Since it began in 2010, NTW has been through ups and downs. In a new decade, with a new artistic director, what does its future hold? Welsh writer and critic Nicholas Davies says it should be celebrated for being different
At the beginning of the year there was much talk of the passing of a decade, marked by a period of reflection and those tedious 10-year-challenge social media posts. For National Theatre Wales, though, the turn of the decade represents a significant milestone.
This March marks the 10th anniversary of NTW’s first production. A Good Night Out in the Valleys opened in Blackwood Miners’ Institute before touring welfare halls around south Wales. And, to quote Max Boyce, one of that region’s favourite sons, I was there.
The company immediately signalled a new way of doing things, eschewing any temptation to open to an audience of thousands, and instead taking a smaller-scale show into areas where provision was more limited. The work that night was immersive – I recall one of the characters’ meat vans selling produce outside – and entrenched in the community, the script based on colourful conversations with local people. This philosophy became core to everything NTW did, its slogan boldly declaring: “All of Wales is our stage.”
The Arts Council of Wales had announced its intention to create an English-language national theatre some years earlier. The Welsh-language national company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, was still young, and it seemed inevitable that an English-language counterpart should emerge. Enthusiasm was further piqued by the nascent success of National Theatre of Scotland, which confirmed the potential and possibilities of a newly devolved, self-confident Celtic nation.
John McGrath was a radical choice as artistic director, best known for his community-focused approach at Contact in Manchester. Under McGrath, NTW became assertively contemporary, a fleet-of-foot behemoth that pledged to deliver work in all corners of the nation. Innovatively for the time, its social media presence was ubiquitous even before it had rolled out its first show. Its online platforms forged relationships across the sector, especially among emerging artists, heralding a refreshingly open approach.
It is often forgotten what a fragmented community the theatre sector in Wales was back then – in fact, the word ‘community’ was rarely used at the time. NTW created, and still does, connections that would simply never happen otherwise.
But, rightly, the company would be judged on its shows with McGrath offering a year of plays that would define NTW’s approach. It was the final production in that launch year that cemented the company’s place as a genuine maker of change. The Passion, which starred Michael Sheen and played out across the streets of Port Talbot over an Easter weekend, was a remarkable national moment, proving to an unsuspecting, even doubtful, public that theatre can truly reflect and empower communities. Lyn Gardner described it as “like watching a town discover its voice through a shared act of creation,” making Port Talbot “one of the happiest places on Earth”.
In one year, McGrath and his company had transformed the very definition of theatre in Wales. And yet there was discontent in some quarters, notably among theatre venue managers who had hoped for a national company that would tour high-quality work into their receiving houses. There were some shows in conventional theatres, though NTW’s biggest successes early on, such as The Passion in Port Talbot and the delightful For Mountain, Sand and Sea in Barmouth, were site-specific feasts that embraced whole towns, or innovative outdoor dramas such as The Persians (Aeschylus’ epic re-imagined in a Brecon Beacons military training village).
There was much to admire in the company’s ambitions to engage directly with its audiences, but the existing theatres were justified in thinking they could be closer collaborators given they were already embedded in their localities. It’s a fissure that, in my view, has never been fully repaired.
In 2012, the company’s production of Tim Price’s exceptional The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning earned its writer the first ever James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Drama. And yet, in subsequent years, the amount of Welsh new writing waned. As the decade progressed and McGrath moved on, to be replaced by Kully Thiarai – becoming the first non-white woman to lead a national theatre company anywhere in the UK – NTW’s most public schism was with its playwrights.
In an open letter in 2018, the writers accused NTW of forsaking its country’s own writing and performing talent and, consequently, failing to tell Wales’ own stories. I reviewed the performance piece, English, during that period and felt it to be a show that shockingly misunderstood its audience, a claim made worse when the project’s director said he couldn’t comment on any complaints as he wasn’t Welsh.
Thiarai found herself in an unpleasant situation, based on programming decisions she had largely inherited.
I don’t believe NTW set out to sideline Wales-based practitioners, but some artistic choices were made without enough consideration of the diversity of voices in Wales or enough reflection on the company’s role as a facilitator of those voices.
Thiarai responded proactively to the criticism, resulting in one of NTW’s most notable accomplishments, with Ed Thomas’ On Bear Ridge opening triumphantly in Cardiff before a successful run at London’s Royal Court. Thiarai left soon afterwards having answered some of her critics and (in a less heralded way) having strengthened relationships with some of the disparate communities around Wales for whom NTW remains a potent cultural force.
The new decade begins with a new artistic director, Lorne Campbell, freshly arrived from Northern Stage. He inherits major challenges, not least in gaining the trust of Wales’ creative community. But another issue looms large. The company’s audience figures are comparatively low in relation to its ACW grant, an anathema to funders in straitened times.
Campbell needs to reach more people, yet also appease potential collaborators. It may be that the theatre venues on Wales’ touring circuit provide some of the solutions – there’s much bridge-building to be done there – but NTW remains a company that should be given the freedom to do things a little differently, just as it did when it swung into Blackwood 10 years ago with a bunch of actors and a meat van.
For more information on NTW go to: nationaltheatrewales.org