beardshaw rightly draws attention to the fact that the creation of such an award is an important statement in itself.

And Dance gets its own recognition in the shape of a Special Award: a ‘piece of mountain’ (all of the prizes are pieces of slate) for lifetime achievement goes to National Dance Company Wales’ co-founders Ann Sholem and Roy Campbell-Moore. And however long the TCWA last, nobody present will ever forget the couple’s acceptance speech: ‘He always does this,’ quipped Sholem, ‘goes first and leaves me to finish off.’

TCWA was far from a perfect event, but as an inaugural awards ceremony in a country that has not only not had one before, but itself admits it wasn’t really worthy of having one, it was as close as you are going to get. There was a great atmosphere in the room, it didn’t go on too long, and mostly the right people got deserved slaps on the back. Awards are not the be all and end all of an artistic scene, but they do offer a chance for recognition and celebration; the very fact they exist means a rubicon has been crossed. There is now enough quality theatre in Wales to make such an awards a necessity as opposed to a nonsense.

Crucially, next year isn’t an ‘if or a when’, it’s a ‘who’ and a ‘what’. In years to come, ‘Who the hell do we give them to?’ might be a question attached to an embarrassment of riches rather than a dearth of theatrical activity.