Theatre Critics of Wales Awards 2014: Selecting the Best Playwright in the English Language Category
by Phil Morris
The Wales Arts Review readily acknowledges the importance of Guy O’Donnell’s development work with young and ‘third-age’ critics, through his Bridgend-based projects, as we believe that creativity thrives and standards of practice improve in a climate of informed critical debate. We have also proudly supported the Theatre Critics of Wales Awards, which Guy and the Young Critics founded last year, as a forum that brings a welcome focus to recent exciting developments in the Welsh performing arts.
There are those who criticise awards events as exercises in mutual backslapping and marketing, those for whom the very notion of judging artistic work is too highly subjective and reductive. The language of awards categories is unhelpful here – can it really be said that one play is objectively better than others? Of course not. One answer might be to give an award to the ‘play that was deemed, subjectively by a group of people with some claim to know what they are talking about, at a specific point in time, as being of such singular distinction that they decided to recognise its achievement with a trophy’ – but you could never find a plaque big enough for the engraving. Why not dispense with a theatre awards event altogether? Well, that would only serve to deprive theatre artists, critics and audience members of an opportunity to debate, in public, aesthetic values and cultural trends in Welsh theatre. It is the impossibility of being able to proclaim a performance or play as being definitively the ‘best’ that provides the TCWA with its sense of purpose – it gets people talking about theatre, opera and dance and provides benchmarks against which artists can measure their future work.
The selection of the Best Playwright in the English Language category involved several rounds of extensive and exhaustive discussions that included professional arts writers and Young and Third Age critics. The category is quite an onerous one, as Wales does seem to be enjoying a particularly fertile period of play writing in English. The first stage of judging entailed compiling a shortlist of plays from a raft of nominations. The rules of the TWCA selection process created several anomalies, so Tim Price’s Salt, Root and Roe was eligible, because it had its Welsh premiere at Theatr Clwyd in 2013, whereas his more recent play Protest Song was not as it was staged exclusively in London at the end of last year by an English-based company. Likewise Alun Harris’ thought-provoking play for NTW The Opportunity of Efficiency was ineligible for consideration. Four TCWA nominations for The Bloody Ballad reflected a positive critical consensus regarding Gagglebabble’s half-play half-gig; yet in spite of some evocative and well-observed snatches of dialogue, it was thought that the success of the production was due more to its performance and musical elements than its script.
The judging panel compiled a shortlist of scripts that we felt reflected the diversity, originality and excellence of Welsh play writing in English, it was further decided that the award of Best Playwright required each of us to read the scripts under discussion and make a final decision based on the merits of the script rather than the relative merits of its production. It is possible for a talented director, production team and cast to imbue a merely serviceable text with a performance energy and illusion of depth that makes it seem better than it actually is. Also, a fine script can be ill-served by an incompetent or passionless production. To allow each nominated play to be assessed on its individual merits as a text, we sent out for scripts that arrived in our inboxes over the Christmas and New Year period.
This second round of judging was done an individual basis, and each of us had our own set of criteria on which we assessed the texts. My personal criteria consisted of the following:
1) Is the ‘world’ of the play created through a use of language that is distinctive, original and personal to the playwright?
2) Are the main characters of this play created with sufficient detail, nuance and texture so that the illusion of substantial, complex and multi-faceted human beings is established and maintained throughout the course of the drama?
3) Has the playwright constructed the action of this play so that it seems logical and yet surprising?
4) Do the themes of this play address contemporary concerns?
Happily, all nominated plays succeeded in satisfying at least two of these criteria. Tonypandemonium by Rachel Trezise is clearly a deeply personal story, ambitiously experimental in form and regaled in the idiomatic speech of the Rhondda. Sue: The Second Coming by Dafydd James & Ben Lewis is riotously funny and crackles with verbal energy and satirical wit. Salt, Root and Roe by Tim Price is a haunting tragedy about a pair of enigmatic twins – with its terse dialogue and economically drawn imagery the drama is mysterious but never vague. Fallen by Greg Cullen is a vibrant and playful take on the process of myth making that draws on the tradition of Welsh oral story-telling.
After rating the play texts from one to five – one given to the play we considered the best written, five to the least – each member of the panel submitted their list to Guy O’Donnell who calculated the result. Remarkably, given that each panel member reached their decision on their own, there was little disagreement among us as to which play was the ‘best’ written in English. (Or should that be the play we felt was of particular distinction worthy of special recognition?) The winner will be announced on Saturday 25th January 2014 at a ceremony hosted by Sherman Theatre Cymru. Our choice may prove controversial but no one should doubt the assiduous care and attention that went into arriving at a decision that was collective, conscientious and fair.
Phil Morris is Managing Editor of the Wales Arts Review, he was formerly Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Wales.