When, three years ago, Kully Thiarai was named artistic director of National Theatre Wales, she immediately signalled her intention to work with Wales’ “strong and emerging new writing” scene.
And yet, as Thiarai announces her plans to step down to become creative director of Leeds 2023, her tenure will be indelibly marked by events of last autumn when 40 members of Wales’ writing fraternity and 200 performers signed open letters criticising the company for forsaking Wales-based talent, and for failing in its remit to truly reflect the Welsh experience.
The nadir came with English, a peculiar interactive exploration of the English language that ignored the fact that the very title has a complex nuance in Wales. NTW bought in Manchester-based Quarantine to produce, and a director who later admitted he felt unqualified to talk about Wales’ relationship with the language. I wrote at the time that “for the company to be seemingly unaware of the nation it represents is unforgivable” , and these thoughts were echoed in the playwrights’ open letter.
But should Thiarai shoulder the blame for this schism between national company and artists?
She was a logical successor to NTW’s founding director, John McGrath, sharing the same community-facing ethos. While McGrath commissioned Wales-based writers such as Gary Owen, Kaite O’Reilly and Tim Price, he too received criticism for producing fewer playwright-led shows as he sought to explore ways in which theatre can be defined, with choreographers, musicians and performance artists among those taking lead storytelling duties.
A national company’s programme is decided two years before production, so much of the criticism Thiarai received actually pre-dated her appointment. When the writers voiced their concern, they would , in part, have been thinking of programming that was not hers.
Starting a new company, McGrath was also given 18 months to engage with the Welsh theatre community before his first show was staged – a luxury Thiarai did not have. However, she was still criticised for being less visible within the sector.
Two years in, her sensitively curated Love Letters to the NHS included five scripted monologues by Wales-based writers. But that NHS series also included a comedy night, a dance show and multi-sensory performances that did not fit the traditional definition of scripted theatre, a fact that irked the writers further. “If it’s not in some sense theatre, NTW should not be funding it,” their letter urged.
To her credit, Thiarai has responded in a way that is positive and dignified. She has engaged with her critics and acknowledged there has been a disconnect and that the company needs to evolve from where it was a decade ago.
It is when she has ploughed her own furrow that results have been most successful – Sisters, reflecting the experience of women from the South Asian diaspora, and the elegiac The Stick-Maker Tales spring to mind. There’s a sense that she leaves just as engagement with artists is improving. It’s a continuing process that the next artistic director must prioritise.
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