David Lyn: Actor who fought for Welsh theatre


David Lyn belonged to a generation of gifted actors who came to prominence in the late 1960s as the call for a national theatre for Wales once more made its way to the top of the agenda. He put a good deal of his energies into theatre politics, perhaps at the expense of his acting, and was for a while a leading figure in what seemed a serious bid to provide high-quality, indigenous theatre in a land virtually starved of it.

Wales, it has been said, is the only country in the world to have had television in its own language before it had professional theatre, and the truth of that bleak statement is nowhere more evident in the history of several attempts to found a National Theatre. It is a gloomy tale of insufficient funding, a lack of suitable buildings, inflated artistic egos, the clash of political factions and the indifference of a public which, until recent times, had little experience of watching plays on the professional stage.

Lyn came close to success in 1966 when he took the lead in creating a new theatre company known as Theatr yr Ymylon with the intention that it should grow into a company with a realistic claim to being considered a "national" theatre. Alas, it lasted only until 1976 when, amid recriminations, Lyn resigned as artistic director.

He was an unlikely protagonist in the pitched battles of Welsh theatre, not least on account of his gentle manner and lack of personal ambition. Born at Porth in the Rhondda Valley into an English-speaking home, but brought up on a smallholding in Cynwil Elfed in Carmarthenshire, he shared the poverty that was all around him. But his mother insisted he go to the local grammar school, and from there he proceeded to Trinity College, Carmarthen, to train as a teacher.

There he enrolled on a weekend drama course at which his talents were spotted by a tutor from the Royal College of Music, who encouraged him to move to London. After two years at the RCM, against his parents' wishes, he decided he was ready to earn a living as an actor. He made his debut in experimental theatre clubs and such avant-garde places as the Watergate, where the actors sometimes improvised and directors took risks.

After 15 years in London, and with his second wife and five children to support, he decided to put himself to the test back in Wales. He had just completed a tour of Ireland in The Caretaker with the Welsh Theatre Company, which had been founded in 1965. This was the company which two years later became embroiled in a legal inquiry after usurping the title "Welsh National Theatre" against the wishes of some of its directors. Lyn's was a brave, even foolhardy move given the fraught state of theatre of Wales.

It was at this point that a script was sent to him by Cwmni Theatr Cymru, Welsh-language counterpart of the Welsh Theatre Company, of a play by Gwenlyn Parry, the foremost young Welsh dramatist of the day. It was Saer Doliau ("Doll Doctor"), an enigmatic fable in the style of the French Absurd playwrights. Lyn brushed up his Welsh to a standard which enabled him to master the long speeches and subtly existential language. The production was a resounding success and toured Wales for more than a year.

Largely in response to the blandishments of Ray Smith, Plaid Cymru activist and actor, Welsh theatre, Lyn concluded, had to be his first and only interest.

His lack of fluent Welsh caused him no difficulty because his fellow-actors were ready to make allowances at rehearsals; it was only when he started to become involved in theatre politics that he felt the strain, notably through the malign influence of Equity. He was also appalled by attitudes at the Welsh Arts Council where some older drama committee members treasured fond memories of Sybil Thorndike at Tonypandy and Lewis Casson in Dowlais, entertaining the forlorn hope that Welsh actors of international status could be enticed to return to their homeland. He was equally impatient with the Welsh Theatre Company, who employed English and expatriate Welsh actors whose career prospects lay chiefly in England but who would work in Wales when "resting".

Lyn formed a Welsh Actors' Society. "Whenever it spoke" he wrote in an essay in 1977, "it almost frightened itself to death. It eventually made itself articulate on some important union matters after it had converted itself into the Welsh Committee of Equity. On theatre policy it was quite without courage."

The next step was to create a new theatre company in an attempt to give Welsh actors confidence to shake off English influences. The company, Theatr yr Ymylon, was based in Bangor. Public response was enthusiastic and soon there was talk that it would develop into the national theatre. But the project foundered amid arguments over what constituted a national theatre and a network of arts centres and workshops devoted to community-based activity grew in its place.

Lyn struggled on. But the administrative burden was heavy, resources scarce. The main problems arose from having to satisfy the Arts Council as well as the managers of the theatres at which the company performed. "Eventually," Lyn wrote, "I began to torture myself with the suspicion that the company's cautious interpretation of its policy was a symptom of low moral conviction, that the eruption of radical feeling which had created the company had lost its impetus."

Lyn resumed his television career, notably in an adaptation of Jack Jones's novel, Off to Philadelphia in the Morning. He continued to produce plays for Theatr Powys, and with two of his children, Tim and Hannah, produced plays for the stage and TV.

In his last years he put much effort into renovating old houses. But he never again came to public notice and his important contribution as a radical pioneer was largely overlooked. He was not bitter but was given to warning friends of the perils of trying to create modern theatre in Wales. Not until 2004 was a Welsh National Theatre formed and he played no part in it, but if ever there is a gallery of portraits in the new building it will certainly have a place for one of David Lyn.

Meic Stephens

David Lyn Jenkins (David Lyn), actor and theatre director: born Porth, Rhondda 1927; married Faith Owen (marriage dissolved; one child), secondly Sally Pepper (deceased; four children); died 4 August 2012.

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