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Musings of a Jobbing Designer: Theatr Cymru 1972 – 1984

During the summer of 1972, while I was still Head of Design at the Liverpool Playhouse, the theatre received a phone call from Cwmni Theatr Cymru ( The Welsh Language Theatre Company) enquiring whether a designer was available to design ‘Pethe Brau’ (The Glass Menagerie’) for the National Eisteddfod being held at Haverfordwest. As it co-incided with my Summer break I said yes. It seemed like a good idea and a chance to make new contacts: I had no idea it would change my life.
As usual there wasn’t much notice ~ June as I remember for an August (1st week) opening. Par for the course. At this point I was pretty unaware of the company except for the fact that on a Monday they had toured at the Liverpool Playhouse and performed a Welsh translation of Moliere’s ‘La Malade Imaginaire’ to a packed house. I didn’t see the show, just heard the reports. In spite of Liverpool being close to the Welsh border I was not at all aware of Welsh culture beyond occasional visits to Snowdonia as a tourist. The usual state of affairs. But as ‘Pethe Brau’ could be read in English I saw no problem, and as a play it was a joy to design.

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Pethe Brau (The Glass Menagerie) by Tennessee Williams

Pethe Brau (The Glass Menagerie) by Tennessee Williams

I went to Bangor where the company was establishing its base and met Wilbert Lloyd Roberts, the driving force behind the company. He was not the director of ‘Pethe Brau’ however. He filled me in about the company. At the time it was the only fully professional Welsh Language Theatre company and it’s brief was to tour plays from a very broad repertoire to all areas of Wales where the Welsh language flourished. At the time it was an arm of the Cardiff based Welsh Theatre Company and shared workshops and technical facilities with them This was to change in 1973 when it acquired a disused chapel in Bangor to use as it’s own technical base and it became fully independent. As there were no purpose built theatres then in centres of Welsh communities all designs had to be accommodated in various school and village halls.
The performances at Haverfordwest were to be in the comprehensive school:- stage size 24’ w x 16’ d x 12’h.: The Liverpool Playhouse it was not! The play was to be directed by David Lyn and the set was to be built in Cardiff. With this in mind I contacted David Lyn, and in Liverpool designed the play and made the model. It was a brand new experience and the intimate scale was not all inappropriate to the play. David Lyn was full of ideas and we settled on a fragmented, organically shaped, dreamlike rendition of the apartment room. I quickly realised that many of the principles of design I had learnt and used when working in fixed spaces had to be jettisoned when designing for touring.
With the design approved and the drawings done I went to the Charles Street workshops in Cardiff to meet Buckley Wyn Jones and his assistant who were to build the set and also the stage management and cast.. The project set in motion. I returned to Liverpool and left them to it for a couple of weeks. When I returned the set was beautifully built and set up and just waiting for me to render it. I really enjoyed myself. The small scale meant that it could easily relate to the cast without the massive distortions of scale that can easily occur on a main stage. The technical weekend was good and the performances excellent and I went away feeling that I had done good work with good people in surroundings people take holidays to find: but thought no more about it and went back to 3 weekly rep, which I enjoyed when it worked but could find very draining when it didn’t. The model of ‘Pethe Brau’ still exists and even after more than 30 years I do not feel ashamed of it. I can’t always say that.
This brief encounter was followed in the Spring with another offer to design for them: this time John Gwilym Jones’ play ‘Y Tad a’r Mab’. Now this was a different challenge – to design a play in a language I could not understand. I was probably given an English synopsis, but mainly I relied on talking to the director: Nesta Harris. This of course involved a great amount of trust but I do not remember that being difficult to establish and it is something I came to rely on a great deal when I went full-time with Cwmni Theatr Cymru later in the year. In many ways it can be liberating, particularly regarding stage directions. One concentrates more on the ‘world’ of the play and less on the number of doors. Again it was a schools tour but this time with two locations: a domestic interior and a municipal park. I had to find a way to combine these on the stage without them seeming either crowded or out of scale. In fact they merged with much overlapping of colour and texture. I remember meeting the author – something I had never done at Liverpool and he helped me a great deal with understanding the play. ‘Y Tad a’r Mab’ was built and rehearsed in the newly acquired tabernacle workshops in Bangor. Little did I know it was to be my base for the next 12 years. Crucially it was built by Glyn Richards, one of the finest carpenters I have ever met and a great friend. To him nothing was too complicated. His background was in the pattern shop at the Dinorwic slate quarry and fine joinery was in his bones and he had an endless stream of stories to tell. I learnt more about Welsh life from him than anyone else.
There was sufficient space within the Tabernacle to build, paint and pre-rig and light the show before taking it on tour. And also in the building was a rehearsal room and wardrobe department.
Unfortunately as time went by ‘stuff’ accumulated and the space became overloaded. There was a lack of investment in it and in Winter it was freezing. I mentioned the carpenter earlier because for a designer the relationship with the workshop is crucial.,- they can make or break a design, and it is much more rewarding to design for the strengths and skills of one colleagues than to simply present some working drawings and walk away. The relationship is not unlike that between the director and the cast, but it is often overlooked. It is a creative partnership which can give real added value to the design: a really good carpenter, like a really good painter takes the design that bit further than mere re-production.
In 1974 Theatr Gwynedd opened, the first of the chain of medium sized theatres built in Wales. It was quickly followed by Theatr Clwyd, Theatr y Werin in Aberystwyth, Theatr Sherman in Cardiff and Theatr Ardudwy in Harlech. They went some way to bringing theatre provision in Wales into the 20th century, but as there were still strong Welsh language areas outside their catchment, it was still necessary to include some of the smaller venues in the tours, and this of course had a profound effect on the way that productions could utilise the new buildings. The acting space could be enlarged and but the most obvious technical feature, the fly tower had to be more or less ignored, which was most frustrating. The most common type of design was the ‘island’ set. This would fit in all locations without major modification, but it’s effect would vary enormously between the smaller stages where it might dominate to the larger ones where it could recede. Different again was Theatr Ardudwy which had an amphitheatre auditorium which gave a particular intimacy,
The productions in the years to come, were numerous, about 9 per year, and there were a number that really stood out, and during the seventies there was a real energy in the company. The repertoire was very broad, ranging from new Welsh writing, notably the plays of Gwenlyn Parry, to translations of European classics, and occasionally translations of English plays: ‘Alpha Beta’ and ‘The Rattle of a Simple Man’ spring to mind in the latter category . Every year there was Welsh pantomime, which although following many traditions took there starting point from Welsh mythology rather than the Brothers Grimm, and also there was strong strand of young people’s theatre – Theatr Plant.

Doctor Dewin - Children's Theatre - 1981

Doctor Dewin - Children's Theatre - 1981

The problem of a broad repertoire, which is common to all theatres that follow such a policy, is that inevitably some work is given more emphasis and enthusiasm than another. It must be born in mind that the company had no long tradition of professional theatre to draw on. Most of the previously written plays had emerged from a strong amateur movement or from broadcast medium, consequently there was a feeling of being in the shadow of England. There was much discussion and not a little internal dissent about what direction the company should take and to satisfy the demands for a more progressive policy, Theatr Antur (literally Adventure Theatre) was established to produce productions of a more controversial nature that were at the same time closer to the grassroots. Gruff Jones was the inspirational director behind much of this work, though by definition the productions were very much group efforts. Two that stand out in particular were ‘Cymerwch Bwytewch’ and ‘Hanner Munud’. Eventually this arm broke away to form the highly successful Theatr Bara Caws which is still a driving force in Welsh language community drama. Chris Green came in the early 1970s as assistant designer and designed several very striking productions and he was also an extremely fine scene painter. Especially memorable was ‘Un Nos Ola Leuad’ for which we went to  the Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda to take fibre glass casting of large slabs of slate,
David Lyn did two notable productions in the mainstream apart from ‘Pethe Brau’, ‘Y Twr’ by Gwenlyn Parry

Y Twr (The Tower) by Gwenlyn Parry 1978

Y Twr (The Tower) by Gwenlyn Parry 1978

and ‘Esther’ by Saunders Lewis. To each he brought a fresh and theatrical vision. Working on ‘Esther’ is one of the enduring highlights of my career. I had started designing the play in traditional fashion. It is a Biblical story and a literal reading of the stage directions would result in a sub Cecil B de Mille style production, which in our hearts neither of us wanted. I had sent David

Esther by Saunders Lewis 1979

Esther by Saunders Lewis 1979

some drawings which he used as note-paper to set out his idea of the play as a play within a play set in a nazi prison camp. The way he set out his controversial vision, which at first I felt was just a gimmick, will always live with me as real example of a directors vision shedding light on a text. It took me out of my comfort zone. Another key collaborator was Gareth Jones, the company’s quite extra-ordinary lighting designer. Over a number of shows he was developing beautiful and subtle ways of lighting touring theatre, usually involving exposed lighting rigs and a large number of small open white lanterns, and ‘Esther’ was the culmination of his style.
Working on these productions with regular casts and very talented technical crew built a genuine company spirit which lasted over a considerable length of time..  but inevitably in the end cracks appeared and a certain lethargy set in which led to a quick decline. The birth of S4C, (the Welsh 4th Channel) also had a profound effect as now there was an abundance of well paid work that theatre companies found it very hard to match. For the last two years of the company’s existence, 1982 –83, it was led by Emily Davies, assisted by Ceri Sherlock and promised much and in fact produced some of it’s best work. Ceri Sherlock’s re-thinking of Gwenlyn Parry’s ‘Ty ar y Tywod’

Ty ar y Tywod (House on the Sand) by Gwenlyn Parry 1983

Ty ar y Tywod (House on the Sand) by Gwenlyn Parry 1983

and his ravishing production of Checkov’s ‘Tair Chwaer’ ( ‘Three Sister’) stand out, but the attempt to try to model the company on ensemble lines was dogged by controversy of the worst sort and for some one working on the inside at that time felt like being under siege. One day in early January 1984, the Art’s Council pulled the plug and the ship sank.  Since then there hasn’t  been a large mainstream company dedicated to touring in the Welsh language. Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd filled the space for many years in some ways but the number of productions was radically reduced. Also posts of resident designers disappeared almost over night during the Thatcher era. I chose to go free lance and supplement what theatre work arose with designing for TV. Very quickly the it came to dominate my time.

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Discussion

One thought on “Musings of a Jobbing Designer: Theatr Cymru 1972 – 1984

  1. Wow – that brings back lots of happy memories !!

    How are you doing Martin ?

    Mike

    (Electrician and Lighting Designer, Cwmni Theatr Cymru, 1973-7)

    Posted by Mike Thomas | December 18, 2009, 12:52 pm

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