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De Gabay Interview: Director Jonathan Holmes

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At the warehouse on Dumballs Road, Butetown, Cardiff, where National Theatre Wales have rented a rehearsal space ahead of forthcoming production ‘De Gabay’ (Somali for ‘The Poem’), the walls are adorned with maps, most hand-painted by designer Lucy Wilkinson. ‘The maps are important,’ explains director – and Lucy’s partner – Jonathan Holmes, ‘because we’re exploring story as journey and journey as story. It’s more than just a metaphor. In oral culture, a narrative is a way of drawing a map… and maps are records of stories told.’

One might expect a theatrical event driven by a group of Somali poets – who, apparently, ‘walked in to the National Theatre Wales office [two years ago] with an idea for a show’ – to have its performance charted on oceanic scrolls depicting the journeys of generations of migrants from the Horn of Africa to the community previously known as Tiger Bay, home to one of the biggest settlements of Somalis outside of Somalia. But most of the maps feature just  Butetown itself, the tiny inner-urban area at the heart of the now rebranded Cardiff Bay.

[It’s] story as journey and journey as story… more than just a metaphor. In oral culture, a narrative is a way of drawing a map

Holmes, a veteran of site-specific installations across the UK and the world, admits that one hope for ‘De Gabay’ is that the poet-led procession will allow Cardiff to reimagine this space. It is ironic, contends Holmes, that the four barriers that turn Butetown in on itself are themselves the result of a past openness. The Taff-Vale railway, the river Taff, Lloyd George Avenue and the Bay itself each brought new people to the area. The railway brought raw materials from the valleys to be shipped around the world, turning Cardiff from a tiny village to the world’s biggest coal port in under a hundred years. Latterly, the road – Lloyd George Avenue – has transported tourists from the city centre to Cardiff Bay’s latter-day developments, a leisure village, opera house and restaurants. But with the closing off of Cardiff Bay, the barrage creating an inner harbour, Butetown has also found itself cut off from the regeneration of the surrounding area.

As a result, the juxtaposition of contemporary life with the area’s past is ever-present in Butetown, and the two parades at the heart of ‘De Gabay’ will reflect this duality. One parade will focus on the past, with a ‘Markey Bazaar’ emulating a market in Somalia, morphing into ‘a manifestation of the docks in 1890s Butetown’ and finally a promenade capturing the welcoming spirit that pervaded the famously multicultural community in the mid-twentieth century. Meanwhile, audiences will be ushered into the ‘Parade of the Present’ at intimidating borderline checkpoints. The poets at the heart of the project – Daud Farah,
 Ali Goolyad, Ahmed Ibrahim, Hassan Panero and Ahmed Yusuf – wanted ‘De Gabay’ to reflect realities of life in Somalia as well as Butetown. However, outside the Togayo café, this parade will also celebrate the welcoming spirit of the local community with a number of live performances of poetry, song and dance.

Past and present will finally be joined at the historic Coal Exchange building in Mount Stuart Square, rekindling memories of The Soul Exchange (NTW’s previous Butetown residency in January 2011 and in many ways the precursor to the current show) before the audience make the final march of the eight-hour marathon, first to the Senedd building and then to watch a surprise finale out across the bay itself.

It will be the end of a long journey for everybody involved with the project, not least Holmes, who was invited ‘two years ago’ to collaborate with NTW by (now former) producer Lucy Davies. When a generous grant was offered to the company by the Calouste Gulbenkian foundation to work with the Somali community in Butetown, Holmes found himself enthused by the possibility of ‘doing things the other way around.’

As a writer, producer, director and scholar, Holmes has been involved in projects as diverse as ‘Into Thy Hands’, a biographical play about the English metaphysical poet John Donne, ‘Fallujah’, a site-specific work in London’s Brick Lane entirely composed of verbatim testimony from the American siege and bombardment of the Iraqi city, and ‘Katrina’, another site-specific testimony play centred on the aftermath of the New Orleans hurricane. Perhaps the common thread discernible in such an eclectic career (Holmes has also written and directed two short films) is that the director thrives on bringing his way of working to other places. With ‘De Gabay’ he explains, ‘it’s the other way around’; here, he has been brought on board with an already site-specific event.

‘The most beautiful moments,’ says Holmes, ‘when doing projects like this, are those first meetings with the people involved. You spend the rest of your time trying to recreate that initial intimacy.’ Despite the grand scale of De Gabay in terms of time and space – 70 scenes in 35 separate locations in Butetown over the course of the morning – that physical and emotional intimacy is part of the bedrock of the project. Before the parades, the audience will be divided into groups of just 6-10 people and treated to all kinds of small-scale performances and simple experiences, most often in local people’s homes.

‘The most beautiful moments… are those first meetings with the people involved. You spend the rest of your time trying to recreate that initial intimacy.’

‘In a few hours, and a few hundred yards,’ Holmes reminds me, ‘people will be transported from somebody’s front room to the steps of the Senedd.’ So is ‘De Gabay’, like ‘Fallujah’ and ‘Katrina’, a political piece? The director’s answer is both unequivocal and thought provoking. First he alerts me to the function of the journey in Somali culture, its role in conflict resolution in a part of the world often branded a ‘failed state’. Then he turns to the very origins of theatre: ‘For the Greeks, theatre was originally about conflict resolution, role-playing a situation in order to explore alternative possibilities.’ The fact that Sunday 3rd March will see the Welsh Assembly building transformed into a theatrical embodiment of its literal meaning – an agora or gathering place – means that ‘De Gabay’ may well have political as well as theatrical ramifications.

Indeed, part of the set-up involves the use of shipping containers outside the Senedd; production notes pinned to the warehouse wall in Dumballs Road describe them as ‘reminiscent of Occupy St Pauls.’ But as well as being a multilayered metaphor – of transit, of protest, of the area’s dockland past – their practical purpose will be to host yet more intimate experiences within the wide-open spaces of the windswept Bay. The NTW production team have spent 14 months workshopping performances with around 40 members of the local community, encouraging volunteers, in Holmes’ words to ‘find a voice’. ‘It’s a delicate thing,’ he explains, ‘drawing people away from the safe forms that they already know, or feel they should know. But the most important thing, and the principle we’ve stuck to from the start, is that we haven’t parachuted people in. This really is a community production.’

Asked for a final thought about his hopes for the day itself at the end of a project so long in gestation, Jonathan Holmes considers for a moment before giving a response that is very National Theatre Wales. ‘I hope for lots of surprises,’ he says, smiling. ‘We want it to be a very authentic collective experience. We won’t be corralling audiences too much; we’ve prepared the actors for the unforeseen.’ Then, more specifically, he says: ‘I hope people will form a brief, temporary community, that an identity will be forged without people realising it.’ It’s an ambitious ideal, and – if De Gabay can pull it off – one which will truly reflect something of the spirit of this special square mile of Cardiff, but you wouldn’t bet against its being a triumph.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

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