John E. McGrath

Some Words on John E. McGrath

Award-winning playwright and NTW collaborator Tim Price offers some thoughts on the announcement that National Theatre Wales’ founding Artistic Director John E. McGrath is to step down at the end of the year to take the top job at the Manchester International Festival.

‘Should Wales be worried?’ was the tweet I sent to Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales, John McGrath on the day Alex Poots announced he was standing down at Manchester International Festival.  My bouts of mischief and transgression with John are often met with good humour, and sometimes even encouragement. But this time I had no reply. It’s hard to know where to begin with endings.

Like so many creative relationships in British theatre, ours started in the Traverse bar during festival time. I was an unproduced playwright and had just read about his appointment. We spoke about his new role, and my work with Dirty Protest and he quickly agreed to come and meet a group of playwrights in Cardiff to talk about his vision for his embryonic company.  On the one side there was a group of frustrated writers who had been continually let down by the sector. And the other side there was someone with the resources to ‘put on plays’.  But McGrath is the smoothest operator ever to drive the length of the M4 at midnight without lights on. He delicately absolved himself of the responsibility for our careers and took control of the narrative. Through plenty of listening, understanding and feed-backing he suggested it was time we take the responsibility for Welsh theatre, rather than waiting for someone else. He identified a great opportunity for Welsh artists, unburdened like our Irish, Scots and English cousins with a huge cannon of work bearing down on us. Now was the time to imagine what makes a play Welsh. He wanted us to ask questions not only of our characters, but also of our form. It was our responsibility as artists, he said ‘to question what theatre can be.’ At the time I smiled and nodded and thought, ‘What a load of bollocks.’ I spent all my time and effort writing new plays, lobbying for new writing, producing and supporting new writing. If he wasn’t going to put new writing on stage then I’d have to keep looking for the person who would.

After that meeting I returned to the new writing ghetto with a new determination to find my way to the stage without McGrath’s mumbo-jumbo. But the more plays I saw the more I was haunted by the realisation that almost none of them asked the question: ‘What can theatre be?’ I’d watch plays at the Royal Court and I’d find myself mumbling afterwards about writers being ‘lazy’. More and more I found myself angry, that people on #teamplaywrights, famous, successful writers just weren’t asking that question. I started to resent writers who didn’t talk to other disciplines, cultures or communities, who wrote variations of the same play over and over again, who couldn’t see beyond the traditions they were born into. What was going on with me? Until that point the only kind of playwright I wanted to be was a ‘produced one,’ but now I was being forced to reassess everything I thought I knew about theatre and everything I thought about myself as a writer. McGrath robbed me of my prejudice, the shit. With just a few strangled Scouse/New York utterances he shattered my rolling hamster-ball of comfort and made me question everything. And I’d only met him twice. This experience was repeated across Wales for both artists, audiences and the wider Welsh community for the duration of McGrath’s 7 years at NTW. Sometimes he got it wrong, and I’d be more than happy to point this out to him, and sometimes he got it extraordinarily right. But every time, he was true to his word that every piece of work was asking the question: ‘What can theatre be?’

The defining play from Vicky Featherstone’s reign at National Theatre Scotland is Black Watch, although directed by John Tiffany, Black Watch is the result of Featherstone’s vision at NTS. Although McGrath directed some great work for NTW – A Good Night Out in the Valleys, Love Steals Us From Loneliness, In Water I’m Weightless, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning and Mother Courage – it is The Passion that will define McGrath’s tenure. Whereas Black Watch captured a moment in history, it also captured a Scottish Government’s political strategy to sell the world the uniqueness of the Scottish experience, and so Black Watch is still on tour to this day.  The Passion couldn’t be more different. A one-off three day event set in Port Talbot with a returning superstar son, McGrath understood that Wales is in a different place to Scotland. We are at a stage in our history where we need to sell the uniqueness of the Welsh experience to ourselves. We are not held back by English hegemony, but by our collective low-self-esteem. There are few opportunities for English-speaking Wales to identify as Welsh. Scotland has it’s own judicial, educational and parliamentary system but Welsh identity exists in a cultural space. For socio-economic reasons millions of our English-speaking countryfolk are left on the slagheap of annual sporting occasions to access their Welsh identity. So Welshness is inaccessible for large swathes of English-speaking Welsh. We don’t cry at the anthem because of pride, we cry because it will end.

But The Passion changed all that. For a town I’ve driven over more times than visited, it brought the English-speaking Welsh experience home. And for three perfect days it was good, and unique to be from Port Talbot. Speaking as a valleys boy, this achievement cannot be underestimated. Similarly after seven years McGrath achieved the thing, no-one thought possible; he made it good to be a theatre artist from Wales. As expansive and free-wheeling as The Passion was, it is still merely a fractal of the work McGrath has done infusing artists in Wales with a confidence we didn’t know we had, shining a light on talent we hoped we had, and galvanising a community we always had.

I will forever remember John and I raising our voices to each other in Mill Lane over a difference of opinion. Time meant we couldn’t resolve it and had to leave our differences in the street. I walked away from him, and rather than re-visiting the argument, and trying to figure out what I should have said all I could think was ‘I’ve just shouted at the Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales in the street.’  And I was struck how normal that felt, and how special that normal feeling was. And as I walked alone and smiling through the streets of my home-city, I thought ‘What an absolute fucking diamond.’


photo credit: Jon Pountney