Welsh drama

Share

Plays

Another Door Closed

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Have you grown hard? Is that it? You were never hard then, you know. Just two spoiled daughters. Two little, selfish daughters. Two unemancipated daughters. Without her you have become hard, is that it? She was so soft, you see.

Two elderly sisters get an unexpected visit from a younger man. It appears, many years ago, the sisters' mother had been very kind to him.

Peter Gill's Another Door Closed premiered at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in August 2009.

Before It Rains

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Katherine Chandler's Before it Rains is a play about parenthood, protection and provocation set on a proud, forgotten Cardiff estate. It was first performed at Bristol Old Vic, on 10 September 2012.

The play's action mostly takes place on a council state allotment. Gloria is a single mum who enjoys sitting in her deckchair drinking her troubles away while her son Michael (a man with high-functioning Asperger syndrome) digs the soil and makes sure everything is in order. Carl, a newcomer to the area, is a charismatic, articulate wild boy whose approach is invariably heralded by the sound of the ball he is always bouncing. Carl lives with a psychopathic older brother and a violent, drug-addled father, and when he takes the gentle Michael under his wing, it is the start of a great deal of trouble.

The Bristol Old Vic premiere was directed by Róisín McBrinn and designed by Alyson Cummins, with Craig Gazey as Michael, Lisa Palfrey as Gloria and Harry Ferrier as Carl.

Bird

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Katherine Chandler's Bird is a play about two girls making the precarious transition from the care home they have shared to independent adult life. It was the winner of a Judges' Award in the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, and was first performed in a co-production by Sherman Cymru and the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, on 17 May 2016, before transferring to the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, on 8 June 2016.

The play's action begins with Ava (age 15) and Tash (age 13) standing on a cliff, looking out at the flocking birds and thinking about their future. They have been living in a care home for three years, sharing a room. Soon, Ava will turn 16 and will have to leave the care home. She wants to return home to her mother, Claire, who wasn’t much older than Ava is now when she gave birth. But Claire hasn’t had any contact with her daughter for years and doesn’t want Ava back in the family home. While Ava’s social worker tries to find her temporary accommodation, Ava teeters on the edge and discovers the world through the teenaged Dan and the creepy, middle-aged taxi-driver Lee, who plies her with vodka and gifts.

The premiere production was directed by Rachel O’Riordan and designed by Kenny Miller, with Georgia Henshaw as Ava, Siwan Morris as Claire, Connor Allen as Dan, Guy Rhys as Lee and Rosie Sheehy as Tash.

Burning Monkey

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Burning Monkey relates the story of a teenage couple and their interactions with an older war veteran, trying to rebuild his fractured relationship with his daughter. While their exchanges initially show a hostile and unsympathetic clash of generations, it soon becomes apparent that they share similar pain – based on their damaged family relationships, and absent parents/children – and they begin to feel empathy for one another’s plight.

In the background, the presence of war looms; the character of Old is haunted by memories of his time as a soldier and the character of Monkey looks forward to a time when he can escape the depressing realities of his life and join the army. In the midst of this, Shell is fifteen, madly in love with Monkey, and pregnant with his child. Her attempts to try and make the irresponsible, immature Monkey stay with her become increasingly desperate.

Burning Monkey is a play that raises important issues for teenagers, addressing themes such as war, violence, separated families and responsibility. It is available both in English- and Welsh-language versions, the latter titled as Mwnci ar dân.

Cardiff East

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Set in Cardiff's east side, Peter Gill's new play offers a vivid portrait of a community the Tories thought they'd got rid of, and New Labour would prefer to forget. Cardiff East raises essential questions: What is family value? What does it feel like to be an immigrant in your own country? And most importantly, why don't the Welsh reach for the Armalite? Uncompromising and desperately real, with an undercurrent of ironic humour, Cardiff East builds towards an inexorable climax, which combines hope and tragedy in equal parts.

Cardiff East premiered at the National Theatre, London, in February 1997.

© Peter Gill, 1998

Certain Young Men

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

What are two grown men doing living together faking all the stupidities of a fake straight relationship?

A sharp and poignant comedy of contemporary manners, Certain Young Men explores the lives of Stewart and Michael, David and Christopher, Andrew and Tony, and Robert and Terry.

Certain Young Men premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, in January 1999.

For Once

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In a small, country town three boys die from a gang of four. Sid, who's left behind, is struggling to cope with his loneliness, trying effortfully to stay normal and hoping to manage the feelings of his worried parents April and Gordon.

Life, love and loss in a picture postcard town is laid bare in this heartbreaking but darkly comic play. Through a series of interweaving accounts For Once cuts to the heart of a family, and a community, turned upside down by unimaginable tragedy. For Once was Tim Price’s debut play. It premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, London on 8 July 2011.

Gas Station Angel

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Bron meets Ace six days after his house falls into the sea. Their families may share a past of fairies, angels, axe-murderers and chickens, but what do Bron and Ace need with the past when they've got imagination and a tinted-glass, blue Marina 1800 TC ready to drive into the heart of Saturday night?

Set in a shrinking land Gas Station Angel premiered at Newcastle Playhouse in May 1998 in a tour by Fiction Factory, prior to its first performance, directed by the playwright, at The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, in June 1998.

In the Blue

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

When Stewart, a hedonistic drifter, and Michael, a timid hospital auxiliary, embark on a love affair, the odds are set against them. For as much as Stewart is assertive and streetwise, Michael is introverted and awkward. In this two-hander Peter Gill explores the simultaneous attraction and incompatibility of two social worlds.

Peter Gill’s In the Blue was first performed in the Cottesloe auditorium of the National Theatre, London, in March 1985.

Kick for Touch

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Kick for Touch tells, in jumbled fragments, the story of a love triangle between two brothers, Joe and Jim, and Joe's wife Eileen. A difficult childhood has left the brothers loving, jealous and incredibly close, so close that – ultimately – they crush Eileen between them.

Kick for Touch premiered at the National Theatre, London, in February 1983.

It may come as something of a shock to realize that while there may have been professional theatre in Wales for centuries, Welsh professional theatre is a relatively new cultural phenomenon and certainly W 1050 no older than the twentieth century. The Welsh Theatre Company, with its later and longer-lasting Welsh-language arm Cwmni Theatr Cymru, was initiated by the Welsh Committee for the Arts in 1962: hitherto there had been only amateurs alongside imported touring English and Irish work.

There is possibly a half-hidden tradition of performance whose vestiges are found in folk customs. There are some medieval plays extant in Welsh, and a Welsh version of the Troilus and Cressida drama; there were also itinerant groups of semi-professionals at the end of the eighteenth century, but they flourished for less than 50 years. For much of the twentieth century, drama, like most Welsh culture locked into a robust amateur tradition, was linked to the National Eisteddfod and the little theatre companies. Some of the latter paid their part-time actors, but they were not professional in the sense we would recognize and in any event all but disappeared after the Second World War. There were Welsh dramatists writing in English and Welsh, but they were not producing work for Welsh professional stage performers. Whether we regard the amateur-professional distinction simply as a nicety or as a defining characteristic, there was unquestionably nothing one can describe as a Welsh theatre prior to the 1960s. ‘We are the only country in the world,’ admitted Wilbert Lloyd Roberts, director of Cwmni Theatr Cymru, ‘where television came before theatre.’

Welsh theatre is thus an invention of the late twentieth century. This explains much about the kind of theatre found in Wales – a practice that owes nothing to tradition because there was no tradition. It has evolved into a unique mixture of community-based provision, English-style mainstream productions and non-literary experimental work. There is also the emergence of a distinctively Welsh form of what has been called syncretic theatre – theatre that adapts and subverts the dominant, naturalistic mainstage English model to create something new and distinctive to the culture. However, the future of Welsh theatre hangs in the balance as proposals from the Arts Council of Wales are radically changing existing provision.

For the first half of the twentieth century there was little, if anything, that might be called indigenous Welsh theatre. There were some famous names: Richard Hughes, Emlyn Williams, Dylan Thomas, Gwyn Thomas and the controversial Saunders Lewis, a Liverpudlian who spoke and wrote in Welsh and was a fiery activist on behalf of Welsh nationalism – and the issues of language and nationalism are interwoven in the fabric of contemporary Welsh theatre.

The national theatre debate bubbled away throughout the century, after Lloyd George championed the idea of an indigenous Welsh drama at the 1902 Eisteddfod, and it has surfaced at moments when nationalism was fashionable rather than when theatre was strong. Lord Howard de Walden, an English émigré, led various incarnations of a national theatre company before and after the First World War. Saunders Lewis and the newly formed nationalist Plaid Cymru championed the cause in the 1930s. In the 1960s, when Gwynfor Evans became Plaid's first MP, the movement won new followers and almost became a reality with the publicly funded Welsh Theatre Company – but, crucially, without a permanent base. In the 1990s the campaign inevitably found a new lease of life, led by Michael Bogdanov. Despite his assumed east European name and international reputation, Bogdanov reidentified himself as a born-again Welshman (he was born to a Dr Bogden in Neath) understandably frustrated with the lack of any real professional structure in the land of his birth. But for most practitioners the question of a national theatre is irrelevant, at best a diversion and at worst an elitist conspiracy to channel funding into a large company at the expense of the 30-odd smaller ones which claim they constitute the real national theatre of Wales.

The national theatre campaigners have tended to forget, or be ignorant of, what happens on the ground. They concentrate on only one form of theatre: mainstream literary drama, the sort that has dominated England since Shakespeare but a convention that has not exactly flourished in Wales, despite getting the lion's share of public funding. After the Welsh Theatre Company (1962–78) and Cwmni Theatr Cymru (1965–84), both of which suffered a painfully long-drawn-out demise, there was the bilingual Theatr yr Ymylon (1972–7), praised for its adventurousness but destroyed by its lack of organization, and Theatre Wales (1980–7), dismissively referred to at the time as Theatre 125 because it seemed to depend on London talent dashing to Cardiff and back on the new Intercity 125 train – all aspiring to be the National Theatre of Wales. In literary drama, the leading new-writing company Made in Wales (1981–2000) failed, under both Gilly Adams and more recently Jeff Teare, to make a major impact either in or outside Wales, despite promoting promising work by Alan Osborne, Dic Edwards, Peter Lloyd, Larry Allan and Roger Williams. Hwyl a Fflag (1984–94), the Welsh-language new writing community-based company, and Dalier Sylw (founded 1988; since 2000, renamed Sgript Cymru and funded as the only new-writing company) are, or were, probably more successful at doing a similar job mainly in the Welsh language, but neither was a conventional main-stage company. There are four production houses – Theatre Clwyd (founded 1976) at Mold in the north-east; Bangor's Theatr Gwynedd (built in 1975 and with its own company since 1985) in the north-west; the Milford Haven Torch (1977) in the south-west; and the Sherman (built 1973, with its own company from 1985) in Cardiff, in the south-east – and all of them have always had both financial and artistic problems. Indeed, the core of the Arts Council of Wales's drama strategy published in 1999 was about mainstream provision, proposing English- and Welsh-language national performing arts companies. Theatr Clwyd, based a few miles from Chester, is generally regarded as attracting its audience from England; Gwynedd, producing only Welsh-language work, recovered in the 1990s but suffers from the dearth of material; the Torch mounts only its own productions, a few times a year, and has no urban or student population to draw on; and the Sherman suffers from a lack of identity, with a brief to concentrate on young people, although it did develop a refreshingly open house-style based on community-theatre techniques when director Phil Clark arrived in 1989, encouraging new writing and offering professional productions of work by the Rhondda-based playwright Frank Vickery, whose work formerly focused on the amateur theatre. Welsh writers often still prefer to follow the footsteps of Gwyn Thomas, Emlyn Williams, Dannie Abse, Peter Gill and Sean Matthias and move to London; others simply absconded to the well-paid pastures of Welsh television.

Despite this lack of tradition, it was perhaps understandable that the embryo Welsh Arts Council (from 1953 to 1967 the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain) decided in the 1950s that its first step towards introducing professional theatre to Wales should be the manufacture of a company, even though in 1962 it had no theatre buildings to play in and no known audiences to play to; the second step was to set up the buildings, in many cases in collaboration with universities and local authorities, starting with Theatr y Werin in Aberystwyth in 1972. But the third step was the one really to kick-start Welsh theatre: the creation of a network of small companies in every county (eight of them at that time) that would take small-scale theatre to non-theatre venues and also offer a Theatre in Education (TIE) service. Theatr Powys (1973) was the first and is still the largest. Within a decade Wales had a TIE and Community Theatre provision that was the envy of many other cultures that had enjoyed a centuries-old theatre tradition. The unique Hijinx Theatre (founded 1981), with its commitment to audiences with learning difficulties, came out of this TIE/community movement and still can call on a core of some of the best Welsh-based directors, actors and technicians. The TIE companies also produced many of the admittedly small band of Welsh playwrights: Greg Cullen, Charlie Way, Dic Edwards, Laurence Allan and Lucy Gough are all still associated with TIE/ community work. The emphasis given to work with young people has also seen the emergence of Mid Powys Youth Theatre (founded 1988) on the one hand and a range of companies playing to young people like Green Ginger (1978) and Small World (1992) on the other. At the end of the century, however, TIE/community provision was threatened by the withdrawal of funds triggered by local government reorganization in 1996 and the restructuring of the Arts Council of Wales two years later. TIE/community theatre companies were victims of ACW's 1999 new drama strategy, to be replaced by four franchised Young People's Theatre companies, although they won a temporary reprieve after public protests in 1999–2000.

The third strand of theatre practice was one that could not be planned: the organic growth of small companies that depended on the unpredictable mix of practitioners, economics, politics, audiences and history. It may indeed have been a resistance to the very idea of ‘planned provision’ that led to the creation in the 1970s of companies like Cardiff Laboratory Theatre (1974), Paupers Carnival (1976) and Theatr Bara Caws (1976), and the relocation from London to Cardiff in 1972 of Moving Being; all of these did the groundwork for what has developed into a distinctively different Welsh theatre scene. This now includes Brith Gof, Man Act, Centre for Performance Research and the Magdalena Project, all with their roots in Cardiff Lab; Sgript Cymru and the various new dance and performance groups who owe so much to Geoff Moore's Moving Being; and Volcano Theatre and Frantic Assembly, whose unique styles were developed and encouraged in a theatrical climate sympathetic to experiment and radical non-naturalism. ELAN (European Live Arts Network) Wales is a unique Cardiff company under the direction of Italian Firenza Guidi that mounts often stunning community-based ‘montages’ in Wales and throughout Europe. Other small groups that flourished intermittently in the last decade of the century include the all-women Alma W 1052 Theatre and Y Gymraes, NoFit State Circus, Thin Language, Theatrig, Theatr Y Byd, Mappa Mundi, U-Man Zoo, Good Cop Bad Cop, Beyond the Border, Wales Actors Company, Castaway, Scala Review, and projects based on the performance talents of such as Eddie Ladd, Marc Rees and Sean Tuan John.

Finally, there is an English-language Welsh theatre that has been labelled syncretic theatre, a term that comes from postcolonial theory and suggests a form of performance that is basically the ‘colonized’ culture’s appropriation of the imposed dominant form (English-style literary theatre) and the indigenous tweaking thereof to create a form that may seem to be English but which is in fact decidedly un-English and indeed distinctively Welsh. Such allegedly syncretic theatre may be seen in the plays of Ed Thomas (with his company Fiction Factory, formerly Y Cwmni) and Ian Rowlands (with his Theatr Y Byd), both of whom subvert recognizable naturalistic theatre by using Welsh language forms and rhythms, Welsh cultural references, Welsh political issues and an aggressively anti-naturalistic style. It has its roots in the attempts by J. O. Francis (e.g. Change, 1913), Caradoc Evans (Taffy, 1923) and Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood, 1953) to create an Anglo-Welsh (albeit a much despised term) language, and perhaps also to the work of Welsh-language playwrights like Gwenllyn Parry (Y Twr, 1978). Not unexpectedly, English critics have not warmed to Welsh theatre: Ed Thomas's Gas Station Angel (1998), commissioned by the Royal Court, though well received in Wales and on the European continent, generally incensed the traditional English press, who found it wordy and whimsical, and unleashed a torrent of racist stereotyping.

The word ‘Welsh’ is used here mostly to describe practitioners in either of the two main languages of Wales, although there is to a great extent separate development. Such indigenous theatrical tradition as can be claimed is, of course, in Welsh, although only a minority now speak the language. There was for years a ring-fenced funding allocation by the Arts Council of Wales for Welsh-language theatre as part of its commitment to the language, and there are some interesting playwrights who work entirely (Meic Povey and Gareth Miles, notably) or mainly (Sion Eirian) in Welsh; but by common assent the quality and consistency of production are affected by the drawing power of more lucrative Welsh-language television work which attracts writers, directors and actors away from live theatre. Perhaps inevitably, Welsh-language theatre has struggled to achieve a profile as high as the English-language or bilingual companies. Brith Gof perform more in Welsh than in English; but their pedagogic, conceptual, Grotowski-influenced theatre communicates regardless of language: a smattering of postmodernist theory is more useful than Welsh. None of the purely Welsh-language companies looks secure – Cwmni Theatr Cymru folded in financial chaos in 1983, Cwmni Cyfri Tri and Theatr Crwban merged into Arad Goch in 1985, Whare Teg (founded 1984) became Cwmni Mega, which staggers along with little or no funding, Hwyl a Fflag lost its grant in 1994. The success of Sgript Cymru relies on the variable quality of the new plays it produces. Theatr Clwyd under Terry Hands worked a neat bit of image manipulation by renaming itself Clwyd Theatr Cymru and producing a Welsh-language programme alongside its glossier English work, but it still has to win the hearts of Welsh audiences. The Welsh-language National Performing Arts Company proposed by the Arts Council of Wales's 1999 drama strategy, initially in the form of a merger of Theatr Gwynedd and Bara Caws, would be expected to develop and deliver work for Welsh-speaking audiences throughout Wales. On the smaller scale, Sera Moore-Williams's Y Gymraes (founded in 1992) may look the best hope for the future. Welsh theatre in both languages, despite being diverse, different and unpredictable, is virtually invisible in the rest of the UK, although it exports well to Europe. It is unclear how much of this practice and provision will survive. The new Welsh Assembly; a new strategy from a restructured Arts Council of Wales, which drastically reduced its portfolio of 20 revenue-funded companies by half at the start of the twenty-first century; a Millennium Centre for the Performing Arts due to open in Cardiff Bay; a new generation of writers, actors and directors who can be seduced into television rather than the stage – all hold the key to whether Welsh theatre will build on its first 40 years or will turn out to be a remarkable but relatively brief flash in the pan.

from David Adams, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).