National Theatre Wales

Following an investment review the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) has announced it will end the annual £1.6 million funding of National Theatre Wales (NTW) in 2024. Although NTW has lodged an appeal it will almost certainly fail, meaning NTW will cease to exist by the end of March. The blame for this shocking turn of events rests entirely with NTW itself – or, to be more precise, the group of people who hijacked what was a hugely successful and thriving fledgling Welsh national institution and proceeded to destroy it.

In 2003 the Welsh-language Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (TGC) was formed and then its English-language equivalent NTW was founded in 2009. So, after decades of campaigning, many set-backs and a number of false starts, Wales at long last had authentic National Theatres in both languages. Like TGW, which remains in good health to this day, NTW got off to a great start. Led by inaugural artistic director John McGrath, the travelling Theatre built a marvellous reputation very quickly, garnering critical acclaim and appreciative audiences wherever its range of eclectic, innovative, gripping productions were performed around Wales. I was among the many enthusiasts – see, for instance, The Soul Exchange and The Welsh Play for more on NTW’s flourishing early years.

The rot set in when McGrath left for pastures new (Manchester International Festival) after seven years at the helm at the end of 2015, shortly followed by dynamic and wise Chair Phil George, who was poached by ACW. In 2016 ‘Sir’ Clive Jones, a pillar of the British establishment and Labour Party flunkey with a background in newspapers, replaced George while Kully Thiarai, who had some NTW knowledge having directed the aforementioned The Soul Exchange, replaced McGrath. Thiarai, a black woman from Yorkshire, was a disaster. Her skills as an arts administrator were rendered irrelevant by her complete lack of understanding of, sympathy for, or solidarity with Wales, a crippling handicap when you’re running one of the nation’s key cultural organisations. Productions more or less ceased as her obsession with issues peripheral to Wales dominated, management teams left and NTW disintegrated before our eyes. It all came to a head in 2018 when 40 Welsh playwrights wrote a damning open letter to NTW, which in essence accused Thiarai of abandoning its founding purpose of making theatre for, by and about Wales. I wrote this about it at the time. The playwrights were promptly supported by an open letter to NTW from 212 Welsh actors, decrying NTW’s scant use of Welsh actors and blink-and-you-missed-it schedule of instantly forgettable productions.

In an untenable position, Thiarai departed in 2019 and in 2020 NTW acquired a new artistic director, Scotsman Lorne Campbell (previously with Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England) along with an almost entirely new management team and board of trustees. If the Thiarai years were terrible, the Campbell years have been calamitous. It is actually quite difficult to discern a single work in the last three years that can justify his £60k annual salary. What little has seen the light of day has been turgid, didactic, worthy, obvious and amateurish and, when not ignored altogether, most have received a scathing critical panning. In this period NTW has produced:
Go Tell the Bees: a film documentary about the environment- NOT THEATRE
Land of Our Children: site specific residencies – NOT THEATRE
FRANK: a short film – NOT THEATRE
Springboard: 10 artists get bursaries – NOT THEATRE
Petula: a NTW/TGC joint production for children that briefly toured Wales – THEATRE
GALWAD: video and film for young adults – NOT THEATRE
A Proper Ordinary Miracle: a ‘co-creation’ with Wrecsam homeless – THEATRE
Fly the flag: a film about human rights – NOT THEATRE
The Cost of Living: a play that ran for a week at Swansea Grand – THEATRE
my name is joseph k: a short film about poverty – NOT THEATRE
Circle of Fifths: an outdoor event in Butetown – NOT THEATRE
The standard of much of this was that of a small agitprop theatre in the back room of a pub in the 1970s not a serious National Theatre. In addition, NTW has spent scarce public money on various throwaway, trivial activities from an audio-poem to a boat-ride, photography to stand-up comedy – none of which amounted to theatre or had any relevance to Wales.

How did this happen? How, for example, has NTW gone from 2014’s Mametz (a haunting and visceral evocation of the bloody Somme battle in which 4,000 Welsh soldiers were killed or wounded, performed by a huge cast in deep Gwent woods and delivered by a first-rate team of writer Owen Sheers, director Matthew Dunster and designer Jon Bausor) to 2023’s Kidstown (essentially a play-pen where a few 6-11 year-olds can aimlessly muck around for a couple of hours)? The answer is simple: NTW was taken over by people completely unsuited to the task while the complacent ACW was asleep at the wheel.

The NTW website starkly reveals the problem. Replete with sanctimonious mission statements, rose-tinted visions of the future and po-faced lists of ‘values’, it is a toe-curling embarrassment. It reads like a cut’n’paste of the twee truisms in a rural vicar’s sermon, the second-hand sloganeering of a gullible undergraduate and the Panglossian poppycock of a prissy Pollyanna entirely unacquainted with the real world. Who could possibly disagree with the calls for equity, empathy, kindness, niceness and universal happiness? Who doesn’t want the climate crisis resolved, poverty abolished, bigotry vanquished and the end of war? I certainly support all those aims and ideals and have been actively fighting for them since I was a teenager – but what, I ask, has any of it got to do with the National Theatre of Wales? It is not a political party, it is not a campaign, it is not a branch of social services, it is not a school, it is not a hospital, not a form of therapy and not a creche – hey, guess what, it is the National Theatre of Wales! Of course the topics NTW purports to care about could and should be tackled in theatrical productions of all genres, but they cannot be a manifesto or a platform since that is not only wholly unnecessary and goes without saying but also forecloses and limits artistic treatments, poetic licence, alternative outlooks and real creative thinking. Notable by its complete absence from NTW’s fine words, incidentally, is any mention of the subject that ought to be NTW’s prime, overarching issue: Wales. For Wales, NTW offers no visions, no missions and no fundamental principles to pursue – which is akin to, say, a Ukrainian theatre not mentioning the Russian invasion or a Tibetan theatre ignoring the annexation by China. This shows that all the cool radicalism is just a thin veneer hiding the tawdry truth of a deeply conservative organisation that will never rock the boat, never challenge the status quo, never take on the powerful and never, ever throw its weight behind the only cause that matters in Wales: the crucial need to break free from the UK’s diabolical grip and join the free and independent nations of the world. On this matter of life and death, the NTW is strangely silent.

However, NTW has no problem openly declaring itself as a supporter of a number of dodgy philosophies. Two in particular stand out. Both, like everything NTW stands for, are direct imports from corporate America – the purveyors of planet-wrecking capitalism, off-the-scale ignorance and endemic dysfunctionality. First, there is NTW’s advocacy of the “Theory of Change”, a self-serving methodology cooked up in the mid 1990s by business wonks in the IT sector, perfectly designed to bury any possibility of actual change under a mountain of management-speak bullshit. Second there is NTW’s extraordinarily inappropriate, shocking and sinister statement that it is a “faith-friendly company”. Here is a proud, blanket endorsement of superstition, of sky-gods, of stupidity, of infantilism, of abusive cults, of imperialist culture-warriors, of theocracies, of sects, of bible-bashers and of all the innumerable mentally disturbed, mutually hostile manifestations of religiosity, from the Moonies to the Mormons, the Church of England to the Church of Rome, the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Jihadists, the Scientologists to the Southern Baptists. It is completely unacceptable for an arts organisation, supposedly dedicated to enlightenment, humanism, free-thinking and progress, to line up alongside the hucksters of corporate America who cooked up the “faith-friendly” strap-line 20 years ago and the far-right reactionaries who subsequently adopted it so readily. And for an arts organisation that is a publicly-owned and funded Welsh national institution to make such an alliance here in one of the most secular and atheistic nations on the planet is a grave dereliction of duty that in itself should have NTW’s entire workforce looking for another job. It is unforgivable, and if taken to its logical conclusion would eradicate the very art of theatre and erase the work of the world’s greatest playwrights. Are we to assume that ‘faith-unfriendly’ playwrights such as, say, Brecht, Chekhov, Shaw and Wilde are barred by NTW? That any exploration of the appalling damage wreaked by religiosity is out of bounds for the NTW?

NTW, it seems, has fallen into the worst-possible hands. An examination of its rapidly shrinking current roster of 22 full-time employees and 11 trustees confirms the inadequacy of those involved. They appear to have been hired for their ‘values’ rather than their skills. On the NTW website the staff have written their own profiles in barely literate sentences that read like a Daily Mail parody of ridiculous ‘wokery’. Over and over again they all repeat knackered buzz-words about ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’, ‘under-representation’, ‘well-being’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘accessibility’; virtue-signalling abstractions like ‘equitable’, ‘passionate’, ‘love’, ‘openness’, ‘change’ and ‘respect’; and glib bromides like ‘communities’, ‘values’, ‘radical’, ‘change’, ‘futures’, ‘vision’, blah, blah – to the point where they are rendered utterly meaningless, mealy-mouthed weasel-words reeking of perfunctory lip-service and box-ticking insincerity. The salaries of the staff, who are assigned pompous job titles like ‘creative development producer’, ‘audiences and communications coordinator’ and ‘operations and social impact manager’, must add up to around £1 million a year – which, along with the cost of renting a bijou office in Cardiff’s Castle Arcade, partly explains why there’s so little left in the kitty to deliver any actual theatre. Their profiles, with ghastly clarity, expose so much that is wrong about the tone and emphasis of NTW’s collective voice. The very fact that each of the 22 deems it necessary to begin by stating their ‘preferred pronoun’ says it all (for the record, 17 are ‘she/her’, four are ‘he/him’ and one is ‘they/them’). This reveals the core problem: these people proclaiming their passionate commitment to inclusivity and diversity are in fact examples of the very opposite: rigid exclusivity and homogeneity. All sing from precisely the same hymn-sheet and, in so doing, unwittingly admit they only value people exactly like themselves. Their priggish, prissy nit-picking and holier-than-thou snobbery would be entirely alien and off-putting to the 99% of Wales that don’t give a flying fuck what pronouns they use. Presumably this is the subconscious, unsayable intention. Or are we seriously expected to take at face value the repeated protestations that NTW includes “everyone”? What, like the hairy-arsed, rough-and-ready, unreconstructed blokes I encounter down my local pub? Really? Or is it all just a big, fat PACK OF LIES?

These staffers, with one or two slight variations, are cut from precisely the same non-inclusive cloth: middle-class, smug, self-righteous, internet-saturated, comprehensively Americanised, overgrown students. They are desperate to be on trend, identity-fixated, addicted to social media and TV, fully reconciled to consumerism and capitalism, deeply conventional lifestyle liberals who delude themselves they’re radical. And they are utterly ignorant about Wales – its centuries of violent invasions, land grab, colonisation, exploitation, cultural genocide, environmental desecration, impoverishment and subjugation, and its ongoing vile treatment by UK despots who control every aspect of Welsh life and by the UK/British/English mass media that perpetually attack the very existence of Wales. This is the worst thing about NTW: the refusal to be what their articles of association, their charitable status, their founding purpose and their name itself dictates that they must be: THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF WALES that the country desperately needs. So comprehensive is this refusal, 14 of the 22 members of staff don’t mention Wales at all in their profiles and seven of the remainder only crow-bar it in as an afterthought, usually in phrases like “Wales and beyond” as if Wales alone is not enough and must always be enhanced by the monochrome, uniform ‘internationalism’ all prescriptive, neo-liberal conformists want to impose on the world. Because they have no affinity to Wales and the Welsh struggle, they treat Wales as if it is an oppressor not the oppressed, as if it is the finished article not a work in progress, as if it is a problem not the solution. So to NTW the “under-represented”, the “marginalised”, the “excluded” and the “diverse” are never the Welsh for whom NTW exists to represent, but the usual soft-option super-victims utilised to brandish uncontroversial ‘goodness’: black people, gay people, disabled people and young people. I’ve got news for NTW: this is Wales, not Alabama. To elevate other struggles above the Welsh struggle isn’t just patronising, cruel and insulting, it is actually outright racism. NTW has been captured hook line and sinker by the puerile, divisive, identity politics of US campuses and all else is discounted. Examples are everywhere, like the way the word ‘black’ is always capitalised because that’s what ignorant, posturing ‘activists’ in the US have recently decreed. But ‘black’ is an adjective, not a proper noun, and the most infamous previous example of calling black people ‘Blacks’ (and others with various shades of skin pigmentation ‘Coloureds’ – as per the equally offensive ‘people of colour’ formulation) was in Apartheid-era South Africa. Defining people by racial characteristics is, of course, the very definition of racism. And the idea that being black in itself confers any particular characteristic is as patently wrong as white supremacism: to prove the point do I really need to mention far-right Tory bastards like Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly or, to give a US example NTW will be more familiar with, all-powerful Supreme Court barbarian and gun-lobby gofer Clarence Thomas?

As for NTW’s Board of Trustees, who aren’t paid a salary but receive generous expenses, they are more or less selected from the same cripplingly narrow strata as the staff. Overwhelmingly female (eight women, three men), British (four make incidental references to Wales) and middle-class, they just trot out all the requisite ‘third sector’ platitudes larded with a bit more ‘business’ and ‘safeguarding’ jargon to cover their backs. Their combined knowledge of theatre could be written on the back of an envelope.

It is quite clear NTW is not fit for purpose and the ACW, under the much more proactive new leadership of Chief Executive Dafydd Rhys and Chair Maggie Russell, were absolutely right to pull the plug. What happens next? In my view, once it is wound up the NTW should be re-formed immediately in the same way phoenix football clubs rise from the ashes. Then a panel of Welsh playwrights, actors, directors, artists and intelligent people of goodwill should recruit the cream of Welsh talent* to begin again. ACW involvement must be restricted to setting binding production targets and providing grant aid, while there should be no Welsh Government involvement at all – particularly so long as people of the calibre of Dawn Bowden MS hold the arts portfolio as Deputy Minister Arts, Sport & Tourism. The Englishwoman, foisted on Merthyr and Rhymney by Welsh Labour’s women-only shortlists in 2016, employs her husband as senior advisor despite Senedd Members being prohibited from employing members of their own family since 2019. But the measure was not retrospective, so Bowden has seen fit to disregard it. The time is long overdue for Mark Drakeford to drop her from his cabinet and the local Party to deselect her before the next election.

As the wreckage of NTW sinks into oblivion, I’m searching for a suitable obituary. Perhaps something along the lines of the despairing words of General Pierre Bosquet (1810-1861) as the French soldier observed the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War: C’est pathétique, mais ce n’est pas le théâtre

For a minor emolument, I am available to serve. In addition, for a small stipend, a reborn NTW would be more than welcome to use any of my draft plays currently gathering cobwebs in a drawer.