Token Wales

In September something most unusual happened: a group of Welsh people stood up for Wales. The action took the form of an open letter from 40 Welsh playwrights to National Theatre Wales (NTW) on the Wales Arts Review website. NTW is a national body formed in 2009 and funded with £1.6 million of public money every year from the Welsh government’s chicken-feed budget. The letter was provoked in part by NTW’s low production rate (no performances for 346 days in 2017, none for 268 days out of the 300 so far in 2018 and just one planned for the whole of 2019), in part by its constant commissioning of work by non-dramatists and callow amateurs under the pretext of being ‘adventurous’ and ‘diverse’, and in part by its policy of short runs rarely extending beyond a couple of throwaway performances that are never seen or heard again. But mostly the letter criticised NTW’s ridiculous and offensive refusal to do what it was set up to do.

The clue is in the name. The NTW’s remit is to fill a gaping hole and be something that did not hitherto exist: the English-language national theatre of WALES. That means not a theatre of England/Britain (which has one already), nor a theatre of any of the 90+ countries around the world from Albania to Venezuela that also have their own national theatres, but a theatre of WALES. However, since Kully Thiarai from Birmingham took over from Welsh founding director John McGrath in 2016, that purpose has been stealthily dropped and replaced with a vague, woolly ‘internationalism’ that has, in effect, relegated Wales to an optional afterthought. As NTW’s own mission statement revealingly puts it, with zero awareness of the implications: “Wales is our stage.” This contemptuous objectification says it all. A national theatre of Wales should make Wales its subject, its narrative, its cause, its ingredient, its touchstone and its lifeblood – not merely its postcode. The open letter to NTW outlines what has been happening. More and more often, NTW is commissioning non-Welsh writers, directors, actors, creators and technicians to produce material that, if it bothers to refer to Wales at all, presents a Wales of, by and for the non-Welsh, blithely and indeed proudly ignorant of Welsh history, Welsh lore, Welsh life, Welsh concerns and Welsh issues. Of course, the companies and artists engaged by NTW in preference to those that are Welsh and Wales-based all just happen to be from, where else, England. Collaboration with external talent is fine and worthy, so long as it is world class and so long as it is used to support and enable Welsh talent. But this isn’t collaboration – it’s a takeover by English mediocrities, deeply insulting to Wales and all our untapped talents and untold stories, and invalidating the whole point of having a NTW in the first place.

The fact this even needs to be said is actually the problem. It is taken for granted everywhere else in the world that, say, the Czech National Theatre exists to showcase the work of Czechs and make the Czech people its subject matter, but in Wales such a presumption is seen as outrageous by the cultural colonialists in charge. There is no sign that Thiarai grasps this fundamental point; in her response to the letter on the piss-poor NTW website, which reads like the social work department of a third-sector charity, she churns out virtually a complete catalogue of the vacuous jargon, lame bromides, divisive identitarian nit picking and Pollyanna platitudes that are routinely used these days to give a respectable ‘liberal’ veneer to the globalisation projects of free-market fundamentalists and megalomaniac turbo-capitalists. It’s all there: she even crowbars the preening self-description “working class woman of colour” into the mix, as if that were sufficient to disarm all criticism. And throughout she repeats the old lie – always thrown at those who seek to defend and enhance Wales – that Welsh specificity is ‘introspective’ and ‘closed’ and ‘parochial’ and ‘inward-facing’, unlike the ‘inclusive’, ‘diverse’, ‘radical’, ‘dynamic’ ‘boundary-pushing’ that she is all about. This posturing as a representative of progressive values is a way of foreclosing debate and implying that opposing approaches are reactionary and fuddy-duddy, while giving her and NTW’s trivial ‘team’ of pipsqueak box-tickers plenty of opportunities to pursue their hobby-horses, gallivant around the world to their favourite exotic places at Wales’ expense, and call it being ‘collaborative’ and ‘international’.

It is axiomatic that you cannot be ‘international’ without first being ‘national’. NTW is starting at the end, lazily skipping all the hard work of creating a national theatre from scratch and jumping straight to what can only be done when that national theatre has built foundations, put down roots and carved out a reputation across decades within its own nation. And the happy-clappy ‘inclusivity’ that NTW flags up at every opportunity amounts to nothing more than wicked mendacity when the one group not included is the Welsh.

This is the all too familiar pincer movement. On the one hand, Wales is ignored and excluded by the British/English mass media and prevailing cultural currents that dominate Wales, and on the other hand, in the supposedly indigenous institutions set up for the express purpose of counterbalancing that very absence, the exact same thing happens – mainly because it’s the British/English who are in control. The feeble Welsh arts sector, where British Nationalist stooges, collaborators and useful idiots are always in charge, is a fine example of this in action. Overseen by the kneejerk British brown-nosers and prosperous, complacent conservatives of the Arts Council of Wales, the entire edifice is a chimera, erected to give the totally false impression that Wales is pulsating with artistic life. Apart from NTW, Welsh National Opera, the National Orchestra of Wales, the National Dance Company of Wales, the National Chorus of Wales, the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, Ballet Cymru, the Welsh Music Guild, Music Theatre Wales, Literature Wales, the Welsh Books Council, Wales Millennium Centre, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Chapter Arts, and on and on ad infinitum, barely have a Welsh employee between them. One by one, all have been colonised and purged of Welshness.

But this process is by no means restricted to the arts; it applies in every single sphere of Welsh life. It starts in primary and secondary education where schools teach the history, geography, politics, culture and sociology of everywhere-but-Wales. It continues in tertiary education where universities founded for Welsh young people and Welsh academia are given over almost entirely to the education and employment of the not-Welsh. It spreads out into broadcasting where BBC Wales spends its budget on a handful of programmes for Britain, overweening property developments, and a few derisory ‘Welsh’ offerings of touristy travelogues for the non-Welsh, while letting Radio Wales rot into a genuflecting timewarp of lowbrow Brit trash, wall-to-wall English football coverage, foaming at the mouth rightwingers and self-satisfied retirement home for substandard English rejects. As for ‘ITV Cymru Wales’ and the Western Mail – I need say nothing. This relentless anti-Welshness permeates everywhere: Natural Resources Wales, National Museums & Galleries Wales, Sport Wales, Visit Wales, the Welsh Language Commission, the Welsh Office and even deep into the heart of the Welsh Assembly itself, stuffed full of people whose first loyalty is to another country. Check out the Register of AM’s interests: Mark Drakeford, for example, declares that he’s a paid-up member of Glamorgan County Cricket Club, an organisation that depends on the non-existence of Wales in international cricket, and thus the denial of opportunities to generation after generation of Welsh people, for its sordid survival on hand-outs from English imperialists and never-ending defaulted loans from British nationalist crawlers in Cardiff. And this man wants to be Wales’ next First Minister!

I don’t blame the English for this state of affairs. Why, after all, should they not pocket easy money and be big fishes in a smaller pond, which to most of them is just western Britain with a bit of light Celtic baggage anyway? No, there is only one group of people responsible for turning Wales into nothing more than a tokenistic name-check in its own territory: the Welsh. We have let it happen, through cowardice, avarice, treachery, stupidity and venality, and only we can change it. The brilliant writer Patrick McGuinness, an authentic ‘internationalist’ with roots in Belgium, England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Tunisia and Wales, has described Wales as “the only country in the world that exists for others”. It is high time that we snapped out of our pathetic passivity and comforting delusions and began to fight back with congruent ferocity and righteous indignation – so that the Welsh are no longer strangers in their own land, and this small corner of the world can be, once more, a place for us.