The 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) in Cardiff Bay gives me a reason to tackle a topic I’ve not yet properly covered on this blog: theatre in Wales. Break a leg…
When the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, forerunner of today’s Arts Council of Wales (ACW), was set up in 1946, there was barely any such thing as Welsh theatre. The ancient Welsh tendency to want to act out in public had long been crushed by the aggregated weight of colonialism, Methodism, industrialisation and Britification. In Cardiff, for instance, the New Theatre, with its safe schedule of country-house murder mysteries and light comedies, was the solitary operating outlet for the art form’s vast imaginative potential. Television would soon deal further body blows to live theatre in the city, forcing Cardiff Council to intervene in 1963 to save the New Theatre from actual closure and demolition; Swansea Council had to do the same in 1968 with the Grand Theatre. This was symptomatic of what was happening across Wales, even though Wales was consistently producing writers, actors, directors and designers aplenty. There just weren’t the facilities, resources, critical forums or basic powers to give Welsh theatre a platform.
The ACW developed as one of the arch-quangos of pre-devolution Wales, a meal-ticket for a small clique of self-selected establishment worthies, sprinkling droplets of largesse from the meanest theatre subsidy in Europe. Top-down attempts to kick-start an infrastructure like the Welsh Theatre Company in Cardiff, and its Welsh-language equivalent Cwmni Theatr Cymru, based in Caernarfon, came to naught – both had folded by the 1980s due to the old handicap: lack of money. But all was not lost: the eisteddfod, chapel and am-dram traditions of Wales, the creation of Welsh radio and TV stations, a new emphasis on drama in education, the extension of Welsh-medium schooling and the development of serious drama studies at universities and colleges began to produce an unstoppable groundswell from below.
The founding of what became the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama was pivotal. Under Head of Drama Raymond Edwards (1919-1999), a collier’s son from Rhosllannerchrugog in Clwyd who tirelessly championed a buried Welsh performance inheritance stretching back to the first eisteddfod of 1176, the College in the Castle gradually became a seed-bed for talent. The opening of Chapter in 1971 and the Sherman in 1973 then brought extra theatres to the capital as well as the experimentation, diversity and counter-cultural heft that had previously been absent. More and more theatre companies were born as the realisation dawned that you didn’t have to sashay off to Shaftesbury Avenue to earn a living, and Wales began to accumulate a theatre infrastructure at last; most notably Theatr Clwyd in Mold (1976), Torch in Milford Haven (1977), Tabernacl in Machynlleth (1986) and Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon (1997). Next, the coming of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 brought the ACW under some sort of democratic control, enabled the construction of the WMC’s superb facilities and delivered the long-awaited authentic National Theatres in both languages. At last the task of truly reflecting the lives of the people of Wales could begin.
The formation of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (TGC) in 2003 and then National Theatre Wales (NTW) in 2009 filled two giant gaps in Wales’ evolving panoply of essential national institutions. TGC is administered from Carmarthen, NTW from Cardiff, but both are light-footed, ‘no fixed abode’ touring and co-producing companies and so avoid the Cardiff-centricity that can rile the rest of Wales. TGC found its feet quickly under artistic director Cefin Roberts, open-mindedly absorbing outside influences to forge a distinctive Welsh-language theatre, and this approach has continued under new director Arwel Gruffydd. Deffro’r Gwanwyn, a Welsh adaptation of the Broadway musical derived from Frank Wedekind’s (1864-1918) theatre landmark Spring Awakening, and Llwyth, the raucous story of four gay men’s night out in Cardiff by Dafydd James, have been notable recent successes with audiences and critics.
Meanwhile, NTW’s first four seasons have been an unequivocal triumph under artistic director John McGrath, full of the unexpected and the unorthodox, compelling evidence of the transformative power of theatre. Highlights so far include: A Good Night Out In The Valleys by Alan Harris – ignored people’s real stories dramatised in workingmen’s halls; For Mountain, Sand & Sea by Marc Rees – performance artists doing strange things all around Barmouth; The Persians – Mike Pearson-directed version of Aeschylus in the MOD’s commandeered Brecon Beacons military range; The Soul Exchange – time-travelling taxi rides through Tiger Bay; Passion by Owen Sheers – Michael Sheen as Christ over three days with Port Talbot as cast, crew and set; The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Tim Price – the journey of a Haverfordwest teenager to a US court martial; Coriolan/us – Shakespeare retold by Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes in a disused St Athan aircraft hangar; Tonypandemonium, a chaotic slice of contemporary Rhondda life by Rachel Trezise at the Park & Dare Treorci; and Mametz, Owen Sheers’ evocation of the WW1 battle in an Usk forest. Amongst many other proactive projects NTW also runs ‘WalesLab’, an open laboratory for new talent and ideas and in 2012 established the £10,000 Wales Drama Award for writers. That reminds me: now I’ve got that bloody book out I must get back to my ironic reimagining of The Mousetrap set in a Gabalfa tower block (the detective is murdered).
Interval. Getting bored? Well stretch your legs, have a gin & tonic in the foyer and pass the time with this unofficial potted guide to theatre in Cardiff.
Cardiff’s first recorded theatre dates back to the 1790s: an ad-hoc space in a loft above the Bonded Stores on the Town Quay, then overlooking the Taff’s tidal harbour, now the Quay Street/Westgate Street junction. The first purpose-built theatre was the Theatre Royal, erected in 1826 on Queen Street, then called Crockherbtown. The Theatre Royal opened with a performance of Macbeth, thus setting a pattern for organised theatre in Cardiff – predictable and unrelated to local reality – that would only be shaken off in modern times. The Theatre Royal was destroyed by fire in 1877 (the Parc Hotel occupies the site now) and replaced by a new Theatre Royal in Wood Street the following year, its mock-gothic façade underlining the High Art pretensions of the Victorian stage. Just round the corner in St Mary Street the 1876 Philharmonic Hall’s mix of theatre, music-hall and novelties couldn’t compete and it converted into a cinema in 1917 (the building remains, currently empty). In 1887 two more theatres opened: the Grand in Westgate Street and the Empire in Queen Street, but neither were successful. The Theatre Royal was unassailable amongst the aspiring middle-classes and there just wasn’t the audience to go round. The Grand became the Hippodrome, had a period as a cinema and survives to this day as the Gatekeeper pub; the Empire concentrated on music-hall and, rebuilt following a fire, also became a cinema before ultimate demolition in 1962. In 1900 the Theatre Royal added another frontage on the St Mary Street side and became The Playhouse. It remained Cardiff’s prestige venue through another change of name to Prince of Wales in 1927, but was eventually outflanked by the New Theatre and undone by the rise of cinema and then TV, converting into a cinema in 1961 and a pub in 1999.
Today, in a Wales confident in its own skin, Cardiff has more theatres than ever before in its history. In alphabetical order, they are as follows:
Chapter has been midwife to so much of Cardiff’s cultural output for over 40 years that it is impossible to overstate its importance, whether as venue, workshop, commissioner or inspiration. The 1907 Canton High School building in Market Road, badly bombed in WW2 then vacated when the school moved to Fairwater in 1963, underwent a £3.8 million refurbishment by Ash Sakula Architects in 2009, giving Chapter the top-class facilities it deserves. The main theatre, in the old school hall, has increased capacity to 200 and there are two small studio theatres seating 100. Under director Andy Eagle, who replaced long-serving Janek Alexander in 2011, Chapter’s multidisciplinary, leftfield approach remains true to the prime mission of its hippy founders: originality. Audience-stretching plays take place throughout the year and the annual Experimentica festival is a must-see boundary-blurring showcase for Welsh performance innovators.
Opened in 1906, the New Theatre is the place to go for mainstream shows touring the UK, an undemanding menu of familiar fare, usually starring some as-seen-on-TV “name”. Since 1986 the New has come under the complete control of Cardiff Council, meaning that, although run as a commercial operation, it is part of theatre’s subsidised sector. The traditional 1100-seater, with its dress circles and orchestra pits, is Cardiff’s little slice of London’s West End in Park Place, where all the A-list dahlings have trod the boards over the years, from Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) to, er, John Barrowman. Like so many Cardiff institutions, the New Theatre has gradually accepted the fact that it is located in Wales, a process that began when it became home of Welsh National Opera in 1954, to the point where Welsh productions are now regularly staged here.
Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama
Established in 1949 as Cardiff College of Music, based in a couple of rooms within the Castle, Wales’ national conservatoire added the ‘Drama’ in 1952, the ‘Welsh’ in 1970 and moved to purpose-built premises on North Road in 1975. In 1998 it expanded into William Burges’ (1827-1881) picturesque 1875 Castle Mews nearby and in 2002 that fawning ‘Royal’ tag was bestowed. Then in 2011 the unimpressive 70s block emerged from a striking £22.5 million makeover by BFLS architects of London with spanking new facilities, including the 160-seat Richard Burton Theatre and a 450-seat chamber recital hall named in honour of Tredegar music teacher Dora Stoutzker (1897-1968). Burton (see below) needs no introduction, his precision-engineered, gravelly Welsh accent the epitome of the stage ac-tor’s florid enunciation. In addition there are four new drama rehearsal studios, an exhibition gallery and the Castle Mews stables have been refurbished as the Anthony Hopkins Centre. During term times the drama students perform a variety of productions, in both Welsh and English, at the Burton Theatre and the pre-existing Bute Theatre (seats 100) and Caird Studio (seats 60). Tickets are cheap and the youthful exuberance and optimism of the actors is contagious. They dream of joining the RWCMD’s lengthening roll-call of glittering alumni (Hopkins, a student here from 1955-1957, being the most famed). Bring on tomorrow – even if tomorrow will mainly consist of long periods “between jobs.”
Harry Sherman (1887-1961) from Gloucester Street, Riverside, is commemorated in the name of this vital commissioning and producing theatre in Senghennydd Road, which has been championing and developing Welsh writers and performers since 1973. Harry made millions after founding Shermans Pools in 1935 and wanted to give something enduring back: his charitable foundation put up the funds for what was initially Cardiff University’s theatre. (Shermans Pools was a big Cardiff employer in the old Western Mail building on St Mary Street, and later at Curran Road, until taken over by Littlewoods in 1961, moved to Tyndall Street and closed for good in 1994). The Sherman built a reputation for originality and educational work under artistic director Phil Clark before amalgamating in 2007 with Sgript Cymru, a writing company based at Chapter, to form Sherman Cymru as part of the Assembly government’s policy of creating a few, well-funded national performing arts companies rather than scattering insufficient grants around many local groups and pleasing nobody. With Chris Ricketts directing operations, the Sherman Cymru era began promisingly in 2008 with productions like Deep Cut, a meaty play by Phillip Ralph about the unexplained killing of four soldiers at a British military barracks, and Angen:Broken by Gary Owen, a bleakly comic bilingual depiction of depression. After a £6.5 million modernisation in 2010/11, a clever reinvigoration of the tired concrete building and the 500-seat main theatre by WMC architect Jonathan Adams, Sherman Cymru has gone from strength to strength, already delivering stand out Welsh productions Sgint by Bethan Marlow, For Once by Tim Price and Muscle by Greg Cullen. The theatre is also home to youth and community theatre companies, a young writers group and the ‘RAW’ writers programme.
A community arts centre in Keppoch Street, Roath, opened in 2004 with noble missions to make the arts accessible and harness local skills. One of the co-founders, Rob Lacey (1962-2006), had made a name for himself among US evangelicals with his condensed ‘hip’ version of the Bible, The Word on the Street, before dying of bladder cancer. The trustees behind this venture maintain that “Christian ethos” – but don’t hold it against them; there is an atmosphere of gentle intelligence here all too rare in Cardiff. In the 350-seat Grand Theatre, constructed at the top of the converted Presbyterian Church, there is a regular programme of interesting new plays, performed by both amateur and professional local companies.
Wales Millennium Centre
The WMC has two main theatrical performance spaces, the Donald Gordon Theatre, seating 1,900, and the Weston Studio, seating 200. South African property tycoon Gordon gave £20 million out of a fortune he made during the apartheid era to get his name up in lights, and the Weston family, who made their money from food manufacturing in Canada, mopped up the remaining naming-rights with a piffling half million. And here we have the WMC’s problem: all the trumpeted cultural credentials are fatally compromised by having to cosy up to the big businesses which pay the piper and ultimately call the tune. For instance, part of the Weston empire is Primark, sellers of dirt-cheap clothes made in Asian sweat-shops; so don’t expect any hard-hitting productions examining that issue. As one strolls through the concourse, groaning with corporate logos, expensive restaurants and stores selling upmarket tat, it is hard to escape the feeling that this is no cultural hub, this is a shopping mall. Considering David Rowe-Beddoe was founding chairman and remains driving force of the WMC, we should hardly be surprised. I feel a mini-rant coming on; am I allowed to have an innocuous dig at Baron Rowe-Beddoe? The Lord of Welsh Quangos from York Street in Canton has been a consistent advocate of the primacy of wealth and the corporatisation of public life ever since being appointed head of the old Welsh Development Agency by the Tories in the 1990s. For him the WMC was about the “creative industries,” a dispiriting, oxymoronic formulation that says it all. There! It’s out of my system and Dave and I are still mates. Mind you, for all this business-model emphasis, the WMC has still struggled to be a viable going concern. Already the Assembly government had to intervene in 2007 with a £13.5 million bail-out to clear mounting debts and a trebling of the annual subsidy to £3.7 million. Given that this came after just three years of operation during which there was a leisure-spending boom and all audience targets were met, it is clear that the WMC as hitherto conceived is unsustainable in the long term. Can scarce Welsh resources keep subsidising productions of Oklahoma! when the people are queuing up at food banks? There’s no denying the magnificence of the building and its auditoriums, designed for the big-budget blockbusters, operas, ballets and musicals which are apparently obligatory if a city is to proclaim itself “world class”, and local theatre is given due recognition in the work of resident company Hijinx, but the blend of statist noblesse oblige and fat-cat swaggering can feel both condescending and excluding. Had the money been spent on, say, giving £5000 each to the 10,000 residents of dirt-poor Butetown a few hundred metres away, the artistic outcomes delivered so far might well have been more interesting. As the monumental inscriptions of Gwyneth Lewis’s poetry look out over the Bay’s beseeching gimmicks, change is in the air around the WMC. And change it must, lest the writing be well and truly on the wall.
Return to your seats ladies and gentlemen, intermission over.
One of the enduring problems for theatre in Wales, a problem that both TGC and NTW are committed to addressing, is that hardly anybody is aware of its existence, let alone its notable practitioners. There are few serious commentators and London’s absolute hegemony over media in Wales means that Welsh journals covering the scene, Planet and New Welsh Review, are inaudible whispers in the Anglocentric cacophony whose implicit message is: Wales – A Very Near Place Of Which We Know Little…and care less. Therefore it will come as a surprise to many to be told that the innate Welsh affinity with performance has defined theatre as we know it. Yes, you read that right. Not for nothing is the English language’s greatest playwright known as ‘the Bard’, one of the few words in English derived directly from Welsh (Bardd – Poet). You will be wanting evidence for my assertion, so here’s a selection, in alphabetical order, of past and present maestros:
- Binkie Beaumont (1908-1973): The Cardiff gay man who controlled and defined London’s ‘West End’ for half a century and singlehandedly constructed the abiding image of the theatrical luvvie, love.
- Michael Bogdanov (1938-2017): Internationally-renowned Welsh-Russian stage, film and TV director and Shakespeare expert who set up the Wales Theatre Company in 2003. His passionate advocacy of an English language national theatre in Wales was instrumental in the foundation of NTW, while his own company is capable of large-scale, home-made and critically-acclaimed productions such as Amazing Grace, Mal Pope’s musical about Evan Roberts (1878-1951) and the Welsh Revival, and back-to-back versions of Hamlet in Welsh and English at the New Theatre.
- Richard Burton (1925-1984): It’s the specious cliche never far from the lips of every former stage actor who took the Hollywood dollar: “My first love is the theatre” – but Burton really meant it. He knew that Where Eagles Dare and The Wild Geese were a waste of the talents that produced a string of supreme Shakespearean performances at Stratford-upon-Afon throughout the 1950s and summoned up the ultimate Hamlet on Broadway in 1964.
- Lewis Casson (1875-1969): A son of Ffestiniog, raised in Denbigh and educated at Rhuthun, Casson and wife Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) were the Grandees of the English stage for much of the 20th Century. He directed the original production of St Joan in 1905 and John Gielgud (1904-2000) in King Lear in 1940, his deep, sonorous voice enhanced hundreds of character parts, and he built the actors trade union Equity.
- Dic Edwards (1958-): It’s a sign of the growing sophistication and resilience of Welsh theatre that it can produce contrary controversialists like Cardiff-born Edwards, always keen to tackle big political and philosophical questions and wrestle with Welsh identity. His 2002 play Franco’s Bastard, which contentiously conflated Welsh nationalism with Fascism, prompted demonstrations from the audience at Chapter. The cerebral Marxist failed to grasp that ‘nationalism’, by definition, can only be generated by a nation state – something which Wales is yet to be – and the only nation state on these islands is Britain (there’s a nationalism to really worry about). But Edwards can always be relied on to utilise theatre’s unique aptitude to go where other art forms fear to tread.
- Thomas Edwards (1738-1810): ‘Twm o’r Nant’ was the foremost writer of the ‘anterliwt’ (interlude), the ribald, subversive morality play in verse that was popular throughout Wales until suppressed by Methodist disapproval, along with many other folk customs, in the early 19th century. Nine of Twm’s compositions have survived; scathing, colourful swipes at officialdom, the earliest templates for today’s radical scene.
- Peter Gill (1939-): He couldn’t get out of Tremorfa and St Illtyd’s fast enough, went to London, made his name with ground-breaking productions at the Royal Court, helped found the Riverside Studios and then became a revered director at the National Theatre and the RSC. His parallel career as a playwright has also been important, especially for Cardiff, the setting for his two most acclaimed works: Cardiff East, which premiered at the Cottesloe Theatre in 1997 and his masterpiece, Small Change, which opened at the Royal Court in 1976. The sensitive, gay Catholic lad from the East Moors shoved the post-industrial agonies of his home town down the privileged craws of la-di-da London theatre-goers, and pin-pointed Cardiff on the map of world theatre. In 2012 Gill directed in Cardiff for the first time, a masterful production of A Provincial Life, derived from an Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) short story, for NTW at Sherman Cymru. The prodigal son had come home a hero.
- Lucy Gough (1958-): Aberystwyth-based playwright who manages to move effortlessly between haunting radio plays, scriptwriting for preposterous soaps Hollyoaks and Doctors and the dark, imaginative, pure theatre of her stage work, taking non-judgmental inclusivity to new heights of flexibility. Her next project, a commission from NTW to write a play about artist Brenda Chamberlain (1912-1971), will be required viewing.
- Terry Hands (1941-): Welshness, unlike many national identities, is not based on race or religion or birth certificate. Rather, it is an act of will, a choice anyone so moved can make, or not make. Englishman Hands, after a stellar career in which he founded the Everyman in Liverpool and was director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, came to Wales in 1996 and transformed the ailing Theatr Clwyd in Mold into Clwyd Theatr Cymru, the first Welsh theatre of international significance. Using Welsh actors and technicians, putting neglected Welsh gems on the programme alongside the classics, and encouraging new Welsh writers, Hands’ presumption is that Wales deserves the very best. If Wales could issue passports, we’d hand one to Hands.
- John Gwilym Jones (1904-1988): A major Welsh language dramatist from Groeslon, near Caernarfon, whose 10 plays, written over 45 years, encapsulated the 20th century Welsh psyche, uncertainly struggling with modern dilemmas. Translated into English, the best of his works like Y Tad a’r Mab (1963) have been successfully produced outside Wales, making Jones the first Welsh playwright to put Welsh concerns to the world.
- W S Jones (1920-2007): Affectionately known as ‘Wil Sam’, he spent his whole life on the Lleyn Peninsular working as a motor mechanic and writing Welsh language plays of immense power, full of the hilarious futility of human existence and larger-than-life characters delivering waspish monologues. Never taken up by the establishment, he delighted in demolishing the high and mighty, twisting English phrases for comic effect and proving that the local ain’t parochial, it’s cosmic.
- Saunders Lewis (1893-1985): Quite apart from being instrumental in the founding of Plaid Cymru in 1925 and Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) in 1962, Liverpool Welshman Lewis was a creative poet, novelist and dramatist, the first in either language to grapple with the Welsh inferiority complex and colonised mind-set. It was as a playwright that he most successfully utilised his talent for drawing contemporary relevance from history: Blodeuwedd (1948) and Siwan (1954) have become staples of Welsh theatre. Nobel nominated in 1970, Lewis harnessed theatre to politics, and they have been inextricably coupled in Wales ever since.
- Ivor Novello (1893-1951): There are only four names deemed big enough to have a theatre named after them in West End ‘Theatreland’, all outsiders in their own way: David Garrick (1717-1779), Noel Coward (1899-1973), John Gielgud (1904-2000), and Ivor, our romantic Riverside rhapsodist.
- Gwenlyn Parry (1932-1991): Skilful playwright from Deiniolen in Gwynedd who introduced the absurd and the surreal to Welsh language theatre in plays like Y Tŵr and Y Ffin and wrote the immortal Grand Slam in English for BBC TV in 1978, perfectly capturing the rugby rituals of the era.
- Mike Pearson (1950 -): Many Welsh people have been anglicised over the centuries; now the phenomena of English people being cymrufied is increasingly prevalent and, whereas Englishness/Britishness always tended to attract Welsh mediocrities, Welshness draws England’s finest. Pearson, from Lincolnshire originally, first discovered theatre as a student at Cardiff University in the 1960s. He helped form the pioneering Cardiff Laboratory Theatre and then shifted to Aberystwyth in 1981 to found Brith Gof with Lis Hughes-Jones. For nearly 20 years Brith Gof pioneered daring experimentation with sensational site-specific performances around Wales, placing Welsh language theatre at the forefront of the European avant-garde. No-one who was in Cardiff’s disused Rover works in 1991 will ever forget Y Gododdin, Brith Gof’s collaboration with a group of skinhead drummers called Test Dept, lamenting the loss of a 6th century battle. The company became based at Chapter with luminously intelligent radicals like Cliff McLucas (1955-2002), Mike Brookes, Eddie Ladd and Michael Shanks on board and was only undone by the withdrawal of ACW funding. True to form, the cultural conservatives could stomach no more of Brith Gof’s politically-charged theatre of the oppressed. Pearson, now a naturalised Welshman, continues his work in Aberystwyth as Professor of Performance Studies at the University, and Brith Gof’s baton of originality has been taken up by companies like Earthfall, Volcano and the Magdalena Project, putting Wales at the cutting edge of theatrical innovation.
- Sarah Siddons (1755-1831): The first stage star, the definer of the tragedienne’s craft, and the patron saint of actresses was a Brecon girl who learnt her trade in the villages of the Welsh borders with her father’s travelling company. Her portrayal of Lady Macbeth at Drury Lane in the 1780s enabled her to claim the most famous female character in all of theatre as her own. “Out, damn’d spot! Out!” has never been uttered with more authority.
- Dylan Thomas (1914-1953): It shouldn’t be forgotten that the poet’s supreme achievement was Under Milk Wood, his 1953 ‘play for voices’. It has become part of a Welsh canon, new stage productions hypnotising audiences around the world long after the roaring boy drank himself to death in New York.
- Ed Thomas (1961-): Dynamic driving-force behind the Welsh cultural renaissance from Abercraf, founder of Cardiff-based production company Fiction Factory in 1988 (part of Llanelli’s Tinopolis group since 2002). The success of plays like House of America and Gas Station Angel allowed the company to branch out into TV and film. Eschewing stereotypes and definitions concocted in England, Thomas is in the forefront of the reinvention of Wales on Welsh terms.
- Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981): Eloquence, acerbic wit and searing perception were the trademarks of this brilliant writer from Porth who worked as a schoolmaster in Barry until his acclaimed 1961 play The Keep allowed him to become a media personality and the idiosyncratic Voice of the Valleys. Thomas’s life and works were celebrated in NTW’s vividly realised The Dark Philosophers in 2011.
- Frank Vickery (1951-2018): Prolific writer of bitter-sweet comedies from Blaencwm in the Rhondda Fawr who fills theatres across Wales with his affectionate examinations of messy relationships, proving that a rewarding career is possible using Welsh subject matter and without leaving Wales.
- Emlyn Williams (1905-1987): The working-class writer/actor from Mostyn made himself the very essence of Welsh theatricality, and took his slightly menacing, macabre persona to all corners of the English-speaking world. His famed plays like A Murder Has Been Arranged, Night Must Fall and The Corn Is Green became classics of the modern repertoire; he opened up theatre and film to a generation of Welsh actors like Hugh Griffith (1912-1980), Stanley Baker (1928-1976) and Richard Burton; he re-wrote the script by creating Welsh characters that existed in their own right, rather than as walk-on stooges for English mockery.
Now Welsh theatre is facing a familiar foe, one that has never gone away: rule from London. The £1.5 billion annual ‘austerity’ cut in Wales’ block grant from the UK, imposed to keep the super-rich in the manner to which they have become accustomed, is having a terrible impact as it seeps down into all areas of Welsh public life. The ACW has not been exempt and faces another 3.9% cut in its budget next year, following four years of cuts which have seen amenities close, companies fold and already penny-pinching operations pared to the bone, while savage Council cuts threaten venues as well-established as the New Theatre and St David’s Hall in Cardiff, the Muni in Pontypridd and the Grand in Swansea.
The WMC, Wales’ biggest theatre, the ACW’s HQ and the very symbol of Welsh creativity, is where strategies for artistic survival must be concocted. Newly appointed artistic director Graeme Farrow impresses with his grasp of the WMC’s central importance and his plans to increase the WMC’s in-house productions. Instead of the commercially-driven but ultimately pointless and self-defeating policy of endlessly hosting the provincial tours of the likes of The Lion King and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he wants the WMC to “make its own work with Welsh talent, Welsh stories and Welsh values, and to take that to the world” and thus become “a powerhouse rather than a venue.” I like what I’m hearing so much that I’m contemplating asking him to become my civil partner (can you do that bigamously?) You’ve talked the talk Graeme, now walk the walk. Curtain.