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It's a sign: National Theatre Wales

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Will Gompertz | 12:44 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

As he is happy to acknowledge, Dai Smith, the Chair of Arts Council Wales, is not a tall man. But he is an experienced television performer who knows the game. So when Carl, the BBC cameraman, whips out a large box for an interview, Dai hops on with all the enthusiasm of a Crufts champion.

National Theatre Wales

Behind Dai, three illuminated signs spell out NATIONAL THEATRE WALES. They are cheap but effective; an appropriate symbol for the new institution. The original National Theatre at London's Southbank turns over more than £50m a year. The recently-formed National Theatre of Scotland receives an annual public subsidy of about £4m.

National Theatre Wales will have to get by with a subsidy of £1m a year. Whether or not that is enough to run a national theatre company, it's certainly going to have to be very bright to shine among the other "nationals" if it is not to run the risk of being seen as a poor relation.

Dai may not be tall, but his ambition is sizeable. Why, I ask, did he fight so hard to create a national theatre of Wales?

"To give the Welsh people a distinctive voice - a distinctive accent. We've got a Welsh-language national theatre; the missing piece of the mosaic was a national theatre in the English language, which is the language of the majority of the Welsh people. The time is right."

He goes on to say how he feels Wales differs from Scotland and England, in that it doesn't have a large theatre-going middle class. The job of National Theatre Wales, he says, is to build an audience for high-quality, contemporary theatre.

Our discussion is taking place next to the first-floor bar of the Blackwood Miners' Institute, a 40-minute drive from Cardiff. The miners are long gone; in their place, a theatre has appeared. Real life replaced by fantasy. It is the venue for National Theatre Wales's inaugural production, A Good Night Out in the Valleys.

They'll be performing future shows all over Wales. One will be on a beach; another on a military firing range. There is a touch of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses as they follow the trend for site-specific theatre. But it is also out of necessity. They have decided to adopt the Scottish model: National Theatre Wales is homeless. A practical, get-on-with-it decision that reflects Dai's can-do approach to the whole project.

He is keen to point out that National Theatre Wales is not funded by reducing money given to pre-existing theatres, but is being supported with new money from the Welsh Assembly. He doesn't like the expression, but refers to the project as "nation-building" - a natural next step in the process of devolution and an important act of self-expression. He thinks that politicians in Westminster are slow to recognise and respond to what he sees as the future: a federal Britain.

So the neon graphic could be seen as more than a logo; it could be read as a political statement: a sign of our times.

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