Ellen Carr talks to Dirty Protest about a resurgence of storytelling and playwriting in Wales.
Wales has never experienced a shortage of stories or the tradition for telling them in lyrical ways, but in the past it hasn’t been any kind of theatrical powerhouse. Now, however, a collection of travelling storytellers has exploded from a dirty yurt in Cardiff to add to the centuries old tradition of poetry in Wales. Nomadic Welsh new writing company Dirty Protest is the “national fringe company of Wales” according to co-founder Tim Price and it is excited about the possibilities of new writing in Wales at the moment: “We are at the beginning of the first golden age of Welsh playwriting” says Price.
The name Dirty Protest conjures images of strong political voices, a group of people who are angry and have something to say. Price and a group of like-minded friends “fed-up with the lack of opportunity and community for new writing in Wales” launched the company six years ago. Price, having recently experienced the scene for new writers in London through the likes of the Royal Court and Paines Plough, was frustrated that nothing of this kind was offered in Wales. Dirty Protest began as a scratch night in Cardiff in a Mongolian Yurt, an image that doesn’t quite fit with the idea of a group of ‘angry young men’ brazenly shoving their opinions in people’s faces.
Writer and performer Lisa Jen Brown sheds some light on this matter: “Wales is brilliant for naïve subtleties and endearment… we’re not very good at putting ourselves out there. We’re not cocky, brash or like COME ON.” Price admits there is “certainly a Welsh flavour to the storytelling that I think echoes Welsh popular music… Welsh playwrights beg borrow and steal influences, to make something entirely new and somehow distinctly Welsh.” Brown believes this distinct Welsh-ness is the telling of incredibly dark stories with “a hell of an amount of humour within them”.
The talents Brown acknowledges in the Welsh have certainly helped the company endear themselves to the nation, but is possibly what has kept the voices of these writers contained within Wales for so long. Brown continues “the new generation have got that fire in their hearts again to say something and change things. Previously we’ve been, lazy’s not the right word, just kind of bobbing under the surface a bit.”
The Welsh, Brown intones in her lilting voice, are “bloody damn good at saying stories, and singing as well… we’re always nattering on”. Her piece Tuna for Dirty Protest’s recent piece Plays in a Bag is about a woman repressed, through language, by her mentally abusive husband. Not allowed to speak Welsh – her first language – with her children, Angharad is eventually driven to strangle her husband. “Once she’s told this story of suppressing his language and getting to his neck, she’s able to sing this beautiful Welsh song”. It’s a tale that resonates as distinctly Welsh – being about the Welsh language – and Dirty Protest is a very national company. Price explains “we hold events in the Welsh language, and work all over Wales, so our relevance has a national perspective”.
When I speak to them, the company has just performed Plays in a Bag at the Almeida Festival and as part of the Royal Court’s Surprise Theatre before heading off to Latitude. This move to the London scene saw, in Brown’s eyes, a more “polished” performance than most of Dirty Protest’s work, which is usually script-in-hand for the actors. Hopefully this didn’t take anything away from the freshness of the company’s work, and still offered Londoners an honest insight into the Welsh fringe theatre scene.
Both Price and Brown are excited about the possibilities in Welsh theatre at the moment, speaking enthusiastically of the arrival of National Theatre Wales in 2009, and the opportunities it offers for new talent. Price explains: “Over the past five years Dirty Protest and National Theatre Wales have worked closer and closer… Every show we hold, there is not one or two, but four or five NTW staff in the audience. Their presence has underpinned the value for working on the fringe in Wales now. Taking part in one of our shows is a showcase for the writing, directing and acting talent in Wales.”
To offer this kind of support seems only fitting for a National Theatre, and the question arises is this something our own National Theatre could learn from. Wales and England differ hugely in scale, with even the scene in London seeming much more sprawling than that in Wales. Chatting to Brown, who is only just starting work as a writer having focused on acting previously, I get an amazing sense of community in the Welsh theatre industry. “It really does feel that you’re surrounded by amazing talent and writing. I personally, because I’m just beginning on my journey, feel so safe and just so supported… It feels as if everyone’s doing it, or everyone’s trying to do it and it’s going to be really exciting.” Can the same thing ever be said of the scene in London I wonder, and can we learn something from the sense of openness and community of the Welsh?
Dirty Protest, it seems, is bringing a much-needed burst of vitality to the Welsh theatre scene. Price eloquently makes this point : “Mark Ravenhill said ‘no genius ever came out of a vacuum’ and before National Theatre Wales and Dirty Protest, Wales could quite easily have been mistaken for one”. Let’s hope, that in their uniquely Welsh way, these people and others keep the vacuum open.
For more information, visit Dirty Protest’s website.