There's something stirring in Wales. Nigel Williamson reports on Everything Must Go, a play that brings together all things cool about Cymru.
After cool Britannia, what price cool Cymru? Something is stirring deep in the valleys, led by a raft of chart-topping bands such as the Manic Street Preachers, the Stereophonics, Catatonia, the Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. The new wave is not only obvious in pop music, according to Phil Clark, the artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. The heartlands of south Wales have witnessed a renaissance of artistic expression in recent years, he says. "There is a pride about Welsh artists, whether it is writers, musicians, painters or actors. For too long we've been a conquered nation and gone cap in hand to London. There's a terrific creative energy that has developed in Wales and which doesn't necessarily fit the conventional categories society has created for the arts."
Next week, the Sherman Theatre Company begins a three-month national tour with Everything Must Go, a play written by Patrick Jones about growing up in Wales today. The title comes from an album by the Manic Street Preachers (Jones's brother is the group's leader, Nicky Wire) and features music from various Welsh bands. When the play had its first three-week run in Cardiff last year, a survey showed that 68 per cent of the audience had never been to the theatre before.
Many were fans of bands such as the Manics and the group strongly supported the production. "As a band from Wales, we support any cultural enterprise that gives people the chance to express their ideas and attack established forms of behaviour and life. It's imperative for people to have an outlet for their pain and anger. Paint it, act it, feel it, sing it, be it," says Nicky Wire.
Jones is aware that injecting nationalism into the arts also has its dangers. "You can go overboard with cheap patriotism and the play's not about flag-waving and Welsh dragons. But there is a confidence to Welsh culture that is entirely healthy. It came out of difficult times with Thatcherism and the closing of the pits. At first that produced a malaise in Welsh society, then it turned to anger. That's surfacing now, it's been led by the bands and I hope it's reflected in the play."
He feels there is still a lot for Welsh youth to be angry about. Everything Must Go chronicles three days in the random and meaningless lives of a group of teenagers driven by a desire for revenge which leads to terrible consequences. "The 'cool Cymru' image glosses over the fact that there is still anger there. People are raging but they don't know what to rage against and drugs and violence are often the outlets. There's a sort of anti-politics going on."
Clark, who also directed the production, believes that the arts can focus this energy to good effect. "It's very tough for a lot of Welsh kids. In the valleys there are shutters on shops which will never open again. Patrick's play givesyoung people a voice. He's saying 'don't take it lying down'. He's interested in empowering people through language. He writes about flawed characters, but the hope lies in the fact that they are asking the big questions."
Jones, 34, is best known as a poet, and Everything Must Go is his first play. He spends a lot of time running writing projects in schools and local community groups. "I meet a lot of 15 and 16-year-olds with a lack of aspiration," he says. "I try to instil in them an interest in poetry and expressing themselves, because it's better than taking drugs or throwing bricks. And that experience informs the play. At my age I'm not the voice of youth, but I come across their stories and I hope the play reflects reality. A lot of young people tell me they recognise how the characters feel."
Central to the cultural revival has been a new-found willingness on the part of Welsh artists to stay close to their roots rather than to disappear to London at the first opportunity. The Stereophonics still live in Cwmaman, in south Wales, the Manics in Blackwood and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci are threatening to sing their next album entirely in Welsh. Catatonia's lead singer Cerys Matthews also has a strong sense of her own Welshness. "I'll never leave. I might have a small flat in London to avoid late night travelling but I don't think I could survive for long away from Wales. It keeps your feet on the ground," she says. "Londinium", a song on Catatonia's last album is a stinging attack on life in the capital and contains the memorable line "I come alive outside the M25".
"The bands and writers like Patrick feed off the culture," says Phil Clark. "That's the source of their material. They belong to the community."
In turn the success of Welsh musicians has generated a wider cultural confidence. Curtis, one of the central characters in Everything Must Go, speaks only in Manic Street Preachers song lyrics. He is bullied at school and regarded as beyond help by his teachers, yet he becomes a street philosopher with his apposite quotations.
"Everybody remembers the pop songs from when they were 15 or 16 word-perfect, but they can't remember maths equations they learned at school. Songs are a universal currency," Jones says. "I was in a school last week and the English teacher was using song lyrics in class. Some of the other teachers thought it was terribly controversial because it isn't real literature. But if young people connect with it, then it has to be worth trying."
Clark sees the Welsh cultural renaissance as part of a revival of what is essentially an oral tradition. "The play isn't as strong on the page as when it is performed because it needs to be spoken. Pop lyrics don't read as well as they sound in song. Academics will tell you it isn't proper poetry. But Welsh has always existed as a spoken language. Although the play and the songs are in English this is a modern interpretation of the same heritage."
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, from March 1 to 11, then touring to June 3.Tel: 029 20 646900