A Phoenix rises from The Persians

I cannot imagine that there are many who had the good fortune to see The Persians (background story) over the past two weeks, who doubted that we were present at one of the defining occasions of English-language theatre in Wales.

The cast of Mike Pearson's NToW production of The Persians

Even the London critics somehow managed to find themselves seated, not in West End luxury, but on a hard bench, clad in a regulation green poncho and exposed to the elements deep in the heart of the Brecon Beacons.

All have heaped praise on the National Theatre of Walessixth production in this year’s inaugural programme of The Persians, directed by Mike Pearson.

“They have scored a coup”, The Observer; “Pearson’s superbly imaginative and intense production, at once timeless and modern, has a rare, raw power. This is great theatre – and a thrilling mystery tour for its audience”, The Telegraph; “a production that is both minimalist and massive in its scope and marvellous in its realisation,” the Hereford Times; “what is impressive about Mike Pearson’s production is the totality of the experience”, The Guardian; “some of the finest creative talents working in Wales today… melded together to produce a unique and exciting drama, probably accompanies most artistically fulfilling production to date”, Michael Kelligan; “with the eery music, some wonderful acting and the amazing setting, this is another hit for National Theatre Wales”, Western Mail.

Yes it is all this and more. But for me, on quiet reflection, there is a story behind the production that I haven’t yet seen discussed.

The Persians represents in many ways a Phoenix like rebirth of one of Wales’s greatest theatre companies –  Brith Gof. Firstly, director Mike Pearson, conceptual designer Mike Brooks and composer John Hardy were all key players in Brith Gof’s history. Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley and Gerald Tyler are all actors who have worked often for extended periods for the company. So, as they say: they have form.

I was a trustee of the company when its Arts Council Wales funding was terminated in 2000. The company’s last grant was £52,500. We decided that Brith Gof – always much more appreciated outside of Wales than in it – should continue as long as we could find the money and the directors had the artistic ideas. Mike Pearson and fellow directors Michael Shanks and Cliff McLucas were eventually offered jobs with regular income. In the end, we had to call time in 2004.

It has been both instructive and rewarding to search the archives to see just how much Brith Gof has given to The Persians. Anyone who saw the Welsh production of

Brith Gof's "PAX" at St David's Hall, Cardiff

“Gododdin” (a remarkable film archive is here, persist with it, the video’s not great quality) in the Rover car factory, Cardiff in 1989, “PAX” in St Davids Hall in 1991, or, even Mike Pearson’s two-man show “In Black and White” with disabled actor Dave Levett in 1992, will see the theatrical connections. The use of extraordinary musical soundscapes originated with John Hardy and Mike Pearson’s work with Test Department in the 1980’s. John Hardy’s (interview here) creativity and musical inventiveness hasn’t lost any of its edge in spite of him being a much in demand composer for mainstream film and television (and still, thankfully, based in Wales).

In the last few productions by Brith Gof – such as Hafod, technology began to appear but hand-held video cameras had to be attached to the performers with trailing cables. In The Persians we have a chorus member with a tiny handheld wireless camera and the remarkable camera work of Pete Telfer projecting the live-action onto video screens. The integration of recorded segments of video is also an inheritance from the days when such things were much more technically challenging.

Some things in the Persians are different: as Mike Pearson explains in his interview with me working with a classic text – brilliantly translated by Kaite O’Reilly – was one of his self-set challenges. It was also in English, where much of Brith Gof’s work had been Welsh or bilingual. And whilst I have no idea what the budget of the production was, I imagine that the generous Arts Council Wales and Welsh Assembly Government funding to NToW (£3M over three years) gave the team a little more flexibility than they had in the old days.

For me then, there is much satisfaction in seeing how 15 years of theatrical development in Welsh theatre could have such a stunning, successful and critically acclaimed rebirth. Many theatre companies throughout Europe owe a debt to Brith Gof. I am glad that the National Theatre of Wales, albeit by a kind of proxy,  and The Persians has been able to honour it so well.

Footnote: there have been some excellent comments that add to my story and, rather than take the credit for knowledge that I didn’t have, I ask that you click on the comments, if you haven’t already done so.
Good news that the archive may get a new life too!


BBC to give Cardiff’s planning woes a very public airing

Ok, so planning’s not sexy. But it is important and I frequently bore on about it: lately the focus has been dodgy Cardiff Council planning decisions (again) and its Deposit Local Development Plan.

The BBC has taken on a big task to make these subjects fit for human consumption with a 30 minutes long Week in Week Out on Tuesday 23th March (10.35pm BBC One Wales only). Judging from the length of time it has been in preparation, and the care involved (a view based on the endless requests for documentary proof and evidence that have come my way daily for the past two months) I suspect it’ll be a pretty robust analysis.

I’ve had no preview, of course, but I can make some pretty shrewd guesses about the areas that are likely to cause acute embarrassment to Cardiff Council.  The program’s title “Starbucks and stadiums” gives a bit of a clue: might the programme question the city’s relentless drive for more city centre shopping “experiences”, mega-sports-stadiums, and high-rise flats for the (until the recession) upwardly mobile? And does it have a robust and delivable plan for Cardiff’s housing, employment, transport etc in the future?  If it addresses these issues, it will have plenty of ammunition: from politicians who decry the destruction of local communities like Butetown, to academics who question the wisdom of a continued growth thrust in these economically constrained and ecologically threatening times. The programme blurb asks the question: ”who’s benefitted from it all?”

Our council leadership argues that international sporting events are vital to the city’s economic well-being. They are prepared to sacrifice huge sums of taxpayers money and held-in-trust resources like its heritage parks, for kudos and at best, arguable economic benefit. The most recent example concerns Cardiff City Football Club: given land to enable it to build a new stadium, it blithely flogs it off to pay overdue VAT and national insurance. What possible public gain is that – taking ratepayers money to give to HMCR to bail out poor management? It’s a very poor way of developing long-term employment except for a few rich footballers and their board members.

Employment is one area where the council has been under serious criticism from WAG’s planning inspectorate over the Deposit LDP. This document is supposed to set out the plans to support the longterm vision for the city. Cardiff Civic Society (interest declaration, I’m its Chair) warned the council more than a year ago that its approach was flawed and didn’t follow the guidelines. Last year we further contended that it was “unsound” in six areas, housing and employment among them. I know that even more expert, and you would have thought influential, voices were saying the same thing. The council chose to ignore all the warnings and deposited a complete nonsense of a plan that has been forensically dissected by WAG.

I expect on the tv that council leader, Rodney Berman, will trot out his already rehearsed defences: I’m guessing the words, of course, “the LDP idea is flawed” (how come all councils in Wales helped to develop it then?); “WAG is forcing us to build on greenfield sites” (no, it’s saying you have no evidence that you can avoid building on greenfield sites – the whole point of the plan!); “it’s an affront to democracy” (this from the council that consulted 123 citizens over the plan asking them questions no one could reasonably answer); “the Inspectorate won’t tell us what to do with the plan” (oh, they have and you’re very aware of the alternatives, all of them embarrassing and shameful in terms of the cost that has been wasted).

Two days after the tv programme the full council meets to decide what to do with the LDP. Frankly, all and any option is bad for Cardiff. To go back to the drawing board means a planning hiatus, massive embarrassment for politicians, a huge waste of money, and serious questions about council officers’ and members’ competence. To trudge through public hearings where the council attempts to shore up a totally flawed structure with ‘new evidence’ will simply expose even further its paucity of robust, creative solutions for Cardiff’s’ many problems. And it seems that at some point the inspectors’ patience might expire and they declare it unsound anyway.

Strangely, it may turn out to be good for Cardiff in the end. What the programme might demonstrate is how, for so long, the city has depended on a self-generated aura of ‘capital city-ness’ and that big, brash, often violent planning solutions will succeed. The “we’re not afraid to make difficult decisions” mindset of minor dictators.

Like many people, I think Cardiff needs to take a long, hard, painful look at itself. It needs to question the quality of its decision making, the ease with which it has accepted assertions (like long-term benefit from sporting events) as though they were inviolate facts that would survive recession and global warming. It needs to engage with its civic society (and maybe even its Civic Society!) in a meaningful way so that communities in Butetown, Whitchurch, and Ely and elsewhere might once again be connected.

A local development plan might seem boring, but it’s actually, when used with skill, imagination and vigour, potentially a way of mapping a better future for us all – not just a few.

Now if next week’s half hour on BBC Wales manages to make some of that sound interesting then it will be worth this year’s licence fee.

WAG admits courts defeat over Llanishen – fight resumes

Llanishen Reservoir Cardiff by Greg Marshall

Llanishen Reservoir Cardiff by Greg Marshall

Just as it was thought that all would be decided on 22nd September, the fight for the future of Llanishen Reservoir starts again.
In April 2009 the Welsh Environment Minister, Jane Davidson, rejected Western Power’s appeal following the Second Public Planning Inquiry which was held in June 2008. In effect, she refused permission for Western Power’s scheme to build 324 houses and flats on the site of Llanishen reservoir. Her decision was a little unusual in that the planning inspector who had presided over the appeal, recommended that the development should go ahead. However, the Minister disagreed with the Inspector’s conclusions and did not accept his recommendation.
Unhappy developer: they needed to challenge the minister on a matter of law, hence the impending court case. At the door of the court, as it were, WAG climbed down:

Having considered the grounds put forward by the company, and on the advice of Counsel, the Welsh Ministers accept the legal arguments put forward by the company that aspects of the assessment through which they reached their original decision were incorrect. Rather than continue the legal proceedings and go to a hearing which they consider they would not win, the Welsh Ministers have agreed not to contest the challenge.

Basically, WAG cocked up.
So now – and follow carefully: the court will send the decision back to the minister; she will notify those who took part in the original appeal and ask for any new information; she will decide whether or not to re-open the inquiry; a decision will be made, but not this year.
In the meanwhile: the minister has listed the reservoir as a building of historic importance and Cardiff Council in its Deposit Local Development Plan (previous blogs) has shown that the site is part of the protected Nant Fawr river corridor. That should made a rejection of the planning application a forgone conclusion.
But … the developers have loads of money. They must feel victorious in getting the court showdown. And the very status of the LDP has been questioned by the minister’s own planners.
As ever – pace Swalec Stadium, Bute Park Bridge, Sophia Gardens Car Parking, playing fields et al – it’s the objectors, the local people, who have to find the emotional, physical and financial resources to go through the whole fight again. And, in fighting to get the Deposit LDP returned to the drawing board, some of us may be unwittingly helping Western Power Distribution Investments Limited destroy Llanishen reservoir.

Cardiff’s Local Development Plan: dead in the water?

Report by Civic Society on Cardiff Council Deposit LDP

Report by Civic Society on Cardiff Council Deposit LDP

Cardiff is in the final stages of deciding the shape of the city for the next 15-20 years seeking approval of its “Deposit Local Development Plan”. The next stage in the process is supposed to be consideration of the LDP by a WAG appointed Inspector to judge its soundness.
Into the arena steps WAG planner Mark Newey who has apparently told the council to drastically revise it!
As one of the team that helped Cardiff Civic Society submit a coruscating response, I am overjoyed that the council’s flimsy, shallow, unstrategic apology for long-term planning should be shown up for what it is: a high sounding – and perfectly commendable – vision that lacks any real evidence based delivery mechanisms. CCS found that it was ‘unsound’ on six grounds.

The Cardiff Civic Society believes that the process of developing this LDP has been followed in accordance with the guidelines: its implementation however has been unsound leading to inadequate policy formulation. Whilst the CCS concurs with the vision section of the LDP, our mapping of policy proposals onto that vision reveals patchy coverage and this leads, inexorably, to inadequate and inappropriate proposals.
We conclude therefore that the plan is unsound and thus has to be rejected in its entirety.

Mark Newey states:

There is a fundamental issue regarding the ability of the plan’s strategy to deliver the vision which presents a significant degree of risk for the authority if not addressed prior to submission stage.
“In summary, while the vision sets out a clear position to enable Cardiff to play its role as a European capital city, the LDP strategy does not deliver the council’s own vision, nor does it adequately reflect the evidence base. The degree of concern is significant.”

In an interesting presentation (Delivering Spatial Planning) that Mark Newey prepared, he set out very clearly – it seems to me – the way the new LDP process should work. It’s littered with phrases like: community consensus; interest groups; opportunities; focus not on objections but issues; addressing cross boundary issues; adapt to change; holistic evidence base; grounded in stakeholder/community involvement. I could cite many more areas he says are needed to be addressed and where CCS found that Cardiff Council had, quite simply, failed to understand, address and reach agreement.
It makes me wonder how the Council is going to get itself out of a very large hole of its own making. Will the Deposit LDP even go before the Inspector in this state in the light of the WAG objections?
I hope not.
Now, perhaps the council could get off its arrogant high-horse, and sit down with organisations like Cardiff Civic Society and create a visionary, viable, and deliverable strategy for the nation’s capital city.