Starting the Blue Sky festival at The Other Room is something that perhaps embodies the ethos of experimentation and boundary-pushing that drives the festival: Neontopia’s Neonsparkx a collection of short pieces in Welsh and English. The plays ranged in topics and tone from funny first dates, to bittersweet encounters with a clown. Showing firstly the diversity and talent of the young writers involved, and the versatility that bilingual theatre can have. What is more interesting and important about Neonsarkx is not the pieces themselves – though many would make excellent starting points for developing bigger performances – what is most important is the impetus to create bilingual work from newly formed company, Neontopia.
On one hand, it may seem ridiculous that nobody else is doing this, but although some companies do bring in performances in both Welsh and English, there has always been a firm dividing line between Welsh and English theatre, particularly in Cardiff. This seems absurd when many of our creative talents work across both, and indeed audiences attend both. Still, the two seem to stay in their own boxes and rarely interact. Is there a sense from Welsh audiences that they should keep their work protected and sacred, away from the mainstream theatre? And are the English language audiences unwilling to consider the prospect of subtitles or bilingual performance? Perhaps, on both counts. It’s not an easy challenge and company directors Alun Saunders and Mared Bryn no doubt have some challenges ahead, but it’s a challenge worthy of taking on.
I have a difficult relationship with living in a bilingual nation, and much of that has been experienced actually through culture. The Welsh language performance scene has often felt like a closed door, somewhere that “wasn’t for me”, but for a select Welsh-language in-crowd who had, I’m sorry to say, little time or tolerance for non-Welsh-speakers or even learners. Language in art should be a conduit to new experiences, not a wall. I’m sure that Welsh speakers also feel similar barriers in making a mark on what is in Cardiff at least. A difficulty growing audiences against a variety of challenges, and despite the plethora of Welsh-speaking creatives, the challenges in creating new work of any kind. There are problems on both sides of this dividing wall, but the main problem being that we have a wall at all.
Luckily, at long last, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. It’s early days but the attitude alone of Mared Byrn and Alun Saunders who have set up Neontopia is exciting. It’s there in the title: Bilingual theatre. The idea that actually we can create something with more than one language. My theatre education largely took place in Quebec, and although the province has its own language problems and dogmas, it’s theatre scene has long been bilingual. Neontopia suggests similar attitudes are beginning to take root in Wales.
Neontopia has many more plans for bilingual theatre, including subtitled plays that use both languages fully. And that actually reflects modern Wales. Most Welsh-speakers embrace both languages and cultures, so why should they only use one or the other in their work? And why shouldn’t work truly reflect how Welsh-speakers use both languages in everyday life as well? More importantly, who says a performance has to stick to one language all the way through?
The Scratch Night at The Other Room gave a hint as to how it may be done. There were some great examples that really embraced the brief that Mared described about using one character who didn’t speak Welsh. And there were some truly integrated bilingual performances. Some of the short pieces, it must be said, couldn’t truly be described as bilingual, and were more difficult to follow for those with lesser language skills. But this was “a scratch night”, and with more time for refinement that’s an easy fix, and with the hope of subtitles for future work, something for which the structure of the events can be easily adapted. Most importantly, the short new pieces were funny, engaging and interesting in equal measure while using Welsh and English interchangeably.
Neontopia showed in this Scratch Night for the Blue Sky Festival that Welsh and English bilingual theatre can work happily and easily. More importantly than that, it showed that there are both creatives and audiences who want to embrace both languages, and engage with work no matter which was their native language. It’s early days, but as someone who has felt shut out of Welsh language theatre for a long time, I think a door might be beginning to open.