Michael Sheen: 'It would be criminal if the arts in Wales doesn't get the support it deserves'

Michael Sheen is currently starring in Nye - a new play about the life of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Actor Michael Sheen said it would be "criminal" if the arts sector in Wales doesn't get the "development and support it deserves".

Speaking to ITV Cymru Wales' Backstage programme, Sheen said he does not think "it's a surprise that the funding got cut from National Theatre Wales", and that "it's an opportunity for it to reimagine itself."

The actor is currently starring in Nye, a new play about the life of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, at the Wales Millennium Centre from 18 May until 1 June.

He continued: "I think it has to be re-thought through and it has to be for Wales itself, it has to deserve its place and its audience.

"On the one hand, it's quite shocking when you hear that National Theatre Wales is in the position it's in and its funding has been cut like that, but at the same time it's an opportunity for it to reimagine itself and reinvent itself - maybe in a way that it would be more welcomed by the Welsh themselves."

Nye follows the life of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan. Credit: National Theatre

Last September, it was announced National Theatre Wales was among those that failed to be included in the Arts Council of Wales' latest round of grants. Its funding stopped in April this year.

The theatre company said: "We are aware that we are not alone; many publicly-funded charities like ours and public sector bodies are facing funding cuts, both in Wales and UK-wide."

The Arts Council of Wales had 139 applications, with 81 awarded.

National Theatre Wales was set up with the help of Arts Council of Wales funding in 2007.

The Arts Council, which is an independent charity established to support the creative industry, has awarded almost £30 million to organisations across Wales.

The National Theatre Wales is well-known for its connections with grassroots theatre in Welsh communities. It has produced several performances across the country, often focusing on life in Wales.

Writer of the play Nye, Tim Price, shares a similar concern to that of his leading actor.

He said: "Welsh theatre is in crisis with the cuts, still waiting for a theatre strategy from Arts Council Wales. I think it’s not in a good place."

He added: "If you look at spending per head, and you compare Wales to England, Scotland and Ireland, Wales is at the bottom of the table.

"I think the Welsh Government doesn’t value arts in the same way that the other nations and regions and I think that’s going to have a huge impact on wellbeing and on the economy.

“If we can invest in the arts, not only does it increase wellbeing and cohesion, but also it makes good economic sense.”

The Welsh Government says arts and culture is an "integral part of our society" but it’s had to take "extremely difficult decisions to focus funding on core public services, including the NHS."

A spokesperson added: "The UK Government intends this squeeze on public spending to continue over the next few years and based on their plans our budget will be lower per person in real terms in 2028/29 than it was in 2022/23.”

Nye was written by Welsh screenwriter and playwright, Tim Price.

A UK Government source said: “Arts funding in Wales is devolved and the Labour Welsh Government is currently receiving the largest funding settlement from the UK Conservative Government in the history of devolution - a record £18 billion per year, which is still increasing in real terms.

"It means that the UK Government is providing the Welsh Government with over 20% more funding per person than equivalent UK government spending in England.

"The Labour Welsh Government is responsible for how it allocates that extra funding on its own priorities. We continue to urge the Labour ministers to spend the money on vital areas, including arts funding, rather than continue wasting it on vanity projects, including £100 million on more politicians, over £60 million losses from its own bank and tens of millions on 20mph default speed limits.”

When asked how he would redesign the organisation, Sheen said he believes it "has to be built up from finding the audience and not necessarily trying to reinvent what theatre is all the time."

"Do the things that people enjoy well", he said.

"Start with that as your foundation and build it up from there I think probably and try and nurture the audience and nurture the artistic community itself.

"Look for what's out there, look for what's working and what's strong - develop that, support that and see where it goes."

He added: "There's no easy answer. It's a difficult environment, it's difficult financially for everyone so I'm aware there's no simple solution to that.

"I'm optimistic and a bit fearful about the future because it shouldn't be that the only people that get access to the arts are the people who can afford it and who come through areas that can afford it.

"That shouldn't be the case and we in Wales have such talent and such rich depth of talent that it would be criminal if that doesn't get the development and support that it deserves."

A spokesperson for Arts Council Wales said: "We agree wholeheartedly with your contributors about the importance of the arts to all aspects of Welsh life."

The Sherman Theatre in Cardiff is one of those organisations which received funding from Arts Council Wales.

They added that in the organisation's Investment Review in 2023 - the process the organisation used to award multi-year funding to arts organisations - English language theatre saw an increase in support.

They said: "For the first time, we have awarded multi-year funding to three exciting theatre companies: Commonwealth, Fio and Taking Flight.

"These organisations produce innovative and accessible productions, and they take theatre to people that traditionally face barriers in accessing the arts.

"These, alongside other organisations such as Theatr Clwyd, Sherman Theatre, Theatr Na nOg, Torch Theatre, the Wales Millenium Centre etc will continue to produce high quality theatre in the English language in Wales."

They added: "We are committed to implementing a thorough review of English language. This review will give us a chance to reflect on the state of theatre in Wales and will inform us on future needs and priorities. We are hopeful that we’ll start this important piece of work in the near future.”

  • Backstage is on ITV1 Wales at 6.45pm on Sunday, 12 May, or you can catch up afterwards here.

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