Theatre in Wales: A Historical Overview

Ahead of the Welsh language show Y Mab Darogan to be performed at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall, Thomas Howells takes a look at the history of theatre in Wales from the middle ages to today.

Theatre in Wales has developed and changed significantly from the Middle Ages’ singing and dancing to the founding of the Cymreigyddion, construction of the New Theatre and the writers of the 1900s.

In the Middle Ages, Welsh performers sang, danced, and told stories to entertain people. They were part of a long-standing Welsh tradition of storytelling by bards who kept Welsh history and mythology alive. Over time, these performers became known as “minstrels” and continued to travel around and perform in marketplaces, fairs, and other public places.

Cardiff’s New Theatre Photo: Andy Howells

Their shows included traditional Welsh dances, music, and stories with mythological or historical themes. One popular show was the “mummers’ play” performed during Christmas with elaborate costumes and comic skits that often incorporated Welsh mythology and folklore. Welsh theatre was important for preserving Welsh traditions and history, and the minstrels were respected members of Welsh society. Their stories and songs still influence Welsh artists and performers today.

Later, in 1768, the establishment of the first permanent theatre in Cardiff, called the “New Theatre” which held 500 people at the time, brought English theatre to Wales. The New Theatre quickly became popular, hosting a range of plays and performances.

A scene from Cwmni Theatr Bara Caws will ber performing ‘Gair o Gariad’ – ‘Music Fills Space Between People’ at the Chapter Arts Centre in 2018

English theatre introduced new ideas, themes, and styles of performance to Welsh culture, and helped to enrich the theatrical scene in Wales.

With the New Theatre’s first play, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer’ success, it became clear that this was well received. Additionally, the introduction of English theatre had a significant impact on the Welsh language, as English became the language of the theatre and helped to spread the use of English throughout Wales causing the language to decline.

Welsh language theatre remains both current and popular with Y Mab Darogan playing Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on April 29, 2023.

In response to this, the Welsh language theatre movement started in the 19th century with the London-based Cymreigyddion Society’s founding in 1858. The society aimed to promote Welsh culture and language through theatre and was a driving force in the Welsh cultural scene.

The society organised Welsh language productions that helped to revitalise interest in the Welsh language, including the famous Welsh language opera, Blodwen. The success of the society inspired other Welsh language theatre groups to form, and Welsh language theatre began to grow. Today, the vibrant Welsh language theatre scene remains an essential part of Welsh culture and identity.

Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre

In the 20th century, modern Welsh-language theatre emerged, with playwrights like Saunders Lewis, a Welsh nationalist who wrote plays about Welsh history and identity including his famous play Blodeuwedd. Further examples include, Gwenlyn Parry, who focused on a lot of class issues in Wales in his writing including the play Saer Doliau; while Emlyn Williams, who wrote plays in both languages including The Corn is Green reflected both Welsh culture and identity. 

In the 1960s and 70s, Welsh-language theatre emerged, championing Welsh culture and challenging the dominance of English-language theatre. Despite funding struggles, the establishment of the Arts Council of Wales in 1994 led to increased support for theatre in Wales, resulting in the creation of new companies and venues such as the Sherman Theatre and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru.

Today, Welsh-language theatre continues to thrive, providing a powerful platform for celebrating Welsh identity and shaping the cultural landscape of Wales.

National Theatre Wales presentation of Circle of Fifths by Gavin Porter which played the Dance House on Cardiff Bay in June 2023. Photo Credit: Jorge Lizalde

South Wales has been particularly important in the development of Welsh theatre. The region’s rich industrial history and strong working-class identity provided a fertile ground for the emergence of a new wave of Welsh-language theatre in the 1960s and 70s. Companies such as Cwmni Theatr Cymru and Theatr Bara Caws drew on this heritage, producing gritty, socially-engaged plays that resonated with audiences.

South Wales also has a vibrant contemporary theatre scene, with venues such as the Sherman Theatre, Wales Millennium Centre and Cardiff Bay’s Dance House hosting innovative productions from established and emerging artists. The region’s cultural significance is further underlined by the presence of the National Theatre of Wales, which is based in Cardiff and produces work in both Welsh and English.

A scene from Anthem, an example of Welsh Theatre from 2022 Written by Llinos Mai, which played Wales Millennium Centre Credit: JOHAN PERSSON

Welsh theatre has been entertaining people for centuries, with singers, dancers, and storytellers captivating audiences. The arrival of the first permanent theatre in Cardiff brought English theatre to Wales, but caused the Welsh language to decline. To revive interest in Welsh culture and language, Welsh language theatre emerged in the 19th century.

Today, Welsh-language theatre remains a powerful platform for celebrating Welsh identity, with South Wales taking centre stage in its development. So get ready to be entertained and inspired by the rich cultural history of Welsh theatre!

Published by Thomas Howells

The doctor said I should be in hospital for all the blood I was losing, but instead I went to drama practice

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