What gives theatre in Wales its radical edge?

| by Emma Geliot and Cathy Gomez

Tags: Feature

Wales is a small nation with an international outlook and a history of pushing boundaries. Emma Geliot and Cathy Gomez explore a scene that challenges the way we think about community, language and space 

Image of actor in white on knees blowing white dust. Photo: Warren Orchard

Lecture performance of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru's Dawns Ysbrydion (Ghost Dance) in 2013, choreographed by Eddie Ladd and Sarah Williams. Photograph: Warren Orchard

Wales’s small population is sparsely distributed over terrain interrupted by mountains, riven by rivers and ribboned with valleys. This presents challenges to those seeking audiences, especially if they’re looking to work on a large scale. The nation has two official languages – Welsh and English – and its relationship with England, its nearest neighbour, has often been fraught.

However, none of this seems to get in the way of Welsh artists’ creative thinking, which has sparked productions that have resonated well beyond its borders. In fact, the size of the population has allowed practitioners to be thrown together, sparking collaborations that often blur the distinctions between theatre, live art and dance. Performance making in Wales often happens as an intersection of ideas, rather than as a result of production scheduling or theatre programming. Although there are companies that do ‘proper theatre’, when we try to identify a characteristically Welsh kind of performance we find a body of work that is expansive, interdisciplinary and experimental. 

"The lack of historic infrastructure gives practitioners more freedom to dream"

Mike Pearson, an influential figure in contemporary performance in Wales and beyond, believes the lack of historical infrastructure gives practitioners more freedom to dream. Three organisations emerged in Cardiff in the early 1970s that set down roots for alternative approaches to theatre: Chapter Arts Centre, Moving Being and what is now the Centre for Performance Research. Forward thinking and interested in exploration, they provided crucial space for creative practitioners to meet and develop new work.

Pearson is now an emeritus professor at Aberystwyth University, where he was responsible for designing one of Britain's first degrees in Performance Studies. But in 1981, he was a founder member of the company Brith Gof. Brith Gof was a pioneering force in theatre practices that are now more mainstream: devising site-specific work with a potent physical and visual presence, and exploring new approaches to narrative and political theatre. In 1988, its anarchic, seminal production Gododdin transformed a disused car factory in Cardiff into a long sandpit with scaffolding towers, cars and a forest of trees. Performed in Welsh and English, with a live soundtrack from the groundbreaking industrial music group Test Dept, Gododdin was inspired by an ancient Welsh poem about a warrior-band of Celts, embarking on a suicidal last battle against invading Anglo-Saxons. Audiences were caught up in the action, with performers leaping in their midst and swinging rubber tyres and steel barrels towards them. The production toured Europe with support from the British Council, adapting to iconic performance sites in different countries.

Brith Gof'f''s Gododdin in Cardiff 1988. Photo: Brian Tarr (Brith Gof Archive)

Brith Gof's Gododdin in Cardiff, 1988. Photograph: Brian Tarr (Brith Gof Archive)

Gododdin was first conceived at a time when Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s then prime minister, was closing collieries across the UK. Wales was particularly affected, with entire towns dependent on the mining industry, and the 1980s saw a bitter struggle to keep the pits open. So there was particular significance to the battle in a derelict industrial space. What’s more, Pearson argues, Welsh makers can “seek other places, forms and functions for performance: involving different subject matters, using different means, in spaces other than the darkened auditoria of its neighbour.” Maybe you could say that the form of Gododdin, as well as its subject matter, was an act of dissent, laying claim to a distinctive artistic identity.

Two other companies that burst on to the 1980s scene, revelling in the possibilities of playing with theatricality, are still going strong. Swansea-based Volcano uses intense physicality to radically adapt classics and create new original work. The artists that would go on to form NoFit State Circus, with its sophisticated theatrical approach to circus, started out touring community venues in South Wales. In 2001, Chapter established Experimentica, a festival that continues to support homegrown companies and give a platform to interesting and challenging international work.

"I want to make work that is specific to where I am"

Brith Gof wound up in 2002, but its alumni include some of the UK’s most independent-minded performance makers: Pearson and his long-term collaborator Mike Brookes, Good Cop Bad Cop, Marc Rees, Eddie Ladd

“Being taught by Brith Gof, I suddenly realised where I was,” Ladd says. “We have to listen to the place we’ve put ourselves. We don’t want to copy work that comes from another place and another experience. I don’t want to do neo-colonialism to myself.” She continues, “I want to make work that is specific to where I am. We shouldn’t purposefully try and make pieces that have universal appeal. But the work is entirely exportable. Everything is universal and people will relate to our specific circumstances.”

Rees’s first professional job as a performer was in Gododdin. “It was an extraordinary education,” he says. “A potential world of performance in unusual spaces was born and the confines of a typical theatre space torn down.” Afterwards, “selecting an unusual site to locate my work in became an intuitive reflex.”

Image of Sian Thomas in The Persians. Photo: farrowscreative and NTW

Sian Thomas in National Theatre Wales's The Persians, written by Kaite O'Reilly, directed by Mike Pearson, with conceptual design by Mike Brookes. Photograph: Farrows Creative and National Theatre Wales

James Tyson was Theatre Programmer at Chapter for many years, and is now a Theatre and Dance Programme Manager at the British Council. He sees a shift in the way that artists relate to Welsh national identity. “In the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of Wales as its own country was a hypothesis. Many artists at that time made works that were driven by the imaginary Welsh nation. From new plays by writers such as Ed Thomas and Ian Rowlands to complex deconstructed works by companies like Brith Gof and Volcano, artists showed us the possibilities of Welsh culture within an international framework. They foreshadowed the reality of Wales as a nation.”

In 1997, the new Labour government set in motion the reality of Wales becoming a devolved nation of the UK. A Welsh Assembly government was formed. In 2010, two national theatres were established. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (TGC) makes performance primarily for Welsh-speaking audiences and National Theatre Wales (NTW) produces English-language performances. Wales’s young national theatres are more progressive than most of their equivalents in England and around the world. They are both primarily touring companies performing all over Wales. Following the precedent set by National Theatre of Scotland, both organisations are not tied to a building, but rather focus on developing commissioned works in collaboration with independent companies in Wales and internationally.

"Making theatre in the Welsh language is essentially radical"

“Making theatre in the Welsh language is essentially radical,” says Arwel Gruffydd, TGC’s Artistic Director. “It represents an insistence that a minority voice will be heard and shared; that a minority language culture should be represented.” For centuries, he says, English was the language of the landed gentry and the factory owners. This gave a sense of otherness to Welsh speakers, creating a clear division between the common person and the state. And in turn, “this gives fertile soil to radical thought, in art as well as politics.”

Gruffydd adds, “What is essentially expressed and spoken of through the medium of Welsh-language theatre cannot be said in English. Or at the very least, when spoken in Welsh, as opposed to English, it carries a different meaning and has a different impact.” TGC is a natural ally for theatre makers working in other minority languages; its next production, Merch yr Eog, is a collaboration with a company from Brittany, France in Welsh, Breton and French. It has developed an app, Sibrwd (‘a whisper in your ear’) that allows audiences to appreciate a performance in a different language.

TGC recently produced Dawns Ysbrydion (Ghost Dance), which is based on the controversial history of a Welsh valley village, Capel Celyn, that was flooded in order to provide water for an English city, displacing its inhabitants to national outcry and rallying people to a nationalist cause. Choreographed by Ladd and Sarah Williams (Montreal, Canada) and performed by an all-female cast, it is a dance for survival that links the Welsh struggle for cultural identity with the plight of Native Americans.

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru's. Dawns Ysbrydion. photo Kirsten McTernan

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru's Dawns Ysbrydion (Ghost Dance) in 2015 choreographed by Eddie Ladd and Sarah Williams. Photograph:Kirsten McTernan

NTW has no permanent company, but creates collaborations which are often site-based productions. It has commissioned Pearson and Brookes to create site-responsive or immersive, multimedia spectacles, reimagining classic works, often in unusual contexts. Iliad was an eight-hour epic performed in Y Ffwrnes, a theatre in Llanelli; The Persians in a fake village on a firing range; and Coriolan/us in an aircraft hangar on a Royal Air Force base. Bill Mitchell of Wildworks in Cornwall and the well-known Welsh actor Michael Sheen staged work with a community across a whole town with The Passion in Port Talbot, written by Owen Sheers. Bordergame cast audience members as refugees and created online as well as live experiences, simulating the absurdity of the immigration process, with direction by John Norton of Give it a Name, a collective of artists and technologists.

“Companies like Brith Gof were pioneers in site-specific work,” says Kully Thiarai, NTW’s Artistic Director. “National Theatre Wales has played its own part, in more recent times, by using the whole of Wales as its stage – re-invigorating and surprising audiences along the way. This has emboldened both artists and audiences to embrace work made outside of formal theatre spaces; exploring ideas of place and space and playing with narrative and form.”

"Community engagement is hugely important"

In autumn 2016, NTW worked with Wales Millennium Centre on City of the Unexpected, a huge performance event celebrating 100 years of Roald Dahl partnered by the British Council. “Wales has a growing reputation for spectacular theatrical events that activate the possibilities of the sites where they take place, and that tap into the cultural heritage of a place through performance,” says Rebecca Gould, Head of Arts at British Council Wales. “These events succeed by inspiring the public to get involved, so community engagement is hugely important. In the case of NTW especially, this extends to those who can’t be physically present, but who can engage digitally. We want to share these types of projects, and their heritage in Wales, with international colleagues. We also want to learn about similar projects taking place in other countries.”

One question might be: why divide Welsh-language and English-language theatres into separate organisations? The existence of two national companies reflects the two official languages of Wales and the desire to allow contemporary culture in the Welsh language to evolve and experiment alongside performance-making in English. Both companies came together for {150}, Rees’s tri-lingual (Welsh, English and Spanish) multi-artform production that marked 150 years since 150 men, women and children set sail for Patagonia to found a new Welsh-speaking colony. It was staged in the cavernous Royal Opera House stores in Aberdare, with the Welsh hillside providing a backdrop to the final act. Perhaps this production hinted at the potential to reinvent a nation, celebrate linguistic diversity and accept a complex notion of Welsh identity – just as Gododdin and other seminal works of that time had done.

Eddie Ladd calling to the heavens in {150} photo. Mark Douet and NTW

{150}, a National Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru production in association with S4C, created and directed by Marc Rees. Photograph: Mark Douet and National Theatre Wales

If you want to discover more Welsh performance on a smaller scale, Tyson says, look to the live art scene that has its own fascinating and pioneering history, with artists such as André Stitt, who has made politically charged work across disciplines. There’s Simon Whitehead, whose works are often developed in relation to his own base in rural West Wales and Rabab Ghazoul, whose work was selected as part of the Iraq pavilion of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Artists such as Paul Granjon, Tim Bromage, Beth Greenhalgh and Eve Dent demonstrate a rich breadth of invention, with work that ranges from robotics to magic, from social commentary to poetic and conceptual formalism.

Interestingly, he adds, small-scale theatre is experiencing a renaissance amongst the younger generation. There are young organisations such as Dirty Protest and The Other Room in Cardiff, a pub-style venue that has quickly established itself as the go-to place for sharp and distinctive new writing and modern classics. And following a rich history of playwriting in Wales, outstanding contemporary voices like Gary Owen, Kaite O’Reilly, Alan Harris, Alun Saunders and Tim Price are bringing diverse portraits of contemporary life to stages across the UK.

Performance making in Wales is often challenging and confrontational, but also gentle, reflective and immensely exciting. “If you want to think about what is Welsh in performance,” says Tyson, “think about an interaction with words, between cultures. Old traditions, problems of language. Land. Interdisciplinarity. Community.”

Emma Geliot is Editor of Culture Colony Quarterly magazine (CCQ), which offers an independent perspective on the arts across a wide range of disciplines, genres and practice. Cathy Gomez is Programme and Communications Manager, Theatre and Dance at the British Council.


Talk to us:

Do you agree or disagree with anything in this feature? Do you have more stories to tell about performance in Wales? Email us at theatreanddance@britishcouncil.org.

Find out more:

Visit an online archive on performance in Wales with Heike Roms’s What’s Welsh for Performance.

Read an article giving an overview of theatre and performance in Wales by James Tyson.

See the latest book by Mike Pearson, Marking Time – Performance, Archaeology and the City.

Watch our interview with playwright Kaite O’Reilly.

See the work:

Eddie Ladd performs Scarface at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff on 10 October 2016.

Rabab Ghazoul delivers the keynote lecture on art, activism and access at the Engage International Conference, 13-14 October, Liverpool Hope University. She is also one of seven artists contributing to a mass parade through the streets of Swansea to mark the reopening of the Glynn Vivian Gallery, 15 October 2016.

Paul Granjon’s robotic installation Am I Robot is at Mostyn Gallery for the Llawn Festival, Llandudno, 23 September to 16 October 2016.

Simon Whitehead is at Independent Dance, London this autumn. He gives a talk, The Village Dance, on 11 October. His performance installation Studies for Maynard shows alongside a workshop on 19 November 2016.

André Stitt’s solo exhibition, Living in the Material World, is at Gallery/Ten, Cardiff, 13 October to 19 November 2016.

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru tours Merch yr Eog in Wales, England and France from 5 October to 24 November 2016.

Volcano hosts performance events as its current home, the Iceland Building, Swansea. It tours Macbeth: Director’s Cut in Wales and England, 18 October to 26 November 2016.

Dirty Protest presents Last Christmas at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 13–23 December 2016.

NoFit State Circus performs Bianco at the Southbank Centre, London, 23 November 2016 to 22 January 2017.

Experimentica’s next festival theme is ‘Secret Language’. It’s at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 29 March to 2 April 2017.

Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, presented by Sherman Cymru, tours the UK from 27 January to 16 April 2017.

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