A Connections 2014 writer’s perspective
by Dafydd James
So, one of the reasons I agreed to do National Theatre Connections is that I’m not young anymore. I’ve got grey hair, or at least, flecked: a definite badger quality to my mane. And I find myself enjoying trips to John Lewis and comparing sofas. It’s a sorry state of affairs and I think as a writer you need to try, at least, to keep a youthful sense of play. Not spend your Saturdays testing the quality of bounce on a settee.
I’ve worked quite a bit with young people. I generally find their response to my work the most useful: articulate, honest, politicised, yet devoid of personal agenda. They often bring to my creative practice an insightful, queerer perspective of the world.
In researching my topic I worked with two extraordinary groups: drama students at Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni (Rhymney Valley Comprehensive School) and the young people at Mess up the Mess Theatre Company. After the inevitable theatre games where I desperately tried to convince them that I was worthy of their time whilst pretending to be a chicken, we discussed various topics, ranging from what they were most scared of to how it was to grow up bi-lingual.
Their answers were extraordinary: honest, hilarious, revealing and touching. In fact, everything I would like my writing to be. I might as well give up now, I thought; but I couldn’t, I had to write a play.
So it got me thinking (à la Carrie Bradshaw): they reminded me that growing up as a Welsh speaker I have had access to an extremely rich cultural heritage. Some of it seems awe-inspiring and incredibly profound: its literature, its music, for example. Some of it appears just plain bonkers, invented by a man on laudanum. Every year in an Eisteddfod we award a chair to an exceptionally gifted Welsh poet (awe-inspiring/profound). Surrounded by people dressed as druids and flower girls, he/she sits in the chair, over-seen by an Arch-druid brandishing a sword (bonkers). I think it’s rather wonderful. Of course I do – it’s über-camp and I love a man in a frock – and actually, this distinction of profundity vs. bonkers(ness) entirely depends on your perspective on things: they are not necessarily mutually exclusive or oppositional phenomena. When that Arch-druid waves his sword above the poet’s head, why can’t he be a little bit of both?
The fight to retain these traditions, however, often feels oppositional. Growing up in a marginalised culture I frequently felt like I was celebrating what makes us different in opposition to a dominant culture, in order to prevent us from becoming subsumed, diminished or worse, disappear altogether. There is a danger to such oppositional thinking, however. I became interested in the tension between promoting difference as a positive act, and the darker extreme of this: the tipping point between nationalism and a more authoritarian regime.
So here was my theme. I wrote a play about a group of young people who are chosen to sing the village anthem at the Mayday festivities. They rehearse together in a paddock on a glorious summer’s day, only to discover they’ve been chosen for a far darker purpose. It sounds terribly bleak, and it is. But hopefully, it’s very funny too. Up to a point, before it tips. Plus everyone gets to sing, so that’s OK; and there’s a boy in a Stegosaurus costume, which should hopefully ease the pain.
Now, before I have the Arch-druid at my door waving his sword around, let me be absolutely explicit: Welsh-language culture is diverse, multi-vocal and, mostly, something I celebrate; so I haven’t written this play to suggest that it’s authoritarian. Rather, Heritage is about how individuals, in any culture, have the potential to manipulate tradition for fascist gain. A Morris dance, Ceilidh or Michael Flatley could be lethal in the wrong hands, you know what I mean? It’s about the nuances of power within a group and how we often desire our own submission. It’s about questioning the way we protect our differences.
In Wales we have two national theatres: Theatre Genedlaethol Cymru and National Theatre Wales, who both interrogate and produce ‘Welsh’ work in the Welsh and English language, respectively, though their linguistic communities overlap. I have written for the two companies: ‘Llwyth’ and ‘The Village Social’ both investigate the idea of cultural boundaries. It seems significant that I’m writing about similar themes for the Royal National Theatre because the act itself perhaps embodies my ongoing artistic concern – to probe cultural categories – through ‘performing’ as a writer for these different ‘National’ theatres. Hopefully these performances open out the dialogue to interrogate what and how such ‘national’ boundaries come to signify. I really hope that groups in Wales are as inspired as I was to participate in Connections, so that we can all collectively continue to perform across these boundaries, make connections, celebrate and recognise our differences in critically inclusive ways.
Finally, and importantly, Heritage is as much about being young as it is about nationalism: what it is to try and find your own place in the world when you’re born into a specific cultural heritage. The dinosaur boy in my play comes to a sticky end. The boy I knew in school who was obsessed with dinosaurs grew up to become a wonderful paleontologist. He stuck to his (peaceful) guns, and created a successful future through interrogating the past. I think there’s a metaphor here somewhere; and it’s a hopeful one.