Othniel Smith reports from a Guild event at Sherman Cymru, Cardiff
On 9th May 2009, the Welsh Committee of the Writers’ Guild hosted a forum discussion around the issue of multilingualism in theatre, at the Sherman Cymru in Cardiff. This was in conjunction with their production of Gary Owen’s play Amgen : Broken, whose central character exists in both English- and Welsh-speaking incarnations.
The event was chaired by noted Welsh writer and director Ian Rowlands, and in addition to Owen (currently Sherman Cymru’s writer-in-residence), the panel consisted of Dutch playwright Jeroen van den Berg, and Dominic Rai, the Indian-born founder of the Mán Melá Theatre Company, now resident in Brecon. Despite a disappointingly low audience turn-out, the discussion was both lively and stimulating.
Following an introduction during which Rowlands reflected on his experience of directing multi-lingual productions of Under Milk Wood and Branwen, Owen was asked to explain his reasons for writing Amgen. As an adult learner of Welsh rather than a native speaker, he said that it had not originally been his intention to write a bilingual play, but he found himself using the learning of Welsh as a metaphor for personal transformation. Both he and Rowlands spoke of the experience of having had their previous work criticised on the basis of the 'correctness' of the Welsh used, rather than its power and relevance as drama.
Dominic spoke of his experience as a speaker of Punjabi, a stateless, “lower-class” language. Citing the comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, who is able to perform in English, Punjabi or both, he suggested that more plays were needed which reflected the multilingual experience.
Jeroen discussed his experience of working with a Frysian-speaking theatre company in Holland, whilst developing his play Injury Time via a process of improvisation and back-and-forth translation, which he felt enriched his work. He also suggested that the indirectness of the Dutch language made writing for theatre difficult. Following on from this, Owen pointed out that he felt that his writing in Welsh was less “pregnant” than his writing in English. Dominic reflected on the use of Punjabi as the informal, “language of the heart”, using the example of Urdu speakers who scold their children in Punjabi.
Jeroen pointed out the influence that Arabic is having on Dutch as spoken by young residents of Amsterdam, and all panel-members agreed, from their varying geographical perspectives, that writers will increasingly need to reflect linguistic hybridity within society.
Questions from the floor addressed the fear which Owen expressed over the 'correctness' issue; audience-members’ experience of creating multilingual work; the value of music, within drama, as a common language; and the non-Welsh speaker’s experience of watching Amgen.
Discussion turned to the subject of Y Pris, the gangster-themed television series whose scripts are written in English - by Tim Price, who was present - but which is produced in Welsh for broadcast on S4C; the author felt that, from an artistic perspective, there were both gains and losses, but that the piece would have been more naturalistic had bureaucratic considerations allowed it to develop as a bilingual production.
The lack of opportunities in Wales for non-Welsh-speaking television writers was bemoaned. There was friendly disagreement amongst the Welsh panel members on a number of issues, including the value of there being two national theatre companies in Wales (one operating in English, the other in Welsh), and the extent to which English is viewed as a language of oppression.
Everyone agreed, however, that dramatists should be encouraged to work multilingually, but that this can only work if the drama arises organically from the author’s choice of subject-matter, whether it be social inclusion, power politics or, as in the case of Amgen, alienation.
The panel: Ian Rowlands, Jeroen Van Den Berg, Dominic Rai, Gary Owen (Photo: Paul Rees)