As National Theatre Wales prepares to lead a Collective Cymru production for Galwad, a combination of drama and live-action theatre performed on location across Wales over the course of a week, Emma Schofield takes a look at what’s ahead and wonders what it all means for theatre and drama in Wales.
There’s a sense of anticipation in the air, mixed with a lingering touch of déjà vu. We’ve been here before, we’ve stood on this precipice once or twice in recent years in Wales, feeling that urge to dive off and yet never quite making the leap into that great unknown. National Theatre Wales have pulled off some spectacular showcases over the past decade or so. Few who were there would forget the disorientating spectacle of a packed Cardiff city centre wildly celebrating the arrival of a giant peach during City of the Unexpected back in 2016, or the image of Michael Sheen being hoisted onto a cross above Port Talbot at the climax of a seventy two hour Passion play acted out across the town in 2011. To a certain extent these productions have achieved what they set out to do, large-scale, open air drama which draws audiences into the heart of the action and takes theatre out on to the streets of Wales. Yet there’s always been a sense that it could go further, that something which really catapults Welsh theatre up and on to the next level is getting closer.
As NTW gear up for their latest production, it’s hard not to wonder if this is the moment for that long-anticipated leap, if this is the drama that will forge a path for the Welsh theatre of the future. It’s certainly ambitious. Galwad will unfold in real-time on digital and broadcast platforms, streaming online across a range of digital channels throughout the week, before culminating in a live broadcast finale from Bleanau Ffestiniog. NTW have billed the production as ‘a new kind of cultural event’ and it’s easy to see why; the project features partnerships with Sky Arts and S4C and responds to the Welsh Government’s bold Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015), which put the needs of future generations at the heart of decision making in Wales. The plot will centre on sixteen-year-old Efa, a teenager from Merthyr Tydfil who claims to have swapped places with her 46 year old future self during an electrical storm. The story will be told in real time throughout the week, concluding with a one hour drama set in 2052 and broadcast on Sky Arts. Take into account that we find ourselves in a time when concerns about the climate, and the world which will exist in decades to come, are front and centre in discussion about the future and it starts to feel like the stars may be about to align.
Perhaps now really is the time for NTW to bring theatre not just to the fore of debate here in Wales, but beyond. The collaborative element is undoubtedly there, Galwad draws together a host of organisations across theatre, film and the sustainable industries in Wales, including Frân Wen, the Centre for Alternative Technology, Disability Arts Cymru, Clwstwr, Ffilm Cymru, Sugar Creative and Mad as Birds TV production company. The script will feature both the English and Welsh language, alongside British Sign Language. To be fair, there’s been plenty of time to prepare for this kind of collaboration, the fallow years during the pandemic offered breathing space for reflection on everything which needs to change within theatre and drama in Wales. It’s high time we saw cross-industry collaboration on this scale and an important opportunity for the sector to rally after two years of disruption, closures and job losses across the professions which sustain it.
The timing certainly feels significant. A few weeks back Gary Raymond called for unity and recognition across the Welsh literary scene, a platform to showcase what’s best about literature in Wales. Maybe this is the moment for theatre to take the lead and really show what it can achieve with a cast and crew of hundreds, a week of dedicated social media and online coverage and a range of live-action scenes, played out to a backdrop of breath-taking landscapes which sweep across the country. Then there is a creative executive and writing team including Kaite O’Reilly, Eric Ngalle Charles, Emily Burnett and Owen Sheers, headed up by Creative Director Claire Doherty. Over on the acting side, Alexandria Riley and Nitin Ganatra lead the cast for the drama set in 2052, while the live action set in the present day brings together rising stars such as Aisha May-Hunte, alongside stalwarts such as Rhodri Meilir. The whole production is underpinned by a music team led by composer and sound designer Dyfan Jones. It’s a mighty list; all the ingredients of something magical are there. As we approach curtain up (can you have curtain up when there is no physical curtain?) it’s in the hands of NTW to take those ingredients and really deliver.
Except it’s not in the hands of NTW, at least not entirely. Large-scale productions such as this, with significant outdoor elements are at the mercy of much more than just the volatile early-autumn weather. The success of these kind of productions relies in no small part on the engagement they generate and the audience response they inspire. There will be hiccups, of course there will, anyone who has lived through our accelerated reliance on technology over the past few years will testify to the unpredictable nature of that same technology. Yet the momentum needed to drive a project of this magnitude across an entire week requires more than just online engagement, it relies on conversations taking place both online and in person to build interest and on viewers tuning in to Sky Arts to watch both the action and the drama. More than that, it relies on audiences turning out, on people in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the communities the production moves through in Swansea and Merthyr Tydfil, being sufficiently captured by the drama taking place to want to be a part of that story. It’s a huge weight of expectation to place on the entire team, not least the young cast driving the real time action throughout the week.
No one can predict the future, even if drama can offer us a glimpse into what might lie ahead. But as we enter a week which will see, arguably, the largest production of this nature take place in Wales, there’s no better time to gaze into that crystal ball and wonder what that future might be like. Claire Doherty has spoken of how she sees Galwad as an opportunity to ‘represent the next generation of storytelling and storytellers from Wales’. Imagine if Galwad is able to fulfil that brief, imagine if the next big names in writing, acting, theatre and production in Wales are out there, watching and inspired to take part. It sounds too good to be true, too optimistic and not realistic enough; that sort of thing doesn’t happen in real life… does it? Yet the ambition is there and the stage, however sprawling and unpredictable it is, is set. Maybe, just maybe, now is the time for theatre in Wales to throw up its arms and take that dive into the unknown. Who knows? This could be the start of something.
Watch Galwad: A Story from Our Future online and on TV (Sky Arts) from 26 September – 2 October 2022. Details of how to follow the action throughout the week are available here.