Gary Raymond reviews the new short film, Frank, produced by National Theatre Wales with funding from the German Embassy and the Goethe Institute, London.
You could be forgiven for wondering what ever happened to National Theatre Wales? Sometimes, our English language national theatre company feels like a memory of the Before Times, like casual hugging, or Prince Philip. Ironically, the last thing I ever saw them do was On Bear Ridge, the story of a post-apocalyptic Wales in which nothing but high-quality production design, bad writing, and some new clothes for an emperor or two had survived a cataclysm. Since then, you don’t need me tell you what happened. By which I mean, there was a global pandemic. You may, however, need me to tell you what NTW has been up to. In the last two years, National Theatre Wales has produced precious few theatrical productions (or what might pass for theatre). Times have been tough, of course, but other companies, both those with relatively similar resources and those with much tighter budgets, have been innovating and bending over backwards to produce something. NTW has produced some things, of course.
There was the underwhelming Possible, Shôn Dale-Jones’s one man show that eventually ended up being a meandering monologue about how the original show was not cancelled when the pandemic hit. There was what has been referred to by every single person I have ever heard mention it as “that thing about bees or something”. Then there was Rakie Ayola reading from Leonora Britto’s short story collection, Dat’s Love. An audiobook, for want of a better label. There was a 20-minute film produced by Gavin Porter, Sea Empress 25, that was released to little (or no) fanfare; a kind of worthy, creative documentary about the 1996 Pembrokeshire oil spill. And there was the Live Stream of Chichester Theatre Festival’s production of Sarah Kane’s Crave. It is a meagre output by anyone’s standards (but particularly by the standards of the same period of companies like Theatr Genedlaedethol Cymru, The Sherman, Theatr Clwyd, Wales Millennium Centre, Dirty Protest, Taking Flight, and others) but in such testing times, everyone deserves to be cut a break. It’s less easy to cut breaks though when rumours fly around in such abundance that the lack of creative output from NTW is down to the all-hands-on-deck approach to their successful bid for a Brexit Festival grant (Sorry, Unboxed festival).
The hope, of course, is that at some point in the near future (maybe for the Brexit Festival itself — sorry… Unboxed — which the Welsh public await with something approaching a distinct lack of enthusiasm), NTW will burst out of the barn doors like the A-Team brandishing an all-conquering array of contraptions they’ve been working on in secret and win the day. But for now, there is no evidence of that. For the regular person on the street, from the theatre lover to the occasional theatre goer, the most common question in relation to National Theatre Wales is not what do they have in store? Rather, it’s, remember them?
Perhaps we can put all this behind us now the pandemic is fading into the fabric of our daily lives and production companies are emerging blinking into the light. Houses like The Sherman in Cardiff and Theatr Clwyd in Mold are pinging at my inbox with press releases announcing casting for new shows, and indy companies across Wales equally are working harder than ever with the prospects of new tours of shows old and new. NTW have yet to announce a full programme, but they have announced a full production in March of Daf James’ translation of Fabrice Melquiot’s Petula. It promises to be a tri-lingual production (“English, Welsh, and a little French”), and is a collaboration between NTW, Theatre Genedlaethol Cymru, and August012 (essentially Mathilde Lopez, who will direct Petula). The question that will be on everyone’s lips as Petula gets closer will be why Wales’ two national theatres, who receive a combined £3million-odd from Arts Council Wales’ tax-payer-funded budget, are collaborating on a production in an era of demands on all of us for more fiscal responsibility. Two artistic directors, two marketing departments, two production teams etc etc… one show. Why does Wales not have a single national theatre?
And all of this is such a shame to have to write, but it would have been a dereliction of duty as a critic to review the first production of 2022 with NTW’s name attached to it without giving voice to these consternations and concerns about just what it is half of our national theatre companies has been spending its time and money on for the last two years. It’s a shame because Frank is good. It’s very good. It’s well-written and well-realised, beautifully shot, and well-acted, and manages to create eleven minutes of depth and nuance; it is honestly moving, visually strong, and like all good short films, lingers like a flash in the darkness. It would strengthen the programme of any production company, sitting on the secondary roster of materials behind full length productions of new writing and bold revivals. It reminds us of the talents of directors Buddug James Jones and Jesse Britton, and of composer Sam Jones. As a film it would be worthy of entry to any of the world’s short film festivals and could even compete confidently for prizes. And it feels rotten to have to take the shine off a laudable achievement for the team behind Frank by drawing attention to the emptiness around it that it is incapable of filling.
A theatre company must produce work. That should be its raison d’être. We can and should and do have real sympathy for the plight of these companies and practitioners during the pandemic, and we are admiring and grateful for the work that has been produced. We are dazzled by the passion and innovation and skill of those who have created theatre. But National Theatre Wales has been doing very little and it is quickly fading from the cultural consciousness of this country. Perhaps they will explode back onto the stage, and all the time, work, and money pushed into their involvement in the Brexit festival will show us all what we’ve been missing. Or perhaps we could have just been enjoying the work of our English language national theatre company this whole time.
Frank is available to watch now via the National Theatre Wales website.