Ian Rowlands’ address to the audience at Academi’s Literary Lunch at Portmeirion, 30 September 2007. The speech was read out by Richard Elfyn.
The invitation to address you today gave me great pleasure. Forgive my absence, but I am no longer master of my own fate, having sold my soul to television. The irony is that I accepted the invitation to address you when I served no one and was busy winding up Llwyfan Gogledd Cymru / North Wales Stage after producing for a mere four years.
I worked as a director in north Wales for almost ten years. I remember my friend Ed asking me soon after I started in the North, “Why the hell did you want to work there?” Well, I didn’t answer you at the time, Ed. And so, to you Ed, and to the Academi, I would like to explain my reason for making the North my professional home, and the rationale behind my work there with the companies with which I was involved.
At the end of the nineties, Theatr Bara Caws very nearly disappeared for good. The consensus, within the Arts Council, was that the company’s work was sub-standard, that the company itself had no artistic vision. They tried advertising for someone to guide the company; a sort of ’artistic co-ordinator’ - co-ordinator rather than director (because of the co-operative ethos of the company), but the attempts were in vain. As a result, the company was given an ultimatum by the Arts Council. Either they accepted ’someone chosen by the Council’ to guide them, or the company would lose its grant. I was parachuted into Bara Caws back in 1998 - like Alun Michael - to offer guidance and create a focus. God knows what impression the company had of me, a South Walian full of urban ideas, but they gave me a very warm welcome. I would particularly like to thank the late Eirug Wyn for his generous support.
But although I have always been grateful for the opportunities I received in north Wales, I sometimes think to myself that accepting the appointment did theatre in Wales little good. Perhaps I should have refused the offer and let the old dog die. That would have left an empty stage for us to re-set for a new act in the play called ’The Welsh-language Theatre’! The death of Bara Caws would have broken the theatrical thread going back to Cwmni Theatr Cymru. This is the continuum which has anchored the values of contemporary theatre to the values of yesterday, and which continues to do so! Cwmni Theatr Cymru yesterday and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru today; one the heir of the other, one legitimizing the other; as if Wales today and Wales tomorrow are the same as Wales yesterday!
With no loyalty to the age of Wilbert, no matter how honourable that age, I tried to push the company in new directions by breaking new ground, raising production standards and taking the company abroad, forcing it into a dialogue with other cultures. I was saddened, having left, to see the company sliding back into its old ways. But by then, the no confidence crisis in the work of the company was over, and a new crowd at the Arts Council of Wales had a new agenda. As a result, Bara Caws has had the freedom to thrive as it will, proving that summer is not just one swallow!
But let’s consider Ed’s question again - Why? Why did I go north? When I started with Bara Caws, I was aware of the Arts Council of Wales’s intention to create a National Theatre; one based on a model of merging Bara Caws and Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd as a starting point. Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd had no artistic guidance at the time, there was a void to fill - I had ’an eye to the main chance’. That lay at the root of my willingness to undertake the post with Bara Caws; to be involved with an iconic Welsh-language company at a time of change, and by being so involved to work towards being an integral part of the debate concerning the proposed National Theatre. And so Ed, my concise answer, several years after you asked the question ’Why?’ is, simply, ’Why not?’
There was a sub-text to my work with Bara Caws, Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd and, at the end of my time in the north, with North Wales Stage. My efforts were either an act towards delivering the National Theatre or a reaction to the reality of the ideal, which turned into disappointment for me and many others.
Now, I know such a statement can be controversial because of its subjectivity! But as I have now stepped out of the Welsh-language Theatre, I claim the freedom to talk plainly to you today, in spirit if not physically present! Although I have now only a lay interest in the field, I still have strong beliefs concerning the value and strength of theatre ‘which can make one feel, for a second, that one is closer to the truth’ to quote the words of Peter Brook, but which is usually, in Wales, a barefaced lie!
For me, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (the National Theatre of Wales), or rather Theatr Genedlaethol y Cymry (the National Theatre of the Welsh) – one must define clearly - has proved, thus far, a missed opportunity – a purveyor of miss-truths! I expected truth, quality and vision from the new company - and expected in vain. Time after time I have been disappointed by the company’s work, and yet I have faith in the basic nature of the ideal.
During my time with Bara Caws, I addressed several conferences on the importance of establishing a national theatre which would crown all theatre activities in Wales; an integrated model. There was, and still is, very little co-operation in the Welsh-language theatre. Theatre in this country is usually created by dictatorship, there is very little consideration of the greater good; very little shared aspiration.
My disappointment with the current company stems from the fact that it is a continuation of the old insular and parochial way. I believe very strongly in the purpose and role of a National Theatre in a civilized nation; a theatre that stages the individual’s truths in a community of communities. For any nation to support a national company which does not reflect the aspirations of the country is wasteful.
I agree with the German, Schiller, when he wrote, ’There is no way of avoiding the substantial impact an established national theatre of quality can have on the spirit of a nation.’ The key word is quality. Unfortunately, as George Bernard Shaw wrote a century later, ‘If Wales will not have the best Wales can produce, she will get the worst that the capitals of Europe can produce, and it will serve her right’.
Lord de Walden – founder of a fledging National Theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century - added, ‘The nation should undertake a thorough process of self analysis and ultimately self-criticism that would enable it to grapple with the many contradictions with which its sense of identity is riddled.’ In other words, as a nation we desperately needed to nurture objectivity and honesty in order to create a National Theatre of quality, value and relevance to the whole nation. I have a feeling that a number of people had objective views before the National Theatre was established. But it seems to me that there was little objectivity amongst the select band charged with establishing the organization. Because we still had not shed Wilbert’s mantle completely, perhaps nothing else was to be expected?
Following the fait accompli, it is now our duty, as the audience of the new Wales, to evaluate the company objectively, and regularly, because any country’s theatre is a measure of a nation’s health. We must assess the company’s vision and measure its output according to the standards of the best in Europe. The difficult questions must demand answers, must demand honesty if we are to avoid ’the worst Europe has to offer’.
The comments of someone now on the outside, perhaps? Perhaps indeed. But my aim is to offer honesty; to offer honesty according to the demands of de Walden, in order to support the open and honest debate needed in Wales. I agree my comments are subjective, but do not apologize for that - I am writing from the heart; from the passionate source from which stems theatre. I may be on the outside now, but my heart is still true to the Welsh-language theatre and to the continuation of the art form through the medium of the language of heaven. Even so, to me the language is not everything.
My aim, from the start, was to communicate; to create a company which could act as a bridge within and outside Wales. Staging Branwen with North Wales Stage was no coincidence! My desire was to legitimize Welsh-language theatre on an international stage. I know Ed and a few other Welsh playwrights have had considerable success internationally, and that is good. But my particular crusade was to legitimize the Welsh-language experience; that which is hidden from non-Welsh speakers and from foreigners. My aim was to normalize our language and culture by shedding its symbolism and placing it in a wider context; treating it as a language only and by doing so initiating a dialogue between the invisible and the unknown. In essence - communicating.
Towards the end of the nineties, I opened New South Wales, one of my plays, in Edinburgh. The respected reviewer, Owen Dudley Edwards came to review it. Owen was an old friend and so, after his generous but balanced review - three stars only - appeared in the Scotsman, I went to see him to discuss his criticism.
‘You see,’ I said to him, ‘I don’t believe that man can truly communicate with man. Man is an island, Blake lied! We merely sign through the walls. I have tried to portray this through my direction of the play.’ After a few seconds silence, he turned to me, ‘What is the purpose of theatre, dear boy?’ ‘To communicate,’ I said. ‘ Exactly. If you do not believe in the ability of man to communicate with man, do not corrupt the stage with your autism’. In a second of clarity, I realized the mistake I had made with the play. With a little redirection, it went on to win five stars in Dublin and to tour successfully! The words of Owen Dudley Edwards have resonated with me ever since. If theatre fails to communicate, it is worthless.
But communication / entertainment is only half the achievement. Bara Caws’s club shows communicate, for example, they are popular, but what is their purpose? Without a message to communicate, without the searing need to discuss the human condition, we may as well be silent! Forgive me - declaring this in the presence of the Academi may well be carrying ‘coals to Newcastle’. But in the context of Welsh-language theatre, it’s not as ’coals to Newcastle’ as all that! What is the purpose of Welsh-language theatre and its output in today’s world? Who is really debating this issue? Where is the theatrical vision that gives theatre pride of place at the centre of the nation’s soul - where it really should be?
The important question for me is, how can the Welsh-language Theatre steer the nation’s course according to Schiller’s guidelines; a nation suspicious of the value of a professional theatre and which has by now downgraded the play at the National Eisteddfod because of the lack of a consistent standard - when was the last time the play that won the gold medal was staged?
To present tranquillising shows aimed at the traditional audience because they are the core audience is to castrate the theatre’s ability to steer a nation’s course. Where is the challenge in that? I know bums on seats enables any company and the Arts Council to tick their boxes and so to obtain the philistine support of the Assembly. But what’s the point of such theatre? The magic of theatre is to stimulate, excite and disturb, not to indulge the prejudices of the blind and deaf!
I may have criticized Bara Caws, but I learnt a great deal about the nature of the community and the Welsh-speaking audience while I was part of that company. ’Wales is a community of communities,’ I wrote during that period, ’and that is its strength and also its weakness’. What surprised me, at the start of my commitment to the North, was the unwillingness of the communities outside some towns or outside the city to accept any challenge in their theatre. As the result of much experience, it appears to me there are at most around 100 people in each venue who will venture to see challenging plays - plays that ask questions of the audience. You can double that number for passive plays that ask nothing and can obviously treble it for filth on stage which asks you to leave your brain in a bucket before coming to the show!
Although I committed to north Wales, I come from the south; little Dai from the valleys perhaps, but one who has always had an urban taste in theatre - bourgeois if you like. What a confession to make before a culture which idolizes the common people / ’our lads’! But I’m not going to apologize. My aspirations as regards the theatre have always been bourgeois. The hundred in the audience who venture to see challenging shows in whichever venue are bourgeois. Every audience searching for questions in its theatre is bourgeois. It is the bourgeoisie that maintain that space in the theatre, which is the debating forum for any civilized nation!
I know I am generalizing rather, and you may accuse me of being ‘classist’ - but I’m not - it’s a matter of semantics! The bourgeoisie are in fact the tier (whether historically or currently) of the world’s communities, which has possessed, and which continues to possess the money, the time and the right to think - although I stress the ability to think is not exclusive to that class, just that their affluence allows them more time to do so!
As a result, it was at the idealized bourgeoisie I wished to aim my work; to put questions before them; questions about the nature of the world and of Wales today, uncomfortable questions about our identity and about humanity. I had no answers, possessing which would have been hubris of the ugliest kind. My sole aim was to pose the questions, expecting the audience to enlighten me.
Although I was aiming my work at that hundred people, the greatest pleasure was to see the show growing to attract a substantially larger audience than the usual hundred. Growing to the point when the ’people’, if you like, were attending and enjoying ’difficult’ theatre and debating it after the performance as if theatre, for once, was the centre of their lives! Ideologically, I would be delighted were the whole of Wales to be bourgeois in its taste in theatre, and were theatre itself to be the nation’s debating forum, rather than being a declaration that ’We are still here!’ - as long as we are doing it in Welsh! That kind of theatre is no theatre; it’s the coward’s ritual!
Hand in hand with my work in Wales, I started touring abroad with the work - to Ireland, France, Germany, Holland - in order to place our indigenous Welsh experience in a wider context; to place our community culture within the web of European communities. Although our dreams and desires here in Wales are common to people all over the world, historically, because of the nature of ’the language’, our cultural expressions have not been visual outside Wales. Worse still, they have tended to remain within the confines of the square mile, and I don’t mean just within the country’s boundaries, but within the Welsh-speaking areas! There has always been very little dialogue between the Welsh-speakers and the non-Welsh speaking Welsh; still less with people beyond the dyke. I understand the language is a fortress, a defence against historical oppression. I understand the history that has deprived the non-Welsh speaking audience of the odd genius, but if we are to inhabit the future, perhaps we should rethink the whole purpose of the Welsh language.
Is it a language or is it a weapon? When some poets refuse to hold interviews in English during the National Eisteddfod, or when our novelists allow translations of their work into any language ’but not English’, then it is a weapon. But a weapon to what end - to condemn ourselves and to destroy ourselves? Are not our true weapons our vision and our humanity, not the language itself, which is but a vehicle for our aspirations and our dreams?
If Welsh is merely a weapon, it is little better than a play badly directed in order to prove a point that language itself ought not to have to prove. The purpose of language is to communicate, not to isolate. There is a dire need in our time to reach out in order to legitimize the Welsh language in Wales, and Wales abroad; to normalize the Welsh experience at home and on an international stage… to normalize… normalize is term of the utmost importance. Once something has normalized / taken root, it is an integral part. By placing Welsh informally side by side with other languages in plays such as Ta ra Teresa (Aled Jones Williams), Frongoch and Branwen (Ifor ap Glyn), with no apology for the symbolism of so doing, I realised the language could be given equal value. That was the reaction too of the Irish with whom I worked on Frongoch and Branwen. When they saw their language also placed along side other languages, just as a language, without the shackles of its historical symbolism, their feelings were those of relief and confidence. Seeing tens of non-Welsh speakers and foreigners queuing up to see Branwen or Frongoch was a thrill - not just for me, but for the actors. For once, the Welsh-language play was communicating, and the Welsh-language makers felt, justly, that they were at last on an international stage; communicating with people other than Mrs Jones, Llanrug!
Considering this, the old Sgript Cymru saddened me endlessly. I have high hopes for the new company at the Sherman, but the old Sgript Cymru was another missed opportunity - we seem to relish missed opportunities in Wales! Sgript Cymru was a bilingual company, established to promote new plays in both languages. And to be technically correct, that is what was done, drama was promoted in both languages in Wales; Welsh-language plays on the one hand and English-language plays on the other. But I did not see a single multilingual experiment that reached across the linguistic and cultural divide; the divide which existed within the company and which exists here in our country. Yes, there was sub-titling, but what is that but a box to be ticked! Modern Wales is a multilingual country, and we can no longer afford sectoral division; to keep languages apart in their ghettos. The Welsh theatre is one theatre - English-language theatre and Welsh-language theatre being parts of it!
And now, having established Theatr Genedlaethol y Cymry, the Arts Council are under pressure to establish the National Theatre. You know, I am sure, that funding has been allocated to assess the feasibility of such a company, and a draft paper written by an influential member within the Council. In no time the National Theatre of Wales, or the Welsh National Theatre, whatever the name, will be an entity. What impact will this have, I wonder, on the Welsh-language theatre?
Let me be cynical for a second, and ask one or two difficult / necessary questions. What reason, that we could mention, was there for establishing the Theatr Genedlaethol? And what advantage was there to so doing before establishing the National Theatre? For me, the answer is to be found in the reason for establishing S4C years ago. To keep us quiet, to get rid of us. In the end, I foresee substantially more funding going to the National Theatre and work of quality produced - quality - one of Schiller’s benchmarks! What will happen when the standard of work in one language highlights the low standard of work in another? It can happen both ways of course. But going on the evidence of recent years, it’s likely to be one way traffic!
The proposed English-language company will have an international presence, mainly because its language is English. Any such company can attract talent from a wider pool and can attract creators from abroad to work with the company to enrich it and give it legitimacy. The Welsh-language theatre cannot do that. But as I said earlier, Wales in the 21st century can no longer afford linguistic or cultural ghettoization; Fortress Gwynedd on the one hand and the People’s Republic of Merthyr on the other - with the City State of Cardiff an entity in its own right! We are one nation, and will march to the future hand in hand, not apart. Are we happy with the two-track theatre; the prince and the pauper? I don’t think so. As a result, I would like to propose something for you to consider; a little mental after dinner mint for your homeward journeys.
In the paper about the possible nature of a National Theatre of Wales drafted by a prominent member of the Arts Council of Wales, it seems a sentence was included in one of the original drafts; an interesting statement to consider. ‘One could foresee the conjoining of the two National Theatres by 2012’ (I know I have paraphrased here). Now, according to the gentleman who wrote that document, some members of Theatr Genedlaethol y Cymry were furious when they read this particular sentence. Having established their comfortable little fiefdom, who can blame their desire to defend their Welsh Utopia - to hide, once more, behind the fortress of the language? Who can blame them? Well, I would like to!
Eighty per cent of Wales is non-Welsh speaking. English is an international, political, and influential language, and there will only be a limited amount of money available for theatre in Wales. What can the priority be for funding theatre provision in future? Will it be to create theatre of quality for the majority of our people, normalizing their experience on an international stage without linguistic hindrance? Which will support legitimizing Wales internationally through its cultural expressions (as in the models of Quebec and Catalonia)? Or will it be to fund the experience of the minority which only communicates with a section of the population and which, historically, is loath to build bridges with any other non-Welsh speaking section?
I foresee the Welsh-language theatre may wither in the 21st century because of the current lack of vision. Unless it raises its standards and insists on being part of the main stream it will end up being the ’poor aunt we don’t mention’. If money rules the world and if in the end provisions are going to be merged (according to the vision of the Arts Council of Wales), what advantage is there to remaining on the outside until the establishment eventually sucks you in? If that is the agenda, is it not wise to influence the agenda now and insist on the best for the good of the provision of both Welsh and Welsh-language theatre? To claim the empty space for the good of both the provision and the nation.
The priority in whichever language is theatre of quality. Are we satisfied with lower standards in the Welsh-language theatre, in order to defend the language? Were the proposed national theatre organisation to be an organisation that promoted productions in whichever language (based on a Scottish model - a commissioning body rather than a producing organisation), the only yardstick for promoting and funding productions would be quality. The Welsh-language theatre would have to raise its game in order to be funded. Would that be a bad thing? Less output but a higher standard?
Of course, any such body would have to be a multilingual organization with a statutory commitment to the Welsh-language. It would, in addition, have to operate an integrated strategy for the provision of all theatre in Wales, placing quality and communication at the heart of its policy; one voice, several languages.
To hope for an enlightened company of the kind is to build castles in the air; a company which would be a voice for the whole nation. But when James Dean was asked, ‘Are you bisexual?’ his answer was, ‘Why go through life with one arm tied behind your back?’ In other words, if you have two hands or two languages, use them! In my view, Wales cannot afford to face the future with one hand tied behind its back. And so, I offer you a ‘hypothetical’, a means of realizing the dream.
Had Theatr Genedlaethol y Cymry the vision, I suggest it could venture on a revolutionary course; artistically and socially. Were the board of Theatr Genedlaethol y Cymry to vote to refuse its million a year, and to insist the money allocated to the Welsh-language theatre be an integral part of the integrated provision of the proposed national theatre, that could ensure an equal future for the Welsh-language expression alongside the English-language expression. It is too easy to isolate the Welsh language - the establishment has long known how to do so. Strength lies in unity - together we succeed!
Mrs Jones Llanrug and her peers are a dying breed. The future is not theirs. The older generation deserve our respect, but the future belongs to the young and they have different values; new expectations of their theatre.
They are confident of their identity, reaching out and insisting on being part of the wider community. They crave to build bridges and to communicate. Wales today is the Wales of the young at heart, and theatre should reflect that. That is the role of theatre, to mirror its audience, to be a stage for its ambition; to offer its hopes a voice, to insist on a better world. Alun Lewis wrote, ‘The world is much larger than just England, isn’t it? I’ll never be just English or Welsh again.’ For too long, the world has been black and white for the Welsh. It’s high time the nation saw the whole spectrum. One theatre, several voices. One voice, several languages...
To be honest, I do not for a second expect the Welsh-language theatre to venture on such a daring course. While Mrs Jones and her crowd support the old Welsh and Welsh-language way of life, Welsh-language theatre will wither in the wings, while the Welsh Theatre takes off!
The thought saddens me immensely, especially having spent long years reaching out; trying to ask the difficult questions. I am no visionary, just impassioned; someone unwilling for Wales to receive ‘the worst that the capitals of Europe can produce’. I want it to have the best; powerful, exciting, vigorous theatre which is heart and soul for the country.
Ten years ago I travelled north full of hope about the theatre I would create, about the possibilities. Even though I have now come back home and have left for another medium, I still believe in the basic power of theatre; its ability to steer and shape a nation at a key time in a country’s history.
I dream of theatre of a high standard in Wales; theatre relevant to the whole nation and to the world beyond the confines of our historical prejudices; the narrowness, which chokes the development not only of the art form, but also of our nation. Perhaps from now on I shall be a member of the audience, but I shall still be questioning, until the time comes for me, full once more of hope, to step back on to the stage of the theatre in Wales.
Thank you for listening.