How the Welsh-language national theatre has blazed a trail for women playwrights and directors
As one of the first countries to have equal gender representation at parliament level, Wales has a cultural history of equality, reflected in its theatre. Nicholas Davies meets the Welsh theatremakers who continue to push the boundaries
“I’ve always seen women leading in theatre,” says director Mared Swain. “From drama teachers in school, through to the experienced female directors who encouraged me to do the same.”
Swain is talking before the final performance of Merched Caerdydd – which translates as Cardiff Girls – an uncompromising take on urban life in a bilingual culture. It’s an all-female cast, three monologues energetically spliced together in a series of smash-cuts – produced by a national theatre company and written and directed by women.
While arguments have raged over the representation of female voices in theatre in other parts of the UK – including the controversy over the (English) National Theatre’s programme announcement in March – there is a quiet confidence among women working in the Welsh language. Merched Caerdydd is the latest of many examples of plays steered by female talent for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (the Welsh-language national theatre).
In it’s 15-year history, more than half of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s productions have been directed by women and close to half have been written by female playwrights. Notably, of the companies in the Arts Council of Wales’ national portfolio funded to regularly create work in Welsh, 60% are led by female directors. So, why does there appear to be a more egalitarian approach?
Sara Lloyd directed Nyrsys for Theatr Genedlaethol in 2018, alongside writer Bethan Marlow. “In Welsh-language culture, theatre is less class-based, so perhaps that makes it more equal in other ways too,” she says. “Whether it’s in school, community groups or the Eisteddfod, performance is a pillar of Welsh culture, and women are an equal and visible part of that.”
Theatr Genedlaethol’s artistic director Arwel Gruffydd agrees: “Welsh-language culture is fed by the state-school system rather than public schools and there seems to be fewer barriers for women wanting to tell their stories.”
Two recent schemes run by the company – for emerging writers and directors – have seen women take up three-quarters of the places. “We certainly have an open-door policy, but we didn’t target a particular group. There just seems to be a confidence in very able and talented women putting themselves forward,” Gruffydd says.
Bara Caws is the longest-running Welsh-language theatre company. Artistic director Betsan Llwyd has witnessed a radical change in recent years. “In the past, Bara Caws consciously targeted women writers as we were keen to secure a female voice and perspective. But, interestingly, I now have more women than men contacting me for support and advice regarding new projects.”
So, what’s been the catalyst for this? As in most nations, Welsh-language drama has historically been dominated by men. Perhaps the two most significant plays of the 20th century – Blodeuwedd and Siwan – were about women but penned by the same man, Saunders Lewis, and remain staples of the Welsh canon. However, the creation of theatre company Dalier Sylw in 1988, to promote new writing in the language, prompted a seismic shift.
Geinor Styles, artistic director of Theatr na nÓg, credits Bethan Jones of Dalier Sylw for providing her with her first opportunity to direct: “I saw plenty of talented Welsh-speaking female directors, like Bethan. I just thought it was a natural progression for me… What I now recognise is that I was extremely fortunate to be given opportunities by generous directors who, as it happened, were female and Welsh.”
Mared Swain recognises their contribution: “Bethan Jones and Elen Bowman [independent director and co-founder of Living Pictures] came into college and made it seem that anything was possible. I was an actor, but they encouraged us to make our own work, to reflect our own voice.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Sara Lloyd, who credits her early experience working with Bowman for launching her directorial career. “She told me that if we don’t make a conscious effort to tell our stories, then no one else will.”
‘To speak Welsh is still a political act. If you want to see something in your own culture, you have to go and make it’ – director Sara Lloyd
There’s long been a rebellious streak among women in Welsh-language culture. In 1847, English civil servants visited Wales to compile a government report – the so-called Blue Books – on the state of education. The commissioners’ deeply colonialist observations of the morals of Welsh-speaking communities and, in particular, the women, were so damning that it sparked a national outcry and was attributed to the subsequent rise of the pious Methodist movement in the country, as well as a dilution of Welsh being spoken in schools.
But scars run deep and when in the 1960s the survival of the Welsh language became a political cause, women were at the centre of the kickback against Anglo-centric authority.
Politically, Welsh women have blazed their own trail. The 19th-century Welsh settlement in Patagonia was one of the first to include equal suffrage for both genders, while in 2003 the Welsh Assembly became the first legislature in the world to elect an equal number of women and men. Theatre reflects this. “To speak Welsh is still a political act,” Lloyd says. “If you want to see something in your own culture that’s relevant to you, then you have to go and make it.”
This openness to female leadership across Welsh theatre is evident in both languages. Until recently the National Theatre Wales (Theatr Genedlaethol’s English-language counterpart), Theatr Clwyd and Sherman Theatre were all led by women. Sherman’s Rachel O’Riordan has joined Lyric Theatre and NTW’s Kully Thiarai announced last week she was to leave later in the year.
Those artistic directors have become an indelible and valued part of the Welsh scene, and yet all arrived from outside Wales, making their names in other parts of the UK first. Perhaps this represents the last remaining obstacle. “We have a tendency to look eastward for recognition,” says Styles.
“When was a Welsh-based female last appointed to lead a major national organisation in Wales? That tendency to seek validation from outside our own country and culture is unfortunately a behaviour you witness in many of our artistic companies, especially their boards – who ultimately choose the top positions.”
While certain challenges undoubtedly remain, one feels it’s only a matter of time before they are surmounted. “Yeah, there’s a rebellious streak,” Swain smiles before Merched Caerdydd’s last show. “But we can still definitely do more…”
Nicholas Davies is a freelance writer of screenplays, novels and articles. He is based in Cardiff and previously spent 17 years working for the Arts Council of Wales covering the performing arts
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