Tom Payne summarises the ongoing debates surrounding National Theatre Wales’ recent productions following John McGrath’s resignation as artistic director.
On 21 September, Wales Arts Review published a damning open letter from forty members of the Welsh theatre community (mostly playwrights) to National Theatre Wales (NTW). The letter fiercely criticises NTW for a perceived low in its production output relative to its annual Arts Council Wales’ funding of £1.5 million, and accuses the company of ‘taking pride in ridding itself of a theatrical identity and even its nationality’. The concerns expressed by the letter’s signatories, including the company’s former collaborators Gary Owen, Alan Harris and Rachel Trezise, relate to the two-year period following the appointment in early 2016 of Kully Thiarai to replace John McGrath.
The ‘final straw’, they say, was the spring production of English by the Manchester-based company Quarantine. They assert that the performance failed to acknowledge the relationship between the English and Welsh languages and therefore missed the opportunity to engage properly with the Welsh cultural experience. They claim that the hurt caused was exacerbated by the commissioning of an English company, led by an Englishman (Richard Gregory), who admits to not being able to speak Welsh, or speak of Welsh identity.
Now, while English and the playwrights’ response to it have been the cause of much discussion in mainstream and social media, it is important to recognise that this one production is not really the ground of the debate. What are actually being enlivened here are broader questions of nation, identity and ‘acceptable’ theatrical forms for engaging with those themes within the specific English language Welsh national theatre context. This is reflected in the letter’s three key demands:
- All shows produced by National Theatre Wales have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as primary artist.
- Non-Welsh and Wales based artists and companies need to be 1) world-class, and 2) engaged only to support a Welsh or Wales-based artist.
- A National Theatre Wales show has to have theatre in it.
On the face of it, these seem like sound requests that one might hope would reverse a perceived trend in programming and commissioning following the departure of founding Artistic Director John E. McGrath.
However, if we apply these demands retrospectively, a significant number of NTW’s thirteen inaugural productions (2010/11) might never have taken place. Fevered Sleep’s The Weather Factory, Thiarai’s The Soul Exchange, and the German company Rimini Protokoll’s Outdoors, all break one rule or all. And what of the immersive gaming experience The Beach, or Mundo Paralelo by Nofit State – surely that was circus, right?
What remains of McGrath’s opening season are productions led by Welsh and Wales-based artists including theatre in conventionally recognisable forms. For example, Alan Harris’ A Good Night Out in the Valleys and Gary Owen’s Love Steals Us From Loneliness, which were theatre shows, written by Welsh playwrights. But, as McGrath – the director of both of these productions – explained shortly before the company’s launch, ‘language, though important in theatre, is not only the writer’s domain’. And, accordingly, NTW’s exploration of the English language in Wales has engaged with diverse creative practices from the outset.
Just like the National Theatre of Scotland before it, NTW has sought to devolve its practices to artists across the nation’s creative sector, and this has meant wide-ranging artistic collaboration. Put in perspective, the playwright’s open letter to NTW is partially representative of a particular segmentation of the theatre industry, one that might, understandably, prefer it if all theatre aligned with its chosen form. But this isn’t just about writers, or actors, for that matter. Thiarai’s 2018 programme featured collaboration between the diverse creative teams behind the recent Tide Whisperer, and the two productions by Pearson/Brookes, and the many, many, people involved in NTW’s multi-site project NHS70. Any public discussion about the role and function of NTW needs to keep the plurality of the theatre-making experience in mind and be open to dialogue with the entire creative community in Wales, and its diverse and dispersed audiences.
In addition to diversity of creative approach, another key feature of NTW’s model is an explicit focus upon unconventional theatrical sites. Since 2010, performance locations have included an abandoned house, a military training village, a forest, village halls, a beach, as well as traditional theatre venues. Now, one has only to look at recent historical traditions in Wales, to know that this kind of emphasis on site-specificity is not new, nor something borrowed from the National Theatre of Scotland, whose similarly innovative, site-specific and artistically diverse model of national theatre precedes NTW’s by several years. It is actually rooted in the great Welsh theatre traditions of the 1970s and 80s.
Long before the Welsh devolution referendum in 1997, and the fostering of political circumstances that made NTW possible, companies like Cardiff Laboratory Theatre and Brith Gof were exploring alternative theatrical sites and new theatre forms, and through them, contesting and constructing identities in Wales. NTW’s rejection of a fixed home in a theatre venue in the nation’s capital, and its mobilisation of these dispersed practices, has enabled it to avoid conforming to a tired 19thcentury model of national theatre that is concerned with reflecting back to the people a uniform sense of national identity; one that is defined as much by who it excludes as who it includes.
Another feature of the work of those early Welsh artists, and of others, like Volcano Theatre Company, was that they recognised the value of international exchange and embraced other art disciplines. History shows us that the groundbreaking Welsh experimental theatre practices of that period were ever evolving culturally hybrid forms that came about through active dialogue with other European and American artists, including Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, Eugenio Barba, The Living Theatre and The Performance Group. The generation that followed – Eddie Ladd, Mark Rees and Sean Tuan John, among a number of others – have all recognised the value of this internationalism.
In 2009, McGrath publically celebrated this culturally diverse interdisciplinary approach, noting that it is a distinct feature of Welsh theatre, one that had for many years set it apart from English theatre. He also rightly recognised that the ‘national’ only exists as a concept in relation to the ‘international – the only frame, in fact, in which we can begin to see the national clearly’. NTW has reflected this from the very beginning. It often commissions artists from other disciplines, and employs emerging Welsh talent alongside major international artists and organisations. And, as it did with previous generations, this international approach promises to enrich the practices of emerging Welsh and Wales-based theatre makers. It does not undermine Welsh theatre, rather, in combination with NTW’s highly successful artist development programmes, it strengthens the sector, and builds the capacity of the wider cultural industries of which theatre is an integral part.
Since its launch in 2010, NTW’s model of national theatre has emphasised creative diversity, unusual theatrical locations, and has been actively international. The function of this approach is that the company’s productions act collectively and individually to decentralise and destabilise the very notion of Welsh national identity. The emphasis has been redirected away from the exclusive and divisive question of what it means to be Welsh, towards a more inclusive questioning of what it means to live, work and create in Wales in the second decade of the 21st Century.
NTW has openly tried to avoid supporting any fixed and stable version of Welsh national identity, particularly one tied to language. In 2009, McGrath called such notions of national identity a ‘statue’, and proposed a collaborative questioning of place as an alternative way of exploring nation, language and history in Wales. Because, as he so eloquently put it, “everyone knows what happens to such statues; they are overshadowed by the pigeons of daily life, perching on their heads and shitting on their dignity. Theatre is better at the pigeon’s role than the stonemason’s; there’s no drama in a worthy ideal”.
This logic drives what I identify as an emphatically relational national theatre that has never been concerned with speaking of and about an essentialist notion of Welsh identity, quite the opposite. Instead, through its productions and making processes, NTW has emphasised, explored and fostered diverse and unlikely relationships, person to person, and person to place; locally, nationally and globally. Through wide ranging collaboration across Wales, NTW has created a platform for myriad dispersed and inclusive conversations about nation at local levels. Conversations that include those who have a more fragile relationship to any sense of national identity determined by the country of their birth or how well they speak either language.
It has been important to carefully question the letter and its demands by locating the desires of the signatories in relation to the company’s model of national theatre, and the wider historical Welsh theatrical context within which it is situated. At the same time, NTW is a relational national theatre and its existence is dependent upon its relationships with all artists and audiences who feel a connection to it and to Wales. Therefore, engaging in dialogue with the playwrights and attempting to address their concerns is a critical part of moving forward.
The first such conversation following the publication of the open letter took place recently, on 6 October, at NTWs headquarters in Cardiff. The parties involved have since released a joint statement as follows:
We met on Saturday for what was an honest, brave and complex conversation – the first of what we hope will be an ongoing and constructive dialogue.
However, as Thiarai’s subsequent online response makes clear, the company understands that there are ‘as many versions of what NTW is or should be, as there are artists and audiences in Wales’. Therefore, other voices and contradictory perspectives need to be acknowledged and actively sought in order to bring balance to the discussion. NTW’s model of national theatre is intricate, and responding to the letter’s demands with out giving attention to its complexity could have a significant cost.
The first thing that might be lost is the international exchange and the related cultural enrichment that has been a feature of NTW’s project since the start and a distinct characteristic of Welsh theatre for decades. It’s hard to imagine world-class international artists like Rimini Protokoll or Robert Wilson coming to Wales in supporting roles. And to reject the international in the way proposed would be for Welsh theatre to turn inwards at the very moment, when politically, it ought to be championing diversity and helping to build vital relationships beyond the nation’s borders.
Dr. Tom Payne is a Lecturer in Performance Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Sheffield Hallam University. He is also the Co-Director of UK/Australian performance company Doppelgangster. His PhD thesis is entitled ‘Locating National Theatre Wales: A Practice Based Enquiry into the Theatre Map of Wales and Practices of Location’ (2015).
Photograph courtesy of Simon Banham of Quarantine and Aberystwyth University.
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