One historic day.
One performance only.
1963/2013… I was on the Bridge!
Sara Rhoslyn Moore is a Bethesda-based artist and a Welsh language activist who believes strongly in the probity of art as a means of delivering a message to a wide range of viewers. In her last essay for Wales Arts Review, ‘WALES THE ARTIST AND SOCIETY: THE LEGACY OF BECA’, Sara took issue the Beca group for only showing themselves at Eisteddfodau, and suggested that to be truly political art must be taken to the streets. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru literally did just that in their production, Y Bont; a dramatic and site-specific re-enactment of the first ever Welsh Language Society Protest.
Ever wondered what it would be like to be able to travel back in time and place yourself in an historic event? Well, on February 3rd 2013, at the Theater Genedlaethol Cymru’s production to celebrate the famous Pont Trefechan Protest, Y Bont, this was almost made possible. There we were able to admire the courage of over fifty young students, (projected forth from 1963 through a combination of actors, site specific performances and multi-media content), who were determined to do something in order to secure a future for the Welsh Language and weren’t going anywhere until this was accomplished.
Five hundred people gathered from around the country at the Arts Centre in Aberystwyth for this sell-out event by TGC, (a collaboration with S4C, Green Bay Media, and Aberystwyth Arts Centre along with co-operation of Coleg Cymraeg Cennedlaethol, Glamorgan and Aberystwyth University and the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David’s).
Submitting our tickets and receiving our passes and wireless headphones, the directions on what to do and where to go next were not clear other than to wait at the cafe. Initially my enthusiasm was a little dampened to hear no Welsh being spoken by staff or customers; a reminder that we, for who Welsh is our first language, still have work to do. After an unsure few moments where everybody rather awkwardly stood around wondering when everything was going to start, and when to put the headphones on, four young women appeared on the upstairs level in sixties clothing singing into a vintage microphone an old Welsh hymn. Goose pimples roused, and the sight of five hundred people looking upwards as if they were standing tall with their heads held high in total silence, was the beginning of something very special.
Once the singing was over we watched a film; the love story of a young couple living in Wales today. The story centred on the tensions that surfaced due to their differences of beliefs concerning the Welsh language. The character of Kye, the non-Welsh speaker, represented the arrogance as well as the insecurity of the Welsh who turn their noses up at the native tongue. Is it a defence mechanism due to the embarrassment of not fitting in? His attitude led to the end of his relationship with Welsh-speaking Dwynwen; Kye had expected her to change to fit in with his friends, not the other way around. It was an interesting metaphor for the entire plight of the Welsh-speaking community.
We were directed by a voice in our headphones to make our way downstairs where there were ten charabancs waiting to carry all five hundred of us through the streets of Aberystwyth. Bus drivers and conductors were dressed as they would have been in the sixties; the magic of the one-off performance was blossoming. The engines started and so did verses from Saunders Lewis’ ‘Teirnged yr Iaith’, the famous radio interview in which the nationalist leader expressed a bleak outlook on the future of the Welsh language. Excitement grew when we spotted students performing in the street. The windows of our bus had steamed up and it added to the experience, as if we were looking at a memory. It was then I realised in front of us was a police escort. Although I had Saunders Lewis’ words in my ears and a vision of the past at both sides, it was realising the buses were being escorted by a police car that brought a lump to my throat. It felt as if we were shouting, ‘We’re here! We’re Welsh! And we are important!’ The Welsh language actually had rare priority. With that lump in my throat and pride in my heart it became clear that this was truly a spectacular event to be a part of.
We came to the next performance: the students continued down the high street, rushing, looking around, anxiously and mischievously, to see whether they were attracting the attention of the police, whilst plastering posters on walls and doors, declaring ‘Defnyffiwch y Cymraeg’ – ‘Use the Welsh Language’. I then noticed Kye walking along the promenade; we were not only witnessing a part of the past but also a present story. It was a strange feeling to the performers looking straight through me; it reminded me of the film It’s a Wonderful Life where a guardian angel introduces Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey to the world as it would have been without him in it. We were being taken back on a journey by the Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, and the actors and 60 students from three Universities of Wales, in order for us to wonder at the actions of those protesters in ‘63, and realise how different things may have been without those actions.
We were then separated to different cafes around the town. We watched recorded interviews with the men and women of the original protest. Some the students of ’63, it was revealed, blockaded the bridge, stopping traffic coming into or out of Aberystwyth, but some disagreed with such drastic action and refused to participate. The character of Dwynwen, in a post-modern twist, filmed outside the café as she had been given the task (as part of her doctorate studies mentioned in the earlier play) of reporting on this very performance. Again the past and present mingled. We left the café and headed for the finale, to the students who went ahead with the blockade, to the Pont Trefechan.
We walked towards the bridge whilst listening to the voices of actors giving us an idea of what the conversation between the students would have been like. The renditions were at times unconvincing, allowing for the benefit of hindsight and the outcome of history. I felt as though I was listening to actors, not protesters. They would, of course, have been unaware at the time that this would become the first ever Welsh Language Society protest, and that the Society has since lasted fifty years. The eventual outcome, I’m sure, would have been beyond their wildest dreams!
Walking along the bridge, performers stood as ghostly figures, holding the posters in their hands, again looking through us. We heard the voices of actors re-enacting the protest. Car horns blazed. It was not easy to see what was going on, frustratingly, as the ghostly figures began to throng. And then we were back to Kye and Dwynwen, reuniting on the bridge. But again, the hampered vision also hampered the enjoyment of the climax. Kye and Dwynwen rekindled their relationship. Was that the end? There was an awkward short pause, then people started clapping; the same awkwardness as at the beginning. The central love story had its problems. What was the purpose of the love story? We must learn to live together? Respect our differences? Listen to each other, what is important to us? Perhaps a combination of all four? There was no definite ending.
We were notified through the headphones to make way for the buses, to which many of us started to make our way back, but then I heard singing, an all too familiar song pulling at my heart-strings. I turned back instantly for the perfect end to the Y Bont performance; the bridge packed with people from start to finish singing the Welsh National Anthem, ‘Hen Wlad fy’n Nhadau’. It felt as if it was a spur of the moment thing, an expression from the audience of our gratitude and appreciation, a natural ending to such an important time with the last verse sang with more meaning and much more understanding, ‘Oh! bydded i’r hen iaith barhau’ ‘Oh! Long live the Welsh language’.