To the Wales Millennium Centre last week for the unmissable National Theatre Wales (NTW) production The Soul Exchange. We were bundled into a fleet of taxis six at a time and driven around Butetown, passing various ghostly tableaux enacted on the streets while the story of a son’s search for his roots, personified by his lost father ‘Tiger’, unfolded on the car radio. The journey culminated at the Coal Exchange for old Tiger’s wake. There in the oak-panelled Exchange Hall the cast mixed freely with the audience, blurring the line between performer and spectator to the point that the difference became incidental. Eulogy, song, polemic and dance combined with video and scraps of ephemera to concoct a total experience. There was no “end” as such: a reggae band played, the bar opened and when we were ready we drifted off into the night. Director Kully Thiarai and writer Anthony Brito had pulled off the seemingly impossible and somehow or other summoned up the lost world of Tiger Bay, a remarkable achievement that will resonate for a long time to come.
This is NTW’s 10th production since it was founded last year, when at last Wales ceased being the only country in Europe without such an essential, bread-and-butter institution (and without devolution we would still be waiting). Under the overall direction of Mold-born John McGrath (who I noticed overseeing the complex logistics with calm vigilance at the Oval Basin) three guiding principles have informed the company’s productions: community engagement, artistic experimentation and geographical spread. On all three counts The Soul Exchange succeeded and, along with Marc Rees’s For Mountain, Sand and Sea in Barmouth, Gary Owen’s Love Steals Us from Loneliness in Bridgend and Aeschylus’s The Persians in the Brecon Beacons, it ranks as a moving highlight of NTW’s most encouraging first year. Wales has consistently produced writers, actors, directors and designers aplenty, but always lacked the resources, facilities, critical forums and basic powers to give them a voice. The buried Welsh tradition of performance, stretching back to the first eisteddfod of 1176, and indeed the whole vast imaginative potential of theatre, had been reduced in the capital city to the New Theatre’s never-ending diet of country-house murder mysteries and ‘life-affirming’ romantic comedies – familiar, coercive, undemanding fare, usually featuring some as-seen-on-TV face so as not to frighten the horses. But the coming of the Welsh Assembly, the bringing of the Arts Council of Wales under democratic control, the superb facilities of the Wales Millennium Centre and now the long-awaited birth of National Theatres (Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, based in Carmarthen, operates in the Welsh language) have begun to galvanise a scene that is starting to truly reflect the culture in which we live. Future NTW productions should not be missed: see http://nationaltheatrewales.org for details.