A culture in quarantine | Caroline Hitt – Benjamin Wright


In what now feels like another lifetime, but was actually the week before last, I went to the theatre on three consecutive nights.

On the Monday I saw Beautiful at Wales Millennium Centre, the feel-good musical exploring the life and prodigious gifts of Carole King. The earth moved, I had a friend -the ticket came courtesy of my good pal Karen Price – and I stepped smiling into the torrential rain of Cardiff Bay feeling like a natural woman. (Or wo-maaaan, as King, the queen of ‘70s song-writing would say).

On the Tuesday I was back at the WMC for The Beauty Parade, a stunning theatrical work mixing music, text and language interpreted through movement. It told a hidden history of World War Two – The Beauty Parade was the codename for the operation that dropped women behind enemy lines.

Working with the French resistance, these female spies whose bravery has never been fully recognised had a predicted survival time of just six weeks before they might be caught, tortured and killed. Performed by Georgina White, Anne-Marie Piazza and Sophie Stone, The Beauty Parade was powerful and lyrical, valuing a covert sacrifice that should be memorialised publicly.

And on the Wednesday I took my seat in Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre for one of the most anticipated events in the Welsh theatrical calendar – Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s production of Daf James’ play Tylwyth.

The Beauty Parade

A decade on from James’ ground-breaking and award-winning Llwyth, the play reunited its ensemble of gay male characters and with the same irreverence, wit and warmth, portrayed how they had both moved on and stayed still. It was a provocative and compelling play that made me laugh, made me cry and made me think. Subtitled and audio-described, and shifting between English and Cymraeg without missing a linguistic beat, it was also the most inclusive Welsh language work I had ever experienced, confirming my belief that James is the best modern Welsh dramatist we have.

What a trio of treats, proper mind-food, three nights running. And what a wonderful reflection of the depth of Welsh creative talent. Of course, as it turns out, it’s just as well I was fortunate enough to enjoy such a concentrated cultural fix. Before I could barely rave about these productions to friends the curtain had come down on all of them.

Whereas once we perused What’s On lists the roll call of What’s Off grows ever longer. From one-man bands and female soloists to the great leviathans of Welsh cultural life – the National Urdd Eisteddfod and the Hay Festival – all hope of live performance and the social connection and soul enrichment that comes with it is lost for the time being. Cinemas have also closed alongside theatres and concert halls, while television and film projects have been halted mid-production

In the current scheme of things, sadness about this cultural vacuum might feel indulgent. Our priorities are focused on the basics right now, from frantic concern for the welfare of our most vulnerable loved ones to worrying where our next bog roll is coming from.

Yet the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the creative industries is of fiscal as well as cultural importance. As well as nourishing our minds, festivals feed local economies. When the global literati descend on Hay on Wye the festival is worth an estimated £25m to its surroundings.

Hay Festival 2017 – reader – credit Marsha Arnold

So when its creator Peter Florence fears for its future and warns the festival is in “immediate financial jeopardy” this isn’t just disappointment that we might not see Hilary Mantel talk about her new book this year – the economic life of a Welsh town is at stake. That’s why a fundraising campaign has been launched.

Similarly, the cancellation of the Urdd Eisteddfod has consequences that go beyond saddening the thousands of Welsh youngsters who perform in its competitions and enjoy the friendship of its residential camps. Postponing this year’s event could mean a “financial blow of nearly £4m” to the organisation.

Behind all these cancelled productions, concerts, shows, tours and events lies a workforce of formidable creative talent but one that also has to rely on precarious freelance employment. These are people who don’t necessarily reap the rewards of the skillset they contribute – especially now.

Former Western Mail arts editor Pauline McLean, who now works for BBC Scotland, outlines the paradox in a piece she has written this week on the importance of this sector: “As one actor friend put it: ‘All those who say, you should have got a real job, have to realise the creative industries are worth £111.7bn to the UK economy.’

“And as thousands of us face self-isolation at home, they also provide entertainment and education in the form of books, films, TV and radio programmes and online content.”

The Edinburgh International Festival and its sister Fringe should have launched their 2020 programme this week but now face uncertainty. They usually contribute an estimated £313m to the Scottish economy. As Pauline points out: “They were established in the shadow of World War Two, a deliberate attempt to promote a ‘flowering of the human spirit’ in the darkest of times.”

The artistic response to our current darkness cannot, of course, be as physically communal. But there are signs that the human spirit is in bud as we face this strange Spring of self-isolation. Choirs are harmonising via Facebook feeds while the organisation set up by my local community – the Canton Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group – organised a “singalong from your back garden” last night.

And at the other end of the entertainment spectrum, the BBC has stepped up to remind us all what public service broadcasting is all about as it launched its ambitious schedule of news content, boxset treasures and “Culture in Quarantine”.

Making the announcement this week, director general Tony Hall declared: “We all know these are challenging times for each and every one of us. As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a special role to play at this time of national need. We need to pull together to get through this. That’s why the BBC will be using all of its resources – channels, stations and output – to help keep the nation informed, educated and entertained.”

The BBC has taken a battering in recent times but this is its chance to remind us if its true value as it embraces its Reithian roots and offers a multi-faceted service that you’d never get from Netflix et al. It may also surprise itself as, simultaneously, it seeks to serve an audience it has neglected and one it covets – the old and the young respectively. Its most loyal viewers will feel more cherished while the opportunity to provide education and entertainment to children undergoing the biggest home-schooling experiment the UK has ever seen is huge.

As an independent producer I hope I can do my bit. The three productions I mentioned at the start of this column were as much about work as pleasure as I produce Radio Wales’ monthly culture programme The Review Show, presented by novelist and broadcaster Gary Raymond.

Our April edition’s running order had already been rejigged thanks to the delayed release of the film Dream Horse and the postponement of National Theatre Wales’ musical on the life of William Price – Hail Cremation, which we had been so looking forward to.

But with a nation in semi-lockdown, we’re aiming to make a virtue of reviewing content that can be enjoyed from your living rooms – books, radio, television, podcasts, music etc – even if we have to record the shows remotely from our respective living rooms, which is looking likely.

With his other hat on – as editor of the Wales Arts Review website – Gary has also come up with a brilliant concept: an online festival that will not only delight Wales’s captive audience but will also help the freelance creatives who are now struggling financially. 

As he explains: “On Monday, Wales Arts Review launched a crowdfunder to raise money for a set of bursaries to be paid out to artists and freelancers who have been dramatically affected by the cancellation of work and closure of venues in the efforts to curtail the spread of the  Covid-19 Coronavirus. The crowdfunder has been extremely successful, raising over £2,000 in the first 24 hours. But we want to do more, and help as many people as possible, and we know that our reach can go further.

“The next step for Wales Arts Review is to curate an online fundraising festival, a ‘digi-thon, where some of Wales’s top musicians, actors, artists, writers, performers, producers, and arts organisations will provide a wide variety of creative content to help push for donations. We want to create a vibrant, positive, irreverent, and hugely creative space where some of Wales’ best-known creative figures can come together and help raise money for those who have been left high and dry by these unprecedented circumstances.

“All across Wales, the arts industry is underpinned by an army of freelance and self-employed skilled professionals, and the efforts being made to stem the spread of Covid-19 has had a crushing effect on the income of many of those workers who have seen upcoming projects, festivals, and productions cancelled. Many people are looking at the coming months with no source of income. This emergency fundraiser will help alleviate stress and anxiety while longer-term solutions are confirmed.

“The vibe of the Digithon is home-made, guerrilla content – things recorded on phones and written in speed – songs, poems, monologues, animations, readings, artwork, whatever you can think of – we’re not interested in perfect, we’re interested in creativity.

“Once we have a bedrock of material confirmed, we can prepare a programme of events, to publish regular contributions across the Wales Arts Review platform, and ushering people toward the crowdfunder donation page. At the moment we envisage doing this over the course of a weekend in the next few weeks, but the shape and scope of the event may change as more people commit. All we know right now is that it will be a fantastic opportunity to help people who need it, and to show the world what Wales can achieve when its artists come together, even from the distances of their own homes.”

Anyone who wants to get involved with Digithon should contact the organisers through social media or on email [email protected] or [email protected]

So we can still have culture in quarantine and hopefully support those who create it. Home is where the arts is…for now.


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