Last week, a group of playwrights sent a letter to the head of National Theatre Wales’s board, making public conversations that have been going on behind closed doors for many months. NTW’s low production rate (no performances for 346 days in 2017, despite an annual Arts Council grant of more than £1.5m), short runs and constant commissioning of non-dramatists caused us to take action.
Forty of us signed the letter. I’ve since been approached by more writers, directors and actors voicing support. We listed three points we hoped the bulk of the artistic community could rally around in a bid to effect change.
The first is that all shows produced by NTW should have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as the primary artist. This isn’t about parochialism but to prevent the marginalisation of the Welsh experience. The English company WildWorks did not lessen the Welshness of The Passion, which they co-created in 2011. The English director Katie Mitchell engaged by NTW would not lessen the Welshness of a Gary Owen play. But, as a fellow playwright said to me, it is as if NTW does not wish to promote our view of the outside world, but instead the outside world’s view of us.
The sense that our history is being deliberately erased is overwhelming. Richard Gregory, the Manchester-based director of the NTW show English, stated in an interview that, as an English-speaking Englishman, he didn’t feel equipped to talk about Wales and Welshness. Why then was he given the job of directing a show about language in Wales? The interplay between Welsh and English is at the heart of our history. How can NTW not understand this? The hurt this show caused remains palpable and there has been no attempted redress.
Our second point is that non-Welsh and Wales-based artists and companies working for NTW need to be world class and engaged only to support a Welsh or Wales-based artist. While National Theatre of Scotland proudly claims to be “celebrating our world-class directors, writers, actors, designers and creative teams and the classic theatre experience” on its website, NTW ignores talent on its own doorstep. For its most recent show, Tide Whisperer in Tenby, the writer was from Manchester, despite an established and lauded playwright living down the road. Just two out of eight actors in the production had any connection to Wales. This is now seen as standard for NTW.
Our third point is that an NTW show has to have theatre in it. This is not to put down standups, artists or singers, but the company is not called National Productions Wales. Its list of artistic goals reads like a document belonging to an anti-National Theatre in London. This would be fine if we had what London has but we don’t.
Audiences crave Welsh plays and Welsh work. The emphasis placed on them at the Sherman in Cardiff by the outgoing artistic director Rachel O’Riordan has seen the theatre’s audiences increase by 35%. Meanwhile, a limited audience (one of whom was a reviewer) attended a performance of the NTW-commissioned play Cotton Fingers by Rachel Trezise in Aberaeron Memorial Hall in July as part of the company’s NHS70 series. This is in no way a reflection on the writer, director or actors involved in that show. Indeed, Rachel was one of the letter’s signatories. But how can our national company be satisfied with relatively high seat subsidy rates yet virtually empty village halls? How can they put artists who deeply care about their work in that position? Where are our big plays written by our playwrights starring actors such as Eve Myles and Matthew Rhys in NTW productions at Wales Millennium Centre? Where is the love of theatre? Where is the vision?
We genuinely want dialogue. We want a debate about what our national theatre should be. The immediate response from NTW – an accusation of “inaccurate facts” with no evidence – led many of us to despair. Clive Jones, the chair of NTW, has now offered to meet with us. We very much hope this is a turning point in terms of artistic engagement.