Following a similar model to the four-year-old National Theatre of Scotland (See News, 2 Nov 2005), Wales launched its own non building-based National Theatre today (5 November 2009). Artistic director, John McGrath, announced the National Theatre Wales’ inaugural year’s programme, which will see work presented at theatres and other locations – indoors and outdoors - across the country.

A ‘theatre map for Wales’

From March 2010 to April 2011, one new show will be presented each month in a different part of Wales. Highlights of what the company is calling its ‘theatre map’ include: a new play about coal mining communities, based on interviews with locals and toured to workmen’s halls and mining institutes in the Welsh Valleys; the premiere of John Osborne’s recently rediscovered, first play, The Devil Inside Him; a theatrical game staged on a summertime beach; a new translation of Aesychylus’ The Persians mounted at a working army training camp in the Brecon Beacons; a stage adaptation of the stories of renowned Welsh chronicler Gwyn Thomas; the first-ever production outside Germany from the Berlin-based, “reality trend”-setters, Rimini Protokoll; and the creation of a weather factory in Snowdonia.

Among the collaborators this first year are Welsh National Opera, the artist Marc Rees, who recently won the Wales bid for the country’s Cultural Olympiad project, and Gary Owen, one of Wales’s foremost playwrights.

Through the ‘theatre Map’, explained McGrath at the launch, National Theatre Wales are “exploring the whole country through theatre for a year and exploring what theatre can be to this great country”.

The first year’s shows were selected from around 30 submitted projects and each represent the company’s three key buzz words: “innovative”, “engaged” and “international”. Producer Lucy Davies, appointed in March this year and formerly of the Donmar and the National Theatre Studio, explains that she and McGrath made their programming choices according to a “very clear vision”. Broadly, shows needed to be pioneering in terms of their methods, fully committed to engaging with audiences - particularly those unfamiliar with traditional theatre - and forward-thinking in their collaborations with international artists.

Port Talbot’s most famous son returns

For the grand finale to the first year, multi award-winning actor Michael Sheen – whose most recent London stage credit, Frost/Nixon, transferred to the West End, Broadway and the big screen – will return to his hometown of Port Talbot to revive the community Passion play.

The Port Talbot Passion Play used to be staged every year in the town until 1998. Sheen recalls: “I first saw the Passion Play in Port Talbot when I was about 12. It was a story I knew coming to life in front of me. A ritual taking place before me. A town remembering itself through a story.” The actor will turn creative director, collaborating with the town’s residents and author Owen Sheers on the new version, Passion, which will play over Easter weekend, 22 to 24 April 2011.

An interactive affair

Today’s launch of the National Theatre Wales took place at the company’s offices at Castle Arcade in Cardiff, with related gatherings held simultaneously across Wales in locations where work will be produced. The launch, and live exchanges with other locations, was simultaneously broadcast online, with thousands logging on to nationaltheatrewales.org to follow proceedings. It’s believed to be the first time a theatre, or indeed any national institution, has launched in this way and is indicative of the ethos at the company’s heart. Davies explains that the company’s stance on “community innovation” is “all about dropping barriers to the way work is made and then really engaging audiences: getting them to talk about work and respond to it”.

Artists involved in all National Theatre Wales productions will blog about the process of creating work and audiences will be encouraged to respond to shows via the company’s online community, but in addition to this, much of the work programmed will rely heavily on digital communications. The Beach, for example, a theatre game being created in partnership with the company, Hide and Seek, and scheduled to take place on the beaches of the North Wales coast from 26 July to 1 August 2010, has the Internet at its very heart, using the web to bring individuals together to take part in the fun.

An English language company for Wales

According to press materials, the company’s remit is to bring “the very best of Welsh writing, performing and directing together with world class artists and world class ideas from across the globe” and to “create bold, invigorating theatre in the English language, rooted in Wales, with an international reach. It will produce theatre indoors and outdoors across spaces and landscapes in Wales. It will explore theatre as a space for debate and discussion, and develop programmes to respond to current events happening across the road or around the world.”

Dai Smith, Chair of Arts Council Wales, described the company as “yet another building block among the civic institutions that present Welsh life. For me it’s probably the most important initiative that we’ve taken because potentially it can reach out to a wider audience. That’s the really exciting thing about the programme, that it’s presenting things for everybody”.