Y Bont was, by a mile, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s most ambitious production to date, attempting as it did to catapult a 500 strong audience back across fifty years of history. This was a site-specific docu-drama, taking the whole of Aberystwyth as its backdrop. Bold in vision and ambitious in scale it was also moving and historically enlightening in one and the same breath.
It took its cue from what might started as a seemingly innocuous act, when a group of university students, shored up by the support of language activists from all over Wales, commandeered Pont Trefechan, a key road bridge in the town. This led firstly to honking car horns and the wrath of irate locals but also to the galvanizing and establishment of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society. Cymdeithas vowed to eschew violence but rather to protest peacefully. It would, in the future harry the establishment most effectively and accelerate the process of giving the language equal status.
So, on an overcast day an expectant audience fill the foyers of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre to be entertained by some chirpy songs from an early pop group with bouffant hair and to watch, on big screens, the tale of two lovers, Kye and Dwynwen. He is a Merthyr DJ, his name echoing King Arthur’s sidekick and hero of the Mabinogion. She is a television presenter, whose name is also that of the patron saint of Welsh lovers, who is also studying for a doctorate. He doesn’t speak Welsh. She does. This causes tensions, which fester and suppurate.
In the good ole post modern way, Dwynwen is a television researcher, making a documentary about events back in the early Sixties. So the production becomes a Russian doll of an affair, with the TV crews of today re-staging and exploring the events of yesteryear. Their production efforts framed the audience’s journey through the town and through the events of the day.
We left the arts centre on a fleet of period buses, with proper conductors and ticket machines, the bus gears grinding away as we headed downhill. The windows, being fogged on the inside, gave us tantalizing glimpses of young men and women in sixties garb, marching alongside. It seemed like an All Hallows rent had been made in the fabric that separated past from present. Dwynwen was on board our omnibus, being filmed by a real-life TV crew and it was a shame she didn’t interact with the passengers, one of a few little missed opportunities in the piece.
As we progressed we listened on headphones to eye-witness accounts by those who had taken part in the day. And then the first bit of magic happened: you looked around and realized that the real life students of ’63 were your fellow travellers on the bus: older yes, but, one suspects not any less defiant. There was literary impresario Meic Stephens, who physically pushed against a car trying to cross the bridge, he was now was sitting across the aisle of the bus. There was poet and journalist Aled Gwynn. The former bookshop owner I’d just been talking to, Dyfrig Thomas from Llanelli, well, he was there too. Back in ’63. This was their journey into the past, they were en route to reclaim a little bit of it and we were privileged to be going with them.
In town itself students were busily putting up posters and debating their next moves. The audience was divided up into different groups which converged on various Aber caffs: the one I went to, the New Station Cafe, seemed hardly changed since the Sixties, although the Welsh cakes and sausage rolls were fresh, and the tea good and strong, the colour of teak. We watched some TV interviews with people who were there on the bridge, and I realized that I was sitting next to one of them, a balladeer from Bow Street. I wanted to pour out my admiration in addition to a refill cuppa.
Regrouping at the base of the town clock the audience, now swollen by onlookers, waited for a cue for action. This seemed like another lost opportunity for something theatrical to happen, seeing as we were all in one place and eager for deeper or exciting experience. But it was not to be.
But then came further instructions, directing us to the bridge…
There is something about a large group of people walking in concert that stirs the blood, and when we got there the audience pretty much filled the bridge. Here student-actors planted themselves on the ground, mimicking the acts of resistance in the 60s.
The two lovers were then reunited, a sort of Aber version of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. It was simple, tender and affecting, especially as Kye was dealing with a little epiphany about language, brought about by a chance meeting with a fellow Merthyr man in the pub: this for little exchange at the bar was the emotional high point of the piece, even though it all happened suddenly and without so much as a backwards glance. We were then directed back to the buses, methinks a tad earlier than we should have been, as we were halfway over before the cast started singing the national anthem.
It was a stirring day, and a fascinating way of using relatively recent history as the stuff of drama. The fact it was living history, with the audience rubbing shoulders with the players of that germinal event fifty years ago was all the more moving.
On the bus ride back to Cardiff physical performer Eddie Ladd and I reflected on the day, on what we had learned, with our feelings running the gamut from guilt through concern to intent to do more for the language. The conversation lasted at least until the M4 turn-off for Morriston, proving that Y Bont had indeed had a powerful effect, echoing that of Saunders Lewis’ Tynged yr Iaith radio lecture back in 1962. And with the recent census results casting a pall over the language’s future, how timely was this production, how unusual and theatrical a call to arms.