|The evening was billed as a celebration – excerpts from the plays of Mark Jenkins and the launch of his new collection – but one suspects the enthusiastic audience gathered at Chapter was there to celebrate more than a new publication.For this was the first opportunity to congratulate the playwright on his Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award and, perhaps, to celebrate the arrival of a Welsh-based writer with established credentials – though it’s taken Jenkins twenty years to “arrive”, with half-a-dozen professional productions to his name.
The award was for Rosebud, his fascinating and uncannily credible portrayal of Orson Welles, and the performance here finished with the author himself reading part of the monologue, reminding us, too, that he’s probably best known for another one-man drama, Playing Burton, currently in LA and due to get another Welsh outing at the Millennium Centre in December.
But this event concentrated on less-known works and, as with other performances in this series of rehearsed readings, held out the prospect of a rare overview of the oeuvre of this neglected Welsh success – and maybe a hint as to why and how an ex-communist academic became a much-lauded playwright who is still snubbed in Wales.
Mr Owen’s Millennium, Norah’s Bloke, Birthmarks and Downtown Paradise (the four plays in Parthian’s More Lives Than One collection) do not, in fact, tell us much about the enigmatic Mr Jenkins, except that he can be passionate about what he sees as real socialism, cynical about politic theorists, aware of his London-Irish-Welsh upbringing, fascinated by larger-than-life characters. But of the real Mark Jenkins we discover little and he remains one of those playwrights whose creations have their own dramatic life and are not agents of their author’s own agendas… or so we are led to believe.
Excerpts, of course, do not give much indication of the complete plays, especially when the performances are of such varied quality as here, but what they do offer is a taste of Jenkins’s skills in sketching out characters, his manipulation of them to make debate, his erudition and also his empathy.
For Jenkins does tend to write about real-lifer individuals – Norah’s Bloke, his latest play, is the only one that is about a social situation and while the scenes we had here were well-done and effective, it’s not his best play as a whole, perhaps because it is autobiographical and lacks the toughness of the others.
It does show him as a more mature artist, though, less concerned with rewriting history or trying to get under the skin of famous people – Robert Owen, Marx and Engels, Strinberg, Burton and Welles, all of whom have had a Jenkins makeover to their benefit or detriment.
So why isn’t he revered in his home country ? His tribute to the pioneer of cooperativism and socialism, Mr Owen’s Millennium, is the only Welsh-based play (though his study of Richard Burton obviously has Welsh connotations), but perhaps it’s too uncritically adulatory – more obviously the work of someone deeply disillusioned by theory and approving of practical socialism.
No such generosity to Marx and Engels (in Birthmarks) or to a Black Power activist and his besotted solicitor (in Downtown Paradise) – people Jenkins seems to dislike for what he would see as their lack of human concern, with the implication that all hard-line idealists are not only insensitive but corrupt.
Jenkins in these political biographies writes in a kind of David Hare mould but on a minimalist scale: he criticises dogmatism through the study of individuals rather than the bigger picture. One suspects he is also fascinated by big names and is not too humble or afraid to presume to rewrite their lives from the selective perspective that gives him enormous control over their arguments.
It’s that uncomfortable, unfashionably revisionist analysis of heroic icons of ideology and culture that must make many approach Mark Jenkins with caution – but it’s also what makes his work often irresistibly fascinating, even when presented in frustratingly bite-sized portions.