Thomas the voice

Thought for St David's Day from Edward Thomas: when was the last time you watched a good sex scene in Welsh? By Clare Bayley `We need two people behind the bike sheds experimenting with the birth of a nation' `Wales has a glasshouse culture. All sacred c
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The Independent Culture
"I have yet to see recorded anyone having good sex in the Welsh language," says Edward Thomas, playwright and self-appointed inventor of the modern Welsh nation. As one of the characters in Thomas's play Flowers from the Dead Red Sea proclaims, "Art can save culture", and it is through the theatre that Thomas is embarking on his idiosyncratic mission. It is a serious mission, born of a passion for his country, yet one whose grandness is constantly undercut by the playwright's debunking irony. "I don't want a country based on nationalism, I want a country based on desire. We need two people behind the bike sheds experimenting with the birth of a nation," he says.

For Thomas the lack of any representations of good sex in the Welsh language is a cultural tragedy of the same magnitude as the fact that Wales has no heroes other than Tom Jones and Harry Secombe. "Damned is a nation without heroes," says Thomas, knocking back his pint of Guinness in the bar at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff before the performance of his latest play, Song from a Forgotten City. To redress the balance, sex occurs in most of his own plays (he writes in English and in Welsh), though never without an edge of darkness. In House of America, his first and most frequently performed work, a sister and brother, who have escaped from the reality of a depressed "by-pass" Welsh town into the fantasy that they are Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, are seen in flagrante. In Song from a Forgotten City it's the enigmatic figure of the Writer who, in a drug- and drink- fuelled moment of confusion seduces his friend, believing him to be a lost lover because he happens to be wearing her suede mini-skirt.

The power of Thomas's playwriting lies in the fact that the madly imaginative, chaotic, lyrical stories he tells present themselves instantly as metaphors. The dysfunctional sex could be seen as an expression of the fervid desire of the Welsh to be united with the country they love, thwarted by history and circumstance. At least, though, his characters are making the attempt. All the depressing reality of 1990s Welsh life is there in the writing - the open-cast mines, the blood-swilling abattoirs, the abandoned houses, the cold, rainy hills - but Thomas's aesthetic and cultural agenda is to create an imaginary new Wales. Wales only exists in the imagination, he argues, so it's up for grabs for anyone and everyone to fashion as they will.

Song from a Forgotten City is the most unabashed effort to create this imaginary land to date, exploring the relationship between a country and a city, between civic and national pride. It is set in the metropolis that Wales lacks, on the evening of an international match that Wales have lost, and it opened in Cardiff in the week of the international match that England had won. The character referred to as the Writer waxes lyrical in the imaginary metropolis: "The city is yours. You know that people from all over the world want to come and visit it... to feel it for themselves. They want to share your city with you for a day... or a week... then go back home and tell their people that they never knew such a city existed, man. Your city. Your country's city. You aren't invisible."

They say that on rugby international days, Cardiff is as close as it ever gets to feeling like a major city. The streets throng with people, the bars are full to overflowing, grown men wear daffodils in their lapels and the rain-soaked wind at about two o'clock carries snatches of the Welsh anthem, sung by hundreds of supporters in full throat. But by the next morning, Wales have lost (Wales have only lost twice to England at the Arms Park in the last 30 years), the streets are deserted and, despite the bi-lingual sign-posts, the shops in the main street are the same as you would see anywhere in Britain. As one of Thomas's characters laments: "I came to this city looking for a metropolis, but all I found was Cardiff."

"I don't want to be a Welsh miserablist," Thomas professes, "but it's hard: if Wales had won the international, it would have done more for Wales than five of my plays. If we had an English-language sitcom set in Wales that we exported, or a soap-opera, or a Welsh hero and heroine on the big screen... Cardiff has all the potential dancers and painters and poets to make an impact culturally, it's just that their work isn't recorded, there's a huge lack of confidence."

The son of a butcher, born in Abercraf, Swansea Valley, Thomas studied English at the University of Wales in Cardiff before leaving for France and then London, where he worked in fringe theatre and began to write. An appealingly ravaged face bears testament to some wild living in his youth, before he moved back to Cardiff and became a serious writer, forming Y Cwmni in 1988, a theatre and television company with whom he has written and directed six productions. Thomas's plays used to receive more enthusiastic support in Glasgow, Dublin and even London than in Cardiff. But Song (the first new play in 10 years to run for more than 10 nights at Chapter Arts) sold out for its whole run. Thomas still expresses pleasure at seeing an audience comprised entirely of strangers, rather than friends and family, and welcomes the current cultural vibrancy in Cardiff. With the opening of The Point (see feature below) there will be 40 theatre openings in Cardiff in 10 weeks. And even the mysterious disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers' lyricist, Richey James (his abandoned car was found by the Severn Bridge) gives the dour reality of contemporary Welsh life a romantic, Kerouac-like edge.

In fact, James could almost be a character from an Ed Thomas play. After the burlesque comedy and theatrical tricks of the first half, Song from a Forgotten City degenerates into a troubling vision of a group of friends getting by on drugs and drink when everything they have cared for has been brutalised and destroyed, and all their aspirations have been mocked into nothingness. For all his romantic fervour, Ed Thomas's vision of a Welsh nation is unsentimental, urban and very contemporary. And it is articulated in a new urban Welsh vernacular which is arguably more relevant, and more exportable, than the Welsh language itself.

"Wales has never had a modernist era, or a post-modernist one, or any bloody thing," says Thomas. "I hope my plays are a way to bring Wales up to the modern world," he says, then checks himself. It's easy to mock, but Thomas is torn between a natural subversive tendency and protectiveness towards his fledgling country. "We've inherited a glasshouse culture. All sacred cows should be attacked, but ours is so fragile. Song from a Forgotten City is the most autobiographical thing I've written yet," he says. "If we can record the way the Welsh live, love and die, then at least we've made a step.

n `Song from a Forgotten City' is currently touring in Wales. It comes to the Royal Court, London, in June