National Theatre Wales, Butetown
Director: Jonathan Holmes
A crowd of spectators holding red and green lanterns bids farewell to a giant, illuminated puppet as it enters the chilly waters of Cardiff Bay. This loping figure represents the spirit of De Gabay – the epic poem performed by the Welsh-Somali community of Butetown over the course of an intensely cold Sunday in March. From the steps of the Senedd, the poets work hard to persuade their audience to chant ‘De Gabay’ as the spectacle unfolds. Yet in spite of the power of this image, and the rising noise – and despite the keen anticipation I had brought with me earlier that day – I feel only a crushing sense of disappointment.
De Gabay was a laudable attempt to restore theatre to its historical civic function – that of a public forum around which the community gathers, debates its urgent political controversies and reconciles its differences. The failure of the production in this aim is not attributable to its writers or performers, who made their protests with humour and vigour, but to the director Jonathan Holmes and his production team.
The programme of the event sprawled out over seven hours – with several long breaks in between – in an intermittent pattern of participatory activities that engaged each of the senses but little of the mind. Crucially, some unifying narrative that might have provided some helpful context for audience members was lacking throughout. The multi-layered, multi-ethnic history of Butetown, and the complexities of family life following migration, was indicated, even sloganised, rather than explored at any great depth. The indignation of Cardiff’s Somali community (the largest in Europe) could be heard in lines such as: “Our voices go unheard by those in positions above us,” and, “Street corners seem attractive when you live in subsidised housing,” but the fractured and unfocused nature of the production meant that such sentiments did not coalesce into a traceable political argument or coherent social critique.
The day began with hour-long visits made by small parties of ticket-holders to residential homes and community landmarks. I went to Mr. G’s Soul Kitchen, where I prepared plantains and made Caribbean-style dumplings under the instruction of a Romanian cook named Dorin. The point was to introduce audiences to the work-life of new immigrants, who are typically first employed in restaurants and fast-food outlets. Slicing and dicing in a hot kitchen – work for which I was wholly untrained – to the strains of Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo Number Five’, succeeded in conveying, if only for a brief moment, the sense of displacement and drudgery endured by foreign workers. Others were not so fortunate in their home visit experiences, as Elin Williams explains.
A rotation through several other house visits (we were allowed only one) might have provided contextual background of community life in Butetown, and therefore insight into the protests made later that day. Instead, we were invited to join one of two parades that, for those familiar with the joyful explosion of colour and music in previous Butetown carnivals, seemed rather flat and boring. Fatima, a life-sized puppet camel, threatened to bring a sense of fun to proceedings, as did a group of street-dancing youths, but with a few hundred audience members getting bottle-necked in a series of pointless ‘passport checkpoints’ all sense of energy and good humour slowly fizzled away. It is very disappointing to note that so few of the local community not involved in the project came out of their homes to watch these parades. The decision to stage such lengthy outdoor activities in early March, when intense cold and rain were to be expected, later struck me as singularly inadvisable.
The parades converged in the courtyard of the Coal Exchange, where pre-made placards were forced into the hands of audience members, who were then subjected to rough and ready musical performances. Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the day came with the open-air staging of a short play on two flat-bed trucks. This play dramatised the inter-generational conflict between the inter-cultural values of the Butetown youths, born or raised in Cardiff, and those of their parents and grandparents who still cling firmly to the heritage and traditions of their former homelands. There was a palpable sense among these poets that the task of bridging the gulf between their Somali heritage and their place in Welsh society was the central struggle of their lives. At one point, a character conceded bitter defeat, ‘My father’s shoes are just too big to fill.’ At other points the cry went up, ‘Has the past got your tongue?’ De Gabay was an attempt by these Welsh-Somalis to reconcile their dual identities through the medium of poetry and, in particular, the notion of ‘the bard’ that looms prominently in both their cultures. This idea was worthy of a major production, but the poor acoustics and sightlines of the Coal Exchange courtyard (and did I mention the cold?) meant that the complexity and nuance of the drama was lost. Many audience members, particularly those with children, peeled away until only a portion of the original audience remained.
Before the parliament of poets began in the Senedd, a number of discussions and readings took place in a small village of shipping containers created outside the building. I was able to talk briefly with poet Daud Farah, who elucidated on the theme of generational conflict in migrant communities, and came to see how the difficulties faced by the poets of Butetown might present them with a key variation on the theme of Welsh identity. National Theatre Wales is to be commended for extending the plurality of Welsh voices on the Welsh stage to include these writers, who have one eye turned toward the poetic traditions of their heritage, and another to a future Wales that they might reshape through their poetry. In that sense De Gabay – the poem – continues to be written and sung.
And I do hope De Gabay will continue, because the Butetown poets deserved a production with greater subtlety, sense of purpose and insight than this staging by National Theatre Wales. No-one should accuse the company of not putting in the time required for meaningful inter-cultural exchange, they have worked in Butetown for nearly three years, but some searching questions must be asked and answered about the way in which De Gabay descended into such a meandering and formless sprawl of activity without focus. Welsh identity is being renegotiated in many interesting ways following recent waves of migration, and Butetown knows that best of all – and so the National Theatre Wales should remain there until that story has been told in a manner that clarifies but never simplifies that process for an audience. That would be an illumination I would cheer.