Theatre: Welshness is a state of mind

The playwright Ed Thomas draws his inspiration from his imagination, from Wales - and from a bizarre near-drowning in childhood. By Dominic Cavendish
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The Independent Culture
When Ed Thomas was six years old, he fell into the river near his home in Cwmgiedd, while swinging from a tree trying to impress a schoolmate. By the time he had been fished out, 25 minutes later, his skin had turned blue. He was pronounced dead by his uncle, so efforts were focused on saving his mother, who had waded out into the flood tide even though she couldn't swim.

Ed Thomas survived because a man with "fleshy, alcoholic lips" gave him the kiss of life. That one of Wales's foremost living playwrights came out completely unscathed from this experience is a mystery he has wondered at ever since.

The incident provided the basis for a pivotal scene in Thomas's new play, Gas Station Angel, which has just opened at the Royal Court. On stage, it is not an old soak who revives the waterlogged child but the boy's elder brother. Rather than drawing them closer together, the act of rescue creates a lasting rift: the saviour, Bri, resents the special attention that the salvaged Marshall subsequently receives.

"He was special, he was Jesus; I never made the papers," he complains, by way of explaining how he became "a bad angel".

The miraculous tale of Ed Thomas, the boy who cheated death, made the South Wales Evening Post back then, and it makes the nationals now - only this time round, at the age of 35, Thomas is credited with restorative powers. Over the last 10 years, so the story goes, he has resuscitated that moribund entity, Welsh theatre.

With his blond curls and cherubic complexion, blue jeans and black leather jacket, Thomas could easily pass for an angel who has pawned some of his heavenly lustre for the odd night on the town. Bereft of a set that refused to fit the space it was designed for, the bare stage at the Ambassador's Theatre, on which I find him chain-smoking furiously, seems to match the cultural landscape he describes growing up in: desolate.

"Welsh culture was invisible," he says, effortlessly plucking aphorisms out of thin air, honeying his phrases with his soft Swansea accent.

"The Welsh didn't seem to be dignified enough for tragedy, funny enough for comedy or good enough at sex to be lovers. It was as if we were meant to f*** like pigs, eat trash food and generally be a laughing stock. You learnt more from watching television about downtown Melbourne than you ever did about downtown Merthyr, and when anyone talked about Welsh theatre they invariably meant Under Milk Wood."

Thomas's first play, House of America, was, he says, "just a sophisticated way of scrawling `Kilroy woz 'ere' on a toilet wall. It was there just to let people know that we existed."

It achieved far more than that. An obliquely structured account of a dysfunctional Valleys family living on the edge of an open-cast mine whose loss of self-worth and sanity is fatally accelerated by the imported dreams they fill their lives and bury their past with, the play was an overnight success.

After being brought to the Royal Court in 1989, and winning a clutch of awards, it justified the touring intent of Thomas's fledgling company Y Cwmni ("The company"). It also catapulted Thomas headlong into a writing career after a two-year stint playing a doctor on the Welsh-language soap Pobol Y Cwm ("I was terrible" ). Last year, Marc Evans's film version, starring Sian Phillips, scooped four Welsh Baftas.

The incestuous relationship between brother Sid and sister Gwenny in House of America, who make believe that they're Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, took its cue from Thomas's own abortive attempt to live on borrowed icons. After he left Cardiff University, he spent "six years in London pretending to be Kerouac before I realised that I wasn't American and that I knew nothing about the Beat generation."

Since his debut, there has been a steady succession of plays that have chipped away at the prejudice that the only distinctive Welsh voices are to be found in all-male choirs. The work tackles the question of Welsh national identity with the kind of head-on force you would expect from a former rugby fullback, followed through with an imaginative sensibility that is completely unfettered, blending the familiar, even the stereotypical, with the supernatural.

The plays are located in places that bear the extenuated feel of his hometown: "a bypass town with one street that stops being a street and turns into a mountain track."

Flowers of the Dead Red Sea (1991) was set "in a world of chains, knives, steel, blood and falling objects" and centred on an argument about the need for fiction between two slaughtermen (Thomas's father is a butcher, who never persuaded his son to follow in his footsteps). East from the Gantry (1992) was set in "a derelict house on a mountain surrounded by snow" and boasted a main character who imagined himself as Trampas from the Sixties Western TV series The Virginian.

Song from a Forgotten City (1995/96) "was about a smackhead who finds himself trapped in the fiction of a large metropolis".

"The theme is always imagination," he explains. "The only definition of a culture or nationhood is desire. Wales only really exists in the imagination."

Thomas is not, of course, the only person to have kindled a sense that there's a Welsh cultural renaissance, and growth in national self-esteem, in progress. The release of House of America, the movie, coincided with that of Kevin Allen's Twin Town, widely dubbed "the Welsh Trainspotting". Peter Gill's Cardiff East had pitched up at the National and the media had long since attached the label "taffpop" to the new bands currently riding hell for leather over the Severn Bridge (Catatonia, Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, to name but three.)

According to Thomas, Gas Station Angel, in which two lovers join imaginative forces to overcome their families' savage histories, reflects a mood of qualified optimism: "All of a sudden Welsh culture has been outed. The attitude is: if you've got low self-confidence, or are feeling unhip or ungroovy, come to Wales; we may be f***ed but we're happy."

Thomas is certainly not lacking work at present. Y Cwmni has been renamed "Fiction Factory" to reflect the company's diversification into television and film, and the artistic director is busy working on the third series of a home-grown sitcom, Satellite City - about "an American who comes to Wales looking for his roots and ends up sharing a bed with an old man".

He's also slated to film James Hawes' Rancid Aluminium this autumn. He recognises that Gas Station Angel will earn him the charge that "I'm away with the fairies. Everyone expects me to write relevant social issue plays but I think drama is life imagined rather than life reproduced. You have to re-imagine the future. People accuse me of not writing plays about mining communities.

"My job is to imagine a dramatic landscape, which may include the past and may not. When I'm talking about Wales," he adds, "I'm really talking about myself." Strange as it may sound, hearing Ed Thomas talking about himself does not induce that sinking feeling.

`Gas Station Angel', Royal Court Theatre, WC2 (0171-565 5000), to 27 June.

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