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Mark Fisher talks to prolific Welsh playwright Edward Thomas about bad reviews and ambitious theatre, as his New Wales Trilogy opens next issue.
The last time Cardiff-based theatre company Y Cwmni played in Glasgow, it got such a round slating from The Herald and The Scotsman that it used the juicy quotes to lure in audiences on the rest of the tour. Playing the Peter O’Toole Macbeth card, the company continues to boast about the notices - ‘considerable monotony.’ ‘extremely unpleasant’, ‘disastrous error of judgement’ — to promote the restaging of the show, Flowers of the Dead Red Sea, and its two companion pieces, House of America and East of the Gantry.
Actually, we here at the level-headed List were considerably more enthusiastic about Edward Thomas’s play. True enough, it lost its way, and its argument was convoluted, but its relentless poetic barrage was performed with mesmerising intensity on a self-destructing set onto which shopping trolleys were liable to fall from the ceiling at the most unexpected moments. Funny, striking and intriguing, the production had too much going for it to dismiss out of hand.
Thomas admits that a good deal of the play was changed after its Tramway debut and explains that it was rewritten again for radio transmission
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Edward Thomas: ‘invented asheatre'
earlier this year. When it returns as part of Y Cwmni‘s New Wales Trilogy, it will be as a hybrid of the previous versions put together by its new director, Janek Alexander. But revisions or not, it‘s clear that Thomas, the writer of all three plays and director of East ofthe Gantry, loves the idea that he might be unsettling his audiences. ‘The company doesn‘t espouse naturalism,’ he asserts. ‘and when you have action that doesn’t depend on a narrative so much, you‘re bound to have people
i who feel one way or another. All over Wales some ; people think we are brilliant and other people think we are crap. lwelcome criticism.
"The plays are not meant to be constructed by the audience as a collective,‘ he continues, ‘they’re meant to affect the individual. Howard Barker talks about honouring an audience. You make arguments that are fragments, some ofwhich are convoluted, some of which are contradictory, some ofwhich will be beautiful, but the principle is that in a fragmented world, you can’t as an author think that your work provides a thesis or a message — you require a large ego to do that. What I’d rather grapple with is how difficult the truth is.
. how you re-create a reality from memory.
I otherwise theatre becomes a vessel for mediocrity. ‘ Our work is not mediocre.‘ Key words in Thomas's conversation are i ‘invention’ and ‘fragmentation‘: the first because i he is setting about creating a theatrical tradition in a country which does not have one, the second I because that tradition needs to be rich in its 1 diversity. And it seems natural for the playwright. i who contributed to Tramway‘s Theatres and ' Nations season last year, to look to Ireland and - Scotland to see nations defining, redefining and § asserting themselves. ‘In Wales,‘ he says, ‘we don’t have a strong theatre tradition. We have a I theatre of adoption. I’ve argued before for an ; invented Welsh theatre in language, form and style, rather than rehashing old ideas.‘ Each play in the trilogy stands on its own, but the directorial, textual and acting links between them ' justify sitting through all five hours. ‘The three
‘All overWales some people think we are brilliant and other people think we are crap.’
' plays have a big U-shape,‘ says Edwards. ‘House
: ofAmerica is like a Greek tragedy in form. then we
3 end up in a no-man's land. a shrinking land. in Flowers of the Dead Red Sea where memory is
brittle, and we develop the arguments about not
submitting, not living in shame. Then in East From
S the Gantry, we pick up the end pieces of Flowers of
v the Dead Red Sea and create possibilities through
. story-telling. It‘s not a narrative but it‘s a bit more
; accessible. Maybe through story-telling you can
. connect with memory and that can be treacherous. harmful, false or completely made up. but
. somehow, through confronting a fragmented
: memory, we may be able to come up with the
possibility of a future. It’s far more optimistic — not in the sense of “hey let’s go out and ring the bells" - but I suppose it’s the most optimistic thing I‘ve
New Wales Trilogy, Tramway, Glasgow, Sat 10—5101 18 Oct.
‘Words just can’t tell the story oi lndres Haldoo’s imprisonment,’ says Aiaykumar oi lntemational Arts. ‘There are no words to explain the horrors ot Hobben Island.’ This is, no doubt, an appropriate response to the humiliation and torture suliered by me leaders in captivity, but when it comes lrom the actor, writer and producer oi a new play about their island prison, it suggests a view oi theatre's inadequacy akin to that ol Beckett on barbiturates.
But lor Aiaykumar and the multinational cast at Hope Beyond The
Wall this iailure ol language is just the starting point tor a production which challenges the classical European
theatre’s view that text and words are all. The group attempts to tell the story in what Ajaykumar says is ‘a very visual way, through images, music, actors and the interaction between the two,’ and in so doing they pick and mix lrom a variety ol theatrical traditions. Contributing to this wordless storytelling is Amadou Saho, a Gambian musician, who was recruited to represent the inspiration which Mandela gave to the other prisoners. ‘He provides the voice of hope that comes right through the play,’ says Aiaykumar. ‘Instead ol having prisoners in isolation shouting across the yard or passing messages, we’d replace the words with Amadou
The company does not shy away irom
replacing whole scenes with music, sometimes even using it as a narrative device - not without some relevance, as the prisoners held concerts with an orchestra made at rubbish whenever their instruments weren't being smashed by the authorities.
‘Our work’s not Japanese, Indian, African or European theatre, but it’s using all these to produce something very new and unique,’ says Aiaykumar. ‘This country already has a strong theatrical tradition which we don‘t wish to undermine, but there's a whole world out there we'd like to incorporate in ourway ol worklng.’ (Stephen Chester)
Hope Beyond The Wall, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 25—Sun 27 Sept.
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The List 25 September — 8 October 1992 45