English theatre in Wales should embrace both of the country’s languages
There’s a line in my new play 2023 that I’ve been struggling with for months.
In the scene where the 18-year-old Mary meets her ‘donor dad’ Chris for the first time – a man whose sperm donation made her existence possible – he references her Polish surname. For several drafts she’s hit back with ‘I’m British!’ This makes perfect sense.
The play is set five years in the future, when the first batch of children in the UK born from donated sperm or eggs will legally be able to trace their donor parent. Brexit is likely to have happened with the UK still intact.
Talk of a Scottish referendum has lessened, work is being done to resolve the politically charged issue of a Northern Irish border; a blue passport with the current definition of a United Kingdom seems increasingly likely.
So why did this line bug me? And why, a couple of weeks before emailing out the final rehearsal draft, did I scratch it and replace it with the equally forthright ‘I’m Welsh’?
I completed the rehearsal draft over the summer when I was thinking a lot about identity and language and what this means as a playwright working in Wales. I cannot remember a time when these issues have been so hotly debated.
In the Welsh-language scene, a bilingual play by Mari Izzard was pulled five minutes before it was due to go on at the Eisteddfod for containing too much English. It was then performed on the street.
In the English-language scene, National Theatre Wales’ production English ignored any interplay between this country’s two languages and now NTW is facing the accusation from 40 playwrights that it did this deliberately. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my fellow writers so angry.
The NTW controversy threw one thing into sharp focus for me – the fact I write in English does not exist in an historical vacuum. My grandparents’ Welsh was beaten out of them at school.
When I open my laptop and type, my use of syntax and vocabulary is riddled with historical interplay with another language which I’m trying hard to learn. English and Welsh don’t exist separate from each other here; on the page nor in the city in which I live.
The play is set in Cardiff and it’s impossible to live here and not be aware of the two languages brushing up against each other all the time. People who can’t speak Welsh are used to hearing it at the train station and are at least aware of a few words.
And yet in early drafts, the play contained no Welsh at all. It didn’t feel true to the city in which I live. Throughout the writing process, I started to question why I wasn’t letting any Welsh filter through.
One of the reasons is simply the way theatre here is made and funded. The scene is split very cleanly into two language camps. We have two national theatre companies – one making work in English and one making work in Welsh.
When applying for money to fund a production, you tick a box and state whether you’re making Welsh-language work, English-language work or bilingual work. A bit of Welsh does not a bilingual play make and so, in my head, 2023 was written purely in English.
But it didn’t feel honest to the city or to the characters. None of us live in ignorance of the other language; and certainly not when children enter the picture, whether they go to a Welsh-language school or not.
The characters Chris and John in the play want a child; John is originally from Cardigan. He says the odd phrase but his communication with his non-Welsh speaker husband is through English. But as soon as the baby arrives, there’s a switch. Welsh enters the home.
Despite the fact my own home is a hotbed of Wenglish and language-switching owing to bilingual children, this was actually a late addition. A friend of mine read the play and, being first-language Welsh, pointed out that of course John would speak Welsh to a child.
I realised I had to be truthful and push aside the conditioning of the tick box. I wrote some lines in Welsh and it instantly felt right and true.
I’m not arguing that our English-language theatre should become more Wenglish. But I think what writing this play has taught me is that, when writing in English within Wales, I need not run from the relationship between the two languages; I should in fact embrace it.
So when Mary says ‘Welsh’ and states it in English, she’s giving a nod to the two languages of her city, and how these frame her identity as Cardiffian.
2023 runs at Chapter Arts, Cardiff 3 – 13 October. Performances start at 7.30pm and there are also matinees at 2.30pm on October 6 and 13. A post-show discussion on science and ethics in the play will take place after the performance on October 5.
A talk with cast and creatives will take place after the show on October 11. There will also be a BSL-interpreted performance on October 11. To book, visit www.chapter.org/2023 or telephone 029 2030 4400.