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National Theatre Wales - The Celtic Diaspora Comes To Edinburgh

National theatres are everywhere in Edinburgh this year. After five
years, the National Theatre of Scotland are paying dividends with their
none building-based 'theatre without walls', effectively enabling the
company to do and be anything it wants to be. This is evident on the
Fringe, both in Vicky Featherstone's production of Zinnie Harris' new
play, The Wheel, and in David Greig and Wils Wilson's The Strange
Undoing of Prudencia Hart. While The Wheel is housed in the relatively
conventional setting of the Traverse Theatre, the size of the play's
cast alone sets it apart from much home-grown theatre. Prudencia Hart,
on the other hand, may feature similarly in the Traverse programme, but
its performances in the bar area of Ghillie Dhu just up the road are a
fantastically audacious adventure in style, technique and subject that
marries traditional border ballads with twenty-first century
post-modern pop.

This year, the NTS is joined by not one, but two national theatres of
Wales. While the Welsh language-based Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru has
been around since 2003, their production of Dafydd James' play,
Llwyth, or Tribe in English, is a contemporary gay fantasia based
around a rugby international game that is as far removed from
traditional notions of Welsh-language mythology as one might get. Even
more striking is Dark Philosophers, the first production by the newly
constituted National Theatre Wales to play outside the company's home
country. The play itself, adapted from the gritty short stories of
Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas, is, like The Wheel, on the surface at least a
relatively conventional staging of a deceptively fantastical piece of
work. The company philosophies behind it, however, look remarkably
similar to the model the NTS was founded on.

Like the NTS, which avoided setting up as a monolithic building-based
organisation which would have effectively centralised operations to an
old-fashioned centre of excellence structure which, regardless of the
quality of the work produced, would have effectively restricted access
of anyone beyond its immediate borders. See London's South Bank for the
perfect example of this. The NTS has either toured or created work in
pretty much every part of Scotland, be it in proscenium arch theatres,
blocks of inner-city flats or, in the case of Prudencia Hart, any
boozer that will have them.

Similarly, over the last twelve months NTW produced twelve new shows,
each in a different part of the country, from The Valleys to Milford
Haven, taking in everywhere from Cardiff to Snowdonia en route, and
using a variety of theatrical forms indoors and out. The company's
first year ended in Port Talbot with The Passion, a spectacular
participatory piece of promenade theatre made in association with the
Wildworks company that retold the Easter story under the creative
directorship of prominent Welsh actor Michael Sheen. If NTW is breaking
the mould in Wales, it's pretty clear where their grounding as an
organisation comes from.

“We're very much influenced by the NTS,” explains NTW artistic director
John E McGrath. “I mean that in the sense that theatre can have an
urgency around the whole country rather than just be based in one area
of it. The NTS have proved that, and that's as much about the way ideas
about nationhood itself has changed as it is about the nature of the
work itself. You have to bear in mind as well that Wales has a very
different theatre history to Scotland and England, and that there are a
lot less theatre buildings in Wales anyway. A lot of theatre in Wales
as well has been focused on story-telling, but ideas about theatre have
become quite different over the last ten years. Audiences now want
theatre to be an adventure and an event.”

Devolution too has had an impact on how forward-thinking artistic
organisations need to operate on a national level.

“It's not a coincidence that things have happened the way they have in
Scotland and Wales,” McGrath maintains, “and a product of devolution
has meant that it's not about replicating a building-based model, but
decentralising things so you have something mobile and flexible enough
to address the different needs and different stories that a small
country has.”

This is something that Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru artistic director
Arwell Gruffydd is similarly aware of when dealing with a purely Welsh
language based theatre.

“The Welsh nation and the Welsh language speaking nation doesn't just
exist in one place,” Gruffydd points out. “Welsh language speakers
exist all over the country, so you have to take the work to different
places, and that's why a South bank model wouldn't work for us. It's
interesting for us that NTW has started up, because we're not the only
country with two national theatres. Norway and Holland both have two
national theatres, and while it's because our remit is to produce Welsh
language works that sets us apart, it's important to reflect
contemporary culture and not be a museum.”

Significantly, both of the Welsh shows are presented in co-production.
While Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru are collaborating with Sherman Cymru,
who scored an Edinburgh hit with the verbatim drama, Deep Cut, in 2007,
NTW are presenting the Dark Philosophers in a co-production with Told
By An Idiot.

“This is the age of collaboration,” as Gruffydd puts it, acknowledging
a desire from both NTW and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru to work together
in the future.

The last Welsh language theatre company to have any kind of
international impact was Brith Gof, who in 1991 in collaboration with
percussion-based agit-provocateurs Test Department, brought a
spectacular dramatisation of Gododdin, the oldest kn own Welsh-language
poem, to Tramway. An all-engulfing epic of sound and fury that left
half its audience soaked through with overspills of the water used in
the show, it is exactly the sort of theatrical adventure McGrath is
talking about. Gododdin too was a thrilling example of how to inject
riotous new life into an old text. Given that Test Department
eventually morphed into NVA, Angus Farquhar's Scotland-based purveyors
of environmental happenings, Gododdin was also a pre-cursor to the
sorts of cross-border collaborations all the national theatres
mentioned here aspire to.

This is certainly something that Vicky Featherstone has implemented in
the workings of the NTS. If that model has influenced NTW, then it's
one Featherstone is happy not to take the credit for.

“Our model came from the theatre community,” she says. “That's what
happens when you talk to the artists themselves, you get something
dynamic, and I think what's happened with the NTS over the last five
years is living proof of that. If NTW are doing something similar but
with their own identity, then I think it's a real shake-up of what a
national theatre can be. Obviously I have a real respect for the
National Theatre on the South Bank, but I wonder if that company was
starting out now whether they'd do it in exactly the same way, and I
wonder if not then what sort of model would they use.”

Any political statement the presence of both NTS and NTW in the same
building might be making shouldn't, however, be overstated.

“It feels like the National Theatre of Scotland is doing something
democratic,” Featherstone says, “and is owned by the people rather than
a corporation. In that way I think it's looking at a very modern sense
of what national means. It's about identity and a sense of self,” she
says. “It's not about empire building.”

The Dark Philosophers, Traverse Theatre, August 9-28, various times;
Llwyth Tribe), St Georges West, August 20-28, 11.45am-1.30pm
www.traverse.co.uk
www.nationaltheatrewales.org
www.theatr.com

The Herald, August 9th 2011

ends

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