Patrick Jones and a theatrical vision for a young Wales
In recent days, I received my copy of the 10th anniversary edition of Manic Street Preachers’ eighth studio album Send Away the Tigers. I have been collecting Manics’ special editions for some time now. While they sit outside the scope of my electronica radar, I find them musically, lyrically and aesthetically irresistible; indeed, their exceptional artwork is often the reason why I purchase their reissues, rather than James Dean Bradfield’s kitchen demos.
Against this backdrop, I have been reminded of my encounter with the early plays of Patrick Jones (pictured above), which I covered when I was a drama critic at the turn of the second millennium. Jones, for those who don’t know, is the older brother of Nicky Wire (real name: Nicholas Jones), feather boa-adoring bass player of the Manics. But he is also one of the most intriguing playwrights I ever came across. Given that I am dipping in and out of the Manics on iTunes these days, I thought I would share some of my writing on Jones’ first two staged plays, which I had the privilege of seeing in 1999-2000. While they were staged during the first term of Tony Blair’s government, the issues they explored seem just as relevant now, if not more so, as when they were premiered. Please bear in mind, as you read on, that the following was written in 2000.
Then came human beings. They wanted to cling but there was nothing to cling to. Albert Camus
The Sherman Theatre in Cardiff is celebrating the millennium with an urgent form of epic theatre. Fusing the wintry apocalypse of 20th century British poetry, the classical paradigm of modern American drama and the nihilistic vision of a teenage wasteland, two powerful and contrasting plays reveal Patrick Jones as a vital new British playwright. This unique voice rejects the muscular iconography of Welsh culture and instead confronts historical and topical manifestations of nationalism and fatherhood.
With the nihilistic pose of punk and the androgynous pout of glam, Manic Street Preachers have always understood the grand gesture. The generation the Welsh rock group represent is largely drawn to the shared hopelessness that Richey Edwards, their original ideologist-in-chief, articulated in a despairing, often holocaustic, lyricism. His disappearance without trace, after episodes of self-harm and anorexia, in 1995 arguably compares with the cultural and emotional significance of Princess Diana and Kurt Cobain.
Provoked by the subsequent media hysteria, Jones was anxious to find a theatrical voice that would eloquently speak out: “The press were saying that rock music is bad for young people,” he recalls. “I wanted an intellectual rebel to look around today and ask what we have become. So I started writing notes for a play about how young people grew up amongst this.” Against an urgent rock soundtrack, Jones reclaims the classical tragedy from Arthur Miller for a youth betrayed by old Wales and the New Labour government.
Jones’ first play Everything Must Go* is located in Blackwood, the South Wales hometown he shares with Manic Street Preachers. Under Margaret Thatcher, the capitalist temples of Sony, Toshiba and Pot Noodle replaced the local coal industry. In Phil Clark’s production, which premiered in February 1999 at the Sherman Theatre, beautifully choreographed factory production lines hover menacingly over the stage like an Orwellian industrial nightmare. As piercing shrills of factory hooters punctuate these images, a cacophonic fanfare to the philosophy of “arbeit macht frei” is hauntingly evoked. “It’s creating theatre that works on all your senses,” insists Clark, the Sherman’s artistic director and a highly regarded champion of new plays for young people.
The production inhabits a vastly different universe from the venal commercial instincts of an Irvine Welsh stage adaptation. What transpires is a powerhouse mixture of poetic imagery and an intelligent rock score. This Brechtian model sharpens the play’s dialectic by using popular songwriting to lend immediacy to not only the political issues raised, but also the human cost involved. “We should be looking for more epic forms of theatre,” argues Clark.
Opening with “A Design for Life”, this urban hymn to the British welfare state sweeps rhapsodically over an apocalyptic scene of youth culture in the Welsh valleys. “It allows the audience to enter into the dramatic world of the play,” explains Clark. Another song called “Ready for Drowning” translates the Stevie Smith metaphor into a polemic about how recent British governments have divided communities with free market economics. This nightmarish sequence shows a group of miners leaving the pit, before being placed in front of computers they are clearly incapable of using. As frustration turns into farce, one by one, the miners pick up their monitors and throw them into the pit hole, while the light from their helmets pierces the dark auditorium. “An understanding of the working-class voice and the structures of our society has always been of use to the next generation,” reckons Clark.
The narrative, however, pivots around the enigmatically named A, a rebel archetype in a similar mould to Quadrophenia’s Jimmy or The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. As the play’s title infers, a plague of retail outlets has reduced Blackwood to a shuttered fortress. Better still, an anarchist’s playground. “The dilemma Patrick brings up in the play,” Clark suggests, “is that, even though A identifies what’s wrong, he doesn’t know what to do about it.”
Politically inspired by Aneurin Bevan, A has the ideal canvas on which to graffiti the social ills he sees around him – want, ignorance, squalor, disease and idleness – which the founder of the NHS sought to eradicate. More poignantly, Bevan’s message actually sounds like a modus vivendi for a modern Wales. “The message I get from young people is more cynical than the punk vision,” adds Jones. “I want to show that, if they had A’s awareness, it would give them empowerment out of all this.”
A is originated by a remarkable young Welsh actor called Oliver Ryan, who understands the protagonist’s iconoclasm and the ambivalence of his situation. “He’s terrifyingly well read,” says Ryan. “But he has built his own world through newspaper clippings, Welsh history and Karl Marx. He has to make it seem real to him. There’s so much sadness in A because he doesn’t realize that he has a voice. Instead, he chooses to destroy in order to create, which I think is very apt for teenagers today.”
This mentality is intelligently juxtaposed with Ryan’s mesmerizingly ethereal character in Unprotected Sex, Jones’ play by Jones, which premiered at the Sherman Theatre Studio in October 1999. Appearing as a sullied glam rock angel, Denver is the victim of childhood bullying who sought refuge among the mountain ponies and found solace in their need for companionship.
Witnessing the murder of a pregnant mare by knife-wielding thugs has heightened his selfless despair: a solo choir voicing the isolation and destructiveness of this grotesque rite of male initiation.
Acting as a counterpoint to Denver’s introspection, Richard Harrington’s portrayal of Gary, a former soldier, is a sensitive antidote to the Charles Bukowski image of manhood. What social skills the army taught him are the brutalizing, if childlike, means of control used to inspire discipline through some kind of surrogate family loyalty. Abandoned by his father at a vulnerable age, he is seemingly perfect cannon fodder. But military life has denied him the full range of emotions to deal with the atrocities he witnessed in Kosovo. The war still raging inside his mental universe, he returns to Triste, his pregnant girlfriend, with only alcohol and testosterone as support.
Returning to Everything Must Go, the dominant focus of A’s rage is to avenge the loss of his father, a former miner whose death was hastened after being sacked following a decade on a production line without any explanation. “It’s about how, with a click of the mouse, his father was gone from the workforce,” says Jones. In the apotheosis, extreme personal morality, rather than sociopathic dysfunction, inexorably propels A to kill Worthington, the factory manager responsible for sacking his father. “There’s a certain rage when words are not enough,” Jones accepts. “I’m not saying that killing someone is the answer. But I don’t think there was another way, dramatically, in which he could prove his point. He’s not going to be a politician or a pop star and he cares so much about his father.”
The betrayal of the human spirit underpins the damning indictment of Blair’s Britain, which drives Everything Must Go. For A’s friends, empty days are filled with material dreams, petty crime and a perverse determination to survive. There’s Pip, who is more interested in the next sexual conquest than political idealism; there’s Jim, who never seems to learn from the Open University TV programmes that keep him up all night; and there’s Curtis, who, denied an identity at school, speaks only in song lyrics from époque-making groups, such as The Who, Nirvana and Oasis. “It’s brilliant you have to pay to listen to young people, telling you how they feel,” enthuses Oliver Ryan, “because this is the generation that everyone is so quick to dismiss.”
This popular cultural sensibility is employed with greater subtlety in Unprotected Sex. Admittedly, there is a hypnotic score from James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers, which resonates through this compelling example of physical theatre. Meanwhile, the lyrical sense of poetry mirrors the social disintegration of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, which, in its time, commented on a crisis in the human condition. Moreover, it convincingly evokes the claustrophobic intensity of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams.
Jones attempts to resolve the patriarchal conundrums that – from the Rebecca Riots to the tribal machismo of the rugby field – are posed (but not exclusively) by Welsh society. In each play, a female character – both stunningly portrayed by Maria Pride – offers poignant insights into maleness and its relationship with national identity at this millennial juncture. As masculinity implodes around her in Unprotected Sex, Triste becomes the voice of hope, while Cindy in Everything Must Go has to deal with her disgust and frustration at what Wales has become through self-harm and heroin abuse. “I’m sure part of me hates a lot of the old Wales,” believes Jones. “But part of me relishes what it was. We don’t really celebrate Bevan. Instead, we’ll have the Welsh national anthem only sing on the rugby pitch by ‘real’ men with a tear in their eye.”
* Although the Manics’ album Everything Must Go was released in 1996, it took its name from Jones’ play, which was in draft form at that stage.