Throughout the work of Ian Rowlands run strong themes of Welsh attitude to its own identity and its place within Europe and the world - nationalism versus patriotism, cultural identity or cultural isolationism. But far from being ‘worthy’ polemic, his plays are sharp-witted, often humorous, sometimes dreamlike in their content, veering into surreal territories, forging in-roads deep into the terrain of the Welsh mass psyche. He is a theatrical activist. Drawing on both modern and atavistic (look it up) influences. A driven practitioner with a far reaching vision that can see a way ahead for a new theatrical presence in contemporary Wales.
Originally training as an actor, Rowlands’ first success as a playwright was with The Great Adventures Of Rhys And Hywel, a play about two characters - one originating in the North of Wales, the other in the South. The play is set in the post-referendum era of the early eighties, well before the surge in Welsh consciousness that has occurred over more recent years. Straight away the play attracted the favourable attention of many a review.
Ian Rowlands, remembers how Rhys And Hywel came to be, “My original scrawlings and thoughts at that time condensed themselves into four, one act satires. These plays started performing around 1989 to around 1991, and condensed into a full length play in 1992 called, The Great Adventures Of Rhys And Hywel - toured four countries in 1992 and was nominated for a Writers Guild Awards.”
Of his distinctive style, already evident, he said, “They were very much influenced by Italian pantomime, Commedia Dell Arte - where you have stock characters. My work is full of archetypal characters, and in Tuscany at that period, four or five centuries ago, theatre was a means of discussing ideas, and transmitting news. Some people have termed the kind of theatre I have written, ‘the theatre of ideas’. Character is not as important to me up on the stage, what is important to me is the discussion of ideas. In deed, in some of my plays there are no real characters per se, only facets of a debate.”
Of course, things have changed and developed over the ensuing decade, “as my writing evolved, I’ve stepped further away from that and more towards characterisation.
“I remember the first time I ever used emotion, deliberately in a play, it was in a one-act play called The Ogpu Men, written for the Sherman Theatre, and done by HTV. I deliberately used and manipulated emotion up on the stage and that was a compromise for me, because my work was very much black comedy and dealing with ideas, not naturalistic or realistic at all.”
One aspect of Rowlands' work that has been repeatedly picked up on by many reviewers, is his apparent love of wordplay, of language and the sound of language. Was it this love of language that first attracted him to the writers life or has that developed as a symptom of that life?
“What inspired me to write…” Ian echoed, “It came from the performance element… From reading works by people like Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, Patrick Suskind, Tom Stoppard - I was interested in people who really use language and use language for effect.
“The kind of writers I enjoy are those that use language and tend to be from bilingual cultures… or have experienced bilingual cultures, such as the magical realist writers of South America - any writer who uses linguistic imagery and manipulates that for effect. Writers who play with words, fantsatical imagery and create other worlds, other ways of thinking - multi-lingual, multi-layered ways of interpreting the world. I can’t abide naturalistic, realistic novels, television, theatre or anything. Life does that so much better.
"There are two types of writers - I am generalising here - writers who get used by language and writers who use language. Writers who get used by language tend to be more naturalistic, concentrate on character and plot in quite a realistic way. Those who use language, for effect, are more concerned with that effect upon an audience, which sometimes can be divorced from characterisation and realism. I use language for effect, and some people get rather annoyed with my work and say that it’s too dense. But you don’t really have to listen to my words. Let my words wash over you like atmosphere.
“All I’m trying to create for my theatre is an effect. I don’t consider myself a writer, I consider myself a theatre practitioner and writing is just one facet of that.”
So does he employ a strict regimen or have a secret recipe for his writing process?
“I have no time-tabled work process - I’m appalling. The only thing that presses anything out of me is deadlines, I think if you talk to a lot of writers you get the same answer. I write into a word processor, I don’t think I could write the way I do without my computer. The reason is that it allows me to play with the language in a way that would be just too tedious in long hand. It allows me to see the language set out in front of me - you can mutate it at the press of a button, and I find that quite fascinating. I find the mutation of language upon the screen exciting, it allows me to play with it in a more fluid way.”
As a writer with such a pronounced social awareness and intellectual appreciation of writing, does he have any advice for the aspirant?
“To write from your heart, not from your pocket. Write your truth on paper and be brave enough to allow the world to experience your naked emotions upon the stage or the page. Sometimes that is not financially worthwhile, initially, but if you have abilities, then people will slowly get to know of your work and will come to accept what you have to say in the way you want to say it.”
But Rowlands is a playwright, right? More often than not, theatres are slaves to their audience profiles and their catchment areas. As a director of theatre companies, as well as of productions, is this something that affects him during the writing process?
“I don’t think it should. Obviously theatre is a medium of communication - that’s why theatre exists, to communicate between actor and each audience member - but I don’t think that any writer should have the idealised target audience at the back of their mind as an aim. I think that being true to yourself is the most important thing for a writer.”
Rowlands has also gathered an impressive CV of TV. He wrote a four-part documentary series for S4C titled, Men, about the male psyche, and had a big hand in the BBC feature production, A Light In The Valley, which won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Regional Programme… but how can writing television compare with the theatre?
“I see the world through theatrical eyes. I have written for television and I find that process a compromise. Someone once said to me that the art of film and television is the art of compromise and theatre allows a writer to not compromise as much as they would in any other medium.
“The thing that draws me back is that excitement of an actor sweating and spitting in front of you. There’s nothing to beat the excitement and electricity of live performance. That’s why I remain true to theatre, though obviously, to pay the bills, sometimes one has to dip into other media.”
A review in The Stage observed that, “Rowlands writes metaphors to kill for”, and often an entire play can be viewed as one big metaphor, such as Love In Plastic, about a man who chooses to re-gestate in a plasti- lined house for nine months before venturing out in search of love clad in an environment suite, or Glissando On An Empty Harp, about a woman who gives birth to a box that reputedly contains perfect beauty. Do the meanings of his metaphors ever get completely misinterpreted and do those interpretations ever surprise or disturb the author?
Rowlands’ response may seem surprising, “As a writer so consumed by words, individual words, to me, don’t matter. What I’m looking for is an effect, so when an audience leaves a performance they leave with a kind of atmosphere surrounding them, having been touched by some sort of happening. They don’t really know what it means. So they go away thinking.
“In certain ways, what I’m doing is creating music and not a text. When I was young, fourteen or fifteen, I used to fall asleep to tapes of poets reading their work. And the words didn’t matter, what I was most fascinated by were the rhythms and the music of the voice. What I try to do in my work is write a score of words - and that score also dictates the physicality and whole nature of the stage - therefore I am not a writer, I am a theatre practitioner, creator, image-maker.
“Do the things people read into my work ever surprise me? Yes - and they should. I’m fascinated when other people interpret my work because it gives a different slant to something. Sometimes that illuminates things in my work that I might not have seen there. Sometimes one can be too close to one’s own work. Sometimes people can read something into your work that are sometimes there and sometimes they aren’t there. But that is the nature of any sort of text, to a degree and interpretations of my work I find quite refreshing.”
Could Ian Rowlands have happened anywhere other then Wales? To what degree has the Welsh culture affected and informed his work?
“Immensely. I was a bilingual person in a mono-lingual society. My parents spoke English and my grandparents, on both sides, spoke Welsh - the Welsh ‘leap-frogged’ a generation. I didn’t really feel that I belonged to English Wales, or to Welsh Wales. Somehow I was this linguistic hybrid in the middle. The benefit being that bilingualism offers you more than one way to see the world.
“My work and the way I play with words is influenced greatly by the Welsh language and its effect on the English language. I am attempting to create an epic language for the contemporary experience. This process is called ‘syntactic shock’. Even unconsciously, the Welsh language inflicts itself upon my English.
“I feel that, through my work, I am trying to ligitimise the Welsh use of English. The Scottish use of English and the Irish use of English have been ligitimised over centuries by the English establishment. But the Welsh use of English has been derided. I’m trying to produce that didactic Welsh-English voice, which I don’t think is clichéd - the roots of it have always been there - Dylan Thomas exploited it, as did Carradog Evans at the turn of the century, Gwyn Thomas did it within his work, the precedents are there for setting it down in text and ligitimising it.
“So my roots as a Welsh writer are deep - I don’t write constantly about ‘Welsh problems’, but it is there in the backbone of my work. I cannot escape the conflicts of identity in language because I happen to be a writer who is writing in Wales, and therefore it informs everything I do.
“I’m a patriot in the Orwellian sense. In his essays on nationalism, he defines the difference between patriotism and nationalism. A nationalist stands shoulder to shoulder out of antagonism with another nation, a patriot stands shoulder to shoulder out of mutual respect.”
Wales and the Welsh have always had strong socialist tendencies, does Rowlands feel that the writer has any particular social roles to play?
“I think there can be social responsibilities for a writer. I don’t think that theatre has any responsibility to be a tool of social cohesion, as the Welsh Assembly seems to be trying to promote at the moment. In certain ways I think theatre should be a crowbar that can break social cohesion apart and ask questions that society doesn’t actually want to hear.
“The theatre has the ability to change the consciousness of a nation. It does not have the ability to correct its ills. It should highlight those ills, point them out, expose hypocrisy and head towards a utopia. Theatre is a utopian tool in that sense. So writers should only perceive the society around them and comment on it in a way they feel is true to their own political and social consciousness.
“There is a problem in Wales at the moment, as I direct mainly Welsh-language, we are creating a nation of people who see the world through televisual eyes. There is a dearth of theatre writers, therefore there’s also a dearth of theatre texts of a standard that can be directed and performed. So part of my work is Bara Caws, a company in North Wales, as we approach a time when a National Theatre will evolve in the Welsh language, is to produce a source of genuine theatre texts, not televisual texts that have been squashed into a theatrical mould.”
Bread and Cheese?
“Bara Caws - the name suggests many layers and it’s to do with the food that the slate workers used to take to quarry - it’s a community-socialist-based ideology.”
So what has read and enjoyed that sticks in his mind?
“I’ve been reading about a poet called David Samwell, who was a surgeon on the Discovery in Hawaii when Captain Cook was killed. He wrote a first-hand account of that which was published at the end of the Eighteenth Century. He was a Welsh-language poet who was very influential in the London Welsh Society at the time, very influenced by the revolution in France and the revolution in America. During the Eighteenth Century with the London Welsh Society, you had a dawning of the consciousness of modern day nationhood, which in certain ways has been realised two centuries later with the Assembly and the raising of awareness of what it is to be Welsh within a contemporary setting.”
Ian Rowlands is a busy man and there is plenty on his plate, including bread and cheese…
“I’m involved in the process of creating a National Theatre for the Welsh language in Wales. The English-language National Theatre of Wales, Theatre Clwyd, is already making headway, but the Welsh-language National Theatre is still lagging behind in the development process. I am part of that discussion and debate - in a very direct and integral way. That takes up a lot of my time. Over the next year, I have four plays to direct with Bara Caws, plus writing one of my own, and bits and bobs for telly…”
Ian Rowlands most recent published play, first performed by the Torch Theatre Company, is Blink – and not one to shy away from difficult and controversial issues, including the language of Wales, it concerns an inquiry into systematic child abuse that happened at the Welsh-language comprehensive school of a ‘tight-knight’ community in South Wales. Sounds pretty bleak and harrowing? Well there are very hard to take elements in the story, but Rowlaands manages to keep it centred on drama and personal stories that contain a lot of humour and warmth, beginnings and conclusions… He said of his play, “Blink tumbled out, almost fully formed, as if it had been seeking life for some time - a play that needed to be written, a statement I needed to make”.
Ian Rowlands is published by Parthian Books.