Wales Arts Review Mentor Scheme: End of Term Report

Wales Arts Review mentor scheme participant Sian Williams meets stand-up comedian and author Sandi Toksvig backstage after a performance at St. David's Hal
Wales Arts Review mentor scheme participant
Sian Williams meets stand-up comedian and author Sandi Toksvig backstage after a performance at St. David’s Hall

Since its founding in March 2012, the Wales Arts Review has had at the heart of its mission statement a long standing commitment to developing the art of criticism. In addition to finding new and interesting critical voices in the Welsh arts community, we believed it was also necessary to develop young writers so that they can perform the vital role of a critic. We acknowledge here, the pioneering work of Guy O’Donnell in this area, as we have been proud to publish reviews by Elin Williams (who now sits on our Board) and Chelsey Gillard, who both emerged from his Young Critics scheme in Bridgend. Last November, we began the Wales Arts Review Mentoring project, with the support of a grant from Arts Council Wales. This project involved eleven undergraduates and recent graduates from the University of South Wales, who attended a range of arts events and critical writing workshops across South East Wales.

Below we present several examples of reviews written by the participants of our Mentoring project. We feel that these reviews represent a substantial achievement by our mentees who have shown an impressive level of commitment to and engagement with the arts. It could never be a practical aim of our Mentoring project, given its five month timeframe, to produce fully-formed critics with expertly crafted writing styles, but we do see in the work below evidence that we have found writers who have developed their powers of observation and discovered how to render the immediacy and excitement of live performance and cultural interaction.

Our Mentoring project would not have been possible without the support of many arts centres and companies across South Wales. Tickets were generously provided to our participants from the following organisations: St. David’s Hall, Welsh National Opera, Sherman Theatre Cymru and National Theatre Wales. Review copies of books by Welsh writers were kindly provided by Parthian Books. A particular thanks must go to the Riverfront Theatre Newport who gave our mentees the opportunity to see performances by Ballet Cymru, Theatr Clwyd and Theatr Pena. The University of South Wales should also be recognised for making available their classrooms for our workshops. The generous support of all these organisations reflects a widespread commitment across Wales to reach younger audiences and to foster critical dialogues.

It was exciting for the members of our editorial team to accompany our mentees to shows that ranged from movie musicals to William Shakespeare. A particular highlight was the performance of Wagner and Berlioz at St. David’s Hall by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra. Yet we have chosen to publish reviews that showcase our novice critics’ writing about aspects of culture that matter most to them; gaming, multi-media gigs and pop culture conventions. Their voices are fresh, articulate and enthusiastic. The 2014 Mentoring participants were: Tracy Heaven, Tom Burd, Gemma Underhill, Chloe James, Sian Williams, Jodene Jenkinson, Jordan Jones, Gabrielle Tanner, Isabel Nicholls, Eirinistefania Mitrou and Kimi Tustin. Our congratulations to them all.

The King Comes to Cardiff: Elvis Presley on Stage
Venue: Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff, 16th May 2014

Reviewed by Tracy Heaven

Thirty-six years after his death, Elvis returns to the stage to mark the anniversary of his first recording session, which led to him becoming the biggest rock n roll sensation in the world. For the first time (for most), fans were able to experience what it would have been like to be present at one of the King’s legendary concerts in Las Vegas.

The atmosphere in Cardiff Motorpoint Arena was a mixture of tense anticipation and nervous excitement. The audience was an eclectic mix of fans ranging from teenagers to original die-hards of his time. There were men, young and old, walking around wearing white jumpsuits and black wigs, couples, families and just-made friends, all united in the love of this great man and the uncertainty of what was about to happen.

As with any tribute-style performance, the main concern was that it was going to be a shambles, a let-down that dishonoured the memory of the original. As the lights went down, there was a collective intake of breath as the announcement was made, that Elvis would be ‘live’ once again.

Lights flashed and drums beat. The opening chords of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ began to play. Presley’s face appeared on a large screen in front of us. The music got louder. Heads tilted and necks craned for a better view. The lighting and music reached a climax at the same time as Elvis re-appeared and stopped to look up at the audience, with a glint in his eye and a curl in his lip and with a quick shake of the hips he began a rendition of ‘Hound Dog’. Screams and cheers began to fill the air.

Elvis was there, thanks to state-of-the-art video screens and the latest technology. Only he wasn’t. I could see his lips moving and the words he sang hit my eardrums, but I was completely aware that he wasn’t really present.  It was a confusion for the senses and I wondered if this was because I wasn’t suspending my belief enough to be able to fully enjoy the show.

Three songs in and all my scepticism had disappeared. Fans started whooping, the atmosphere was electric, emotions were running high and Elvis was definitely in the building. The combination of Presley’s phenomenal screen presence and the audience’s willingness to believe that he was among us, was explosive; the more excited those surrounding me became, the more Elvis seemed alive.

The striking use of lighting and stage design, combined with the on-stage performers working in tandem with the vocals from the video, helped to create the feeling of ‘being there’. Video technology, a live band with backing-singers and full orchestra, all collaborated in the illusion that this was real; it worked.

The concert footage for the show came primarily from his MGM concert film Elvis, That’s The Way It Is, and also clips from his famous 68 Comeback Special. He sang numbers featured in his greatest hits albums, including: ‘That’s Alright Mama’, ‘All Shook Up’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, and a personal favourite of mine, ‘In the Ghetto’. By the end of the first act the audience was in full-swing; feeling we had been transported back to the Sixties.

At the culmination of the second act the audience could feel the show was coming to an end; people appeared restless, something was missing. My Mum turned to me and said, ‘I do hope he’s going to sing American Trilogy.’ After an emotional beyond-the grave duet with his daughter Lisa Marie, the performance appeared to have come to an end. Then the lights dimmed and the screen went black.

Elvis reappeared and the opening chords of ‘American Trilogy’ filled the arena. The audience erupted. A firm favourite for all Presley fans, American Trilogy unites three nineteenth century American Folk songs: ‘Dixie’, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and ‘All My Trials’. I couldn’t help but feel that at this moment that we, as an audience, were all uniting as one to share our love. As we stood in ovation, to say goodbye to the King one last time, there were tears of joy, sadness, admiration and awe as Elvis and the band brought down the house with a show stopping finale. As the lights came up I felt spiritually elated and emotionally drained, and as I looked around me, the look on the audiences’ faces said it all – thank you for the memories.

Videogame: The Walking Dead
Released by Telltale Games in 2012

Reviewed by Tom Burd

When was the last time you felt responsible for a person’s death? When was the last time you questioned your own humanity?

The Walking Dead is a point-and-click survival horror videogame that breaks with the mind-numbing, gun-toting tradition of recent Zombie-based media, which seems only to splatter gore all over the screen. It is a game whereby the player can interact with the narrative however he/she chooses. The player directs the story and isn’t just dragged along by the moving tide of the plot. The Walking Dead focuses on you the player – you’re the person controlling the game. You decide just how far you are willing to go to survive, or protect those you love.

Telltale Games have adapted the game from the eponymous long-running series of graphic novels and the subsequent hit television series. As a game, The Walking Dead had a lot to live up to. If you go in just for the thrill of taking a shotgun to a line of the undead then you’re going to be disappointed, and wholly unprepared for the moral quandaries that will assault you. This is not a game for people who want to switch their brains off and commit mass genocide on the living-impaired, it is for those who love stories about the human condition, and who wish to see what they are really made of.

The Walking Dead novels and television show focused on the dangers faced by desperate people, insane people, people that have gone beyond the brink; and the game captures this perfectly. All characters have a breaking point in this game, even the kindly and compassionate ones, those who welcome you with open arms and free food. It is said that there are three things all wise men fear: the sea in a storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man. The Walking Dead can well and truly show you why you fear the latter. By far the best part, and the worst part, is when you find yourself succumbing to this anger yourself.

Some interactions for each player appear minimal, even trivial – a little nudge there or a poke at a fellow character’s narrative. The consequences of these seemingly small actions, however, vastly outweigh their initial significance. The game refuses to show the player if their choices are ‘good’, ‘neutral’ or ‘evil’, creating an atmosphere of ambiguity and doubt. Sometimes kind words cause violence, and shouting a person down has worked for me more times than I am proud of. The game loves to hold up a mirror to real life.

One serious flaw with the game is that however much you might influence, as a player, the game’s protagonist, the plot can only take you down a limited number of pathways. If people are meant to die, they will wind up dead, your ‘decisions’ simply decide at what point this happens in the game. No matter how many times you play The Walking Dead it begins and ends at the same stage, so the extent of player choice and influence is narrow, and might disappoint.

The Walking Dead holds its players in a grip – a much softer grip than most, but there are still restraints. It is, though, a wonderful and exciting step in the right direction. Videogames are developing into a new art-form, and are now doing things that no other form will allow, and if The Walking Dead is any indicator of how involved a player can become in the game, then the future of the form is looking bright. Or perhaps, more appropriately, many shades of grey.

The Circus of Horrors, London after Midnight Tour.
Riverfront Theatre, Newport, 6th February 2014

Reviewed by: Gemma Underhill

Circus of Horrors are celebrating ‘18 Bloody Years’ in style with a tour across the UK, and they recently found themselves in the Riverfront Theatre, Newport. Their spellbinding combination of the fantastical and the freakish left me speechless.

The jaw dropping spectacle sent me on a rollercoaster of emotions including amazement, suspense, shock, horror and at times confusion. This is clearly intentional in a show which warns its audience from the onset to expect violence, nudity and blood splattering entertainment, clearly stating what you can do if you don’t like it, and boy did they deliver!

The actual story of London after Midnight vanished behind the sword swallowing and dwarf flashing. Whether due to technical issues or the shows actual preference the microphones were set to a volume so ear shatteringly loud that all the performers’ lines seemed to blur together.

The disturbing talent on display fused intrigue and revulsion, acrobats, sword eaters and a disjointed man; the show is worth seeing for his dislocations alone. As I was sitting in the theatre filled with dreadful delight I understood why people used to sit around the guillotine, to witness a sickening execution.

There can be no doubt about the bloody brilliance of the show and if you are searching for a night of jaw dropping freakish acts which are fit for your nightmares, then The Circus of Horrors will serve you well. Yes, there are moments of indecipherably horrendous plot and overcrowding on stage but for many, like me, that didn’t matter, the death defying acts and audience interaction created a thrilling atmosphere of gross excitement. In a flash of a flying flaming dagger all is forgiven.

The Circus of Horrors is definitely not for the faint hearted, and certainly not one for the kids. You might love it or hate it, but  I certainly recommend it. So go right ahead, step into the horror and exorcise your demons.

Cardiff Film & Comic Con
Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff, March 1st & 2nd 2014

Reviewed by Jordan Jones

Batman, Spiderman, Sub Zero and Harley Quinn all in one place can only mean one thing, Comic Con has landed and taken over the city. Comic Con is a pop culture nirvana where people with interests in science fiction and fantasy can buy items of limited edition merchandise, attend Q & A sessions, meet their favourite celebrities and authors, and show off their skills in the gaming zones.

So what is comic con like? Picture crowds of people all kitted out in ‘cosplay’ (which involves dressing up as your favourite characters) – everywhere you look there is a version of the Doctor, a superhero, a wizard, or storm-trooper. The crowd bustles in several directions through the aisles of merchandise so it is really hard to see where you are going, but through them you glimpse the Iron Throne (which was at the entrance), the 1966 Batmobile, Indiana Jones’s whip and your favourite celebrities who are superstars of this genre. It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking meeting your favourite stars,  it’s fun, it’s butterflies in your stomach and it’s very, very warm (due to the numbers of people there) and at times it can be claustrophobic.

Comic Con is a festival of pop culture that enhances a fan’s experience of comics, television shows, films and novels. It does this for a fee, which is usually anything from £10 to £30, but you do get to meet people like Eve Myles (Torchwood), David Warner (Titanic, The Omen), John Rhys Davies (The Lord of the Rings), Hannah Spearritt (Primeval, S-Club 7) and many more. There are two ways you get to physically meet the stars, which are photographs and autographs. Photographs tend to be more impersonal as it’s very quick, you walk over to the celebrity who may say a few words, the picture is taken and that’s it you have to move on. However on rare occasions some celebrities will strike a pose that you want and this makes the photo shoot a bit more fun and personal. At the end of the autograph line you usually have a bit more time with the star, most will hold a conversation with you and are happy for you to take their pictures.

At Comic Con you also have the opportunity to attend FREE Q & A sessions, which are about thirty minutes to an hour. At these sessions you get ‘on set’ anecdotes and hear about how a certain actor felt about working with his/her cast mates and crew-members, their favourite moments/ episodes/ scenes, etc. It’s like sitting in on a special DVD feature or being at an informal press conference where you get to ask the questions.

At every Comic Con there are opportunities for you to buy specialized merchandise that you wouldn’t be able to buy from an ordinary high street store, such as a Hattori Hanzo Kill Bill ‘Bride’s Sword’, a statue of a Gremlin, rare comic books etc. Comic Con is big business where fans can can spend hundreds of pounds each over a weekend.

Comic Con offers escapism at a price, but it’s somewhere ‘normal’ fantasy and sci-fi fans can meet their heroes in the flesh, or become heroes or villains for only a day. It’s a place where nerds and geeks are cool because everyone who is there shares the same interests. More importantly, it is a place where you can have fun.

The next Cardiff Film and Comic Con will be taking place on the 8th and 9th November 2014 at the Motorpoint Arena and features guests Noel Clark (Doctor Who, Adulthood), Jeremy Bulloch (Star Wars), Bonnie Langford (Doctor Who) and Louise Jameson (Doctor Who).

Videogame: Bioshock Infinite
Released by Telltale Games 2013

Reviewed by Gabrielle Tanner

Videogames have been seen by critics as time-wasters that inspire copycat violence or encourage laziness. They are accused of teaching nothing, except that gorgeously buff avatars have perfect morals and that they will kill you if you disagree.

These critics have not played Bioshock Infinite. It is a game that had me lost in thought long after the credits had rolled. It’s the third game in the Bioshock series, which received several nominations at the 2014 Game BAFTA awards. The game deals with a variety of themes including religion, race, war and politics, yet it never pushes ideas down its players’ throats, allowing them instead to reach their own conclusions.

Set in the 1900s, the player controls game protagonist Booker DeWitt, who must locate and hand over a character named Elizabeth in order to wipe away his debts. This search involves navigating your way through Columbia, a city in the sky that has the appearance of a gravity-defying Venice. The aesthetics of the game’s graphics alone make it worth playing due to the magic realism of a city kept afloat by blimps, and the many and varied people that you can interact with.

As a player you eavesdrop on conversations between locals, read posters, and hear a lot about Comstock, the city’s resident saviour and prophet. Elizabeth is his daughter who has been shut away to prepare her for her future role in saving the city. This is where the gameplay becomes complicated, as the people and prophet are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect Elizabeth from the False Shepherd, Booker, who will only lead her astray. It is a testament to the story that I found myself rushing through the gameplay elements, in order to find out what was going to happen next.

It’s the characters of Bioshock Infinite who make it so memorable. Elizabeth has never been outside her tower before, and soon after Booker helps her escape, she dances with some of the local people, with eyes full of wonder and excitement. Elizabeth has been created with precise detail, including facial expressions, and reacts to things within the story that seem very real and life-like. When she finds out that Booker is killing people, she runs away from him in fear. Her body language, such as folded arms or slumped shoulders indicates that she is upset. It was so refreshing to feel emotion for the character in a game, to feel bad about what you’ve done (as the protagonist Booker) when she’s annoyed.

Characters are not only impressive in terms of visual representation, they also possess complex backstories. Booker has made many bad choices that have formed the man he has become. Unfortunately, describing these choices would spoil the narrative especially as, when you play the game, you adopt Booker’s point of view. Presenting decisions from the eyes of the character allows you to empathise with the most painful of choices. Even Comstock, the villain of the game, has understandable and relatable reasons for his actions. The story captures how no person is entirely good or bad but does what they think is right. I realised that, if I had been in those characters’ shoes, I might have done the exact same things myself.

The game format allows for an interaction with characters and involvement with a story that cannot be achieved within other media or story forms. Perhaps this is the future of entertainment and one day we will not go to the cinema to watch characters on a two-dimensional screen but enter the 3D story worlds where we can play out the lives of our avatars. In Bioshock Infinite you are Booker DeWitt, experiencing his past and killing your (his) enemies. You are Elizabeth’s companion, sharing her choices and taking them with her. You are committed to the story as if it was your own.

The Wales Arts Review wishes to express its particular thanks for the financial support of this project received from the Arts Council of Wales.