With news of the departure of Kully Thiarai from her position as Artistic Director at National Theatre Wales, Gary Raymond asks why was it allowed to come to this?
The Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales, Kully Thiarai, is to leave her post before the end of the year and take up the job of Creative Director at Leeds 2023, returning to her Yorkshire roots. The press coverage has been limited, all official voices have been beaming with positivity, and there is a distinct sense of control over the narrative that is coming from the centre. The story seems to have been given to several English news outlets prior to the announcement, framed as a “welcome to the new job” rather than “what happened to the old one?” So far, nobody seems to be willing to mention the shadow that hangs over the NTW she leaves behind.
If you wondered whether Thiarai leaves Wales’s English language national theatre with a personal sense of relief you would surely not be far from the truth. The toxicity of the debates surrounding the vision and creative strategy of NTW over the last year has taken its toll. The accusations toward NTW remain encased in aspic for all time in the form of a letter (given a platform by Wales Arts Review in September 2018) written by a group of Welsh playwrights and signed by a total of forty of them. That letter kicked off a dark time for Welsh theatre, creating public and private scenes of conflict and animosity, much of it played out over social media, but some of it too in the closed off conference rooms where mediators tried to bring complainants and NTW together.
What might have been a debate about the responsibilities of a national theatre quickly became personal and distasteful and Thiarai was targeted. Not long after the letter was released, I was asked to discuss it on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row, with Thiarai down the line, in the other chair. Great, I thought; a chance to have an open and mature debate about what NTW should and could be. I was naïve. I’ve been a vocal critic of NTW since its inception. Founding Artistic Director John McGrath once referred to me in an interview as the “lonely voice of dissent” when it came to my opinions on the output of the company. I have plenty to say about what NTW could do better. But that evening on Radio Four, it was immediately apparent on air that Thiarai had been shaken by the letter and its immediate fallout. If she had taken it personally, it was because she undoubtedly recognised something familiar in the tone of the ensuing debate. Suspicious that I wasn’t understanding everything at play here, I retreated to a position of summarising the arguments of both sides in a quasi-correspondent’s role.
On social media in the coming weeks and months, things would get worse. I spoke to several non-white writer friends, with no professional connections to Welsh theatre, and none of them were in any doubt of what was going on. You see, people who have had to deal with discrimination as part of their everyday existence recognise it easily when they see it happening elsewhere. Nobody in England was asking why NTW’s work was not up to scratch, they were asking why Wales was treating a woman of colour in the way it was.
As editor of Wales Arts Review, I have certainly been guilty of spending far too much time trying to come to terms with the trees, when the important thing has turned out to be the wood. I have agonised over how this publication should approach the complex issues surrounding the output and vision of NTW, when what I should have been focussing on was the bigger picture. I have no doubt that the shortcomings of NTW in the time since Kully Thairai has been artistic director are the exact same ones that existed during the reign of her predecessor. We can debate long and hard about what was being done to address those shortcomings, and whether or not NTW was going in the right direction, but I’m more interested in why a theatre industry has picked now as the time for the pot to boil. If anybody can tell me the reason why white middle class male John McGrath didn’t get the public flogging working class woman of colour Kully Thiarai did during his tenure of NTW, I would love to hear someone say it.
Last year, I was commissioned by Arts Council Wales to help gather interviews for their new corporate plan, For the Benefit of All. It’s a piece of work I am proud to have been a part of. I spoke to people from minority backgrounds from all over Wales as well as people who come under the protected characteristics categories of the Equality Act. I heard inspiring stories about how the Arts Council can and do feed into these stories. Much of it seems hollow today, an exercise in print and PR that has been dealt a significant blow. Whether NTW was flourishing or floundering or anything in between doesn’t matter to Wales today, and certainly isn’t the conversation people outside of Wales will be having. To the next generation, overwhelmingly a multicultural liberal force in this country, it will be obvious why Kully Thiarai left National Theatre Wales: she was bullied out. For every criticism aimed at Thiarai from a white middle class theatre practitioner in Wales, she was adored by those she worked with from minority backgrounds, and inspired countless people to work in theatre in Wales who otherwise would never have considered a UK national theatre a space in which to express themselves. Some people in Wales may not have easily recognised the type of theatre Thiarai was heading up, but that doesn’t mean we get to drive her out. She took the post less than three years ago. Who knows what she might have achieved given the support John McGrath enjoyed in his eight years in post. The moment the public debate turned sour, the moment it was clear to anyone with experience of it, that there were nationalist and racist undertones to the criticisms of Thiarai, she should have received loud unequivocal support from every individual and organisation in Wales. Her position should have become stronger, not weaker.
The criticisms of the vision and work of NTW have become irrelevant. All that really matters right now is that Wales had a woman of colour in one of the most powerful cultural positions in the land, and we let her go.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcast, and editor of Wales Arts Review.