The top picks of ‘22: Our writers select their cultural highlights of the year
As I put pen to paper, my initial response to the heading is that cultural highlights have been thin on the ground this year. Of course, it was good to see the return of a physical Eisteddfod to a maes in Tregaron.
And even if you’re not usually a fan of football, what a thrill to see Wales reaching the World Cup. Dafydd Iawn wasn’t the only one who had tears in his eyes when an entire stadium sang along to Yma o Hyd.
If only Wales could bottle up that chutzpah and unleash it ad hoc every time someone stomps on our identity and self-worth – because you know it will happen as surely as it rains in Wales.
For the last few weeks I’ve been engrossed in the biography of Jan Morris: life from both sides by Paul Clements, Scribe UK, and been reminded, as if I needed to be, what a unique and wonderful writer she was.
And talking of unique people who were ahead of, or out of, their time, what about Mewn Cymeriad’s theatre production of Cranogwen? That, and the impressive one-woman performance by Lynwen Haf Roberts is certainly worth a mention. What a voice!
I’m looking forward to seeing Sebastien Boyesen’s sculpture of Sarah Jane Rees, Cranogwen, when it’s unveiled in Llangrannog.
I could say that having my book of short stories shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2022 was a personal highlight, but you’d be right to ask, ‘Who cares?’
My real highlight for this year is both deeply personal and, in the light of the recent census results, hugely significant for all of us who care about the future of Wales and the language.
I’ve watched my little granddaughter learning how to speak. Such a trivial, everyday skill I hear you say, something most of us learn in the end, with varying degrees of success.
But she’s growing up in a bilingual home, and when you read the latest statistics and wonder whether your language, your poetry, your literature may all be obsolete within a few generations, hearing her call ‘Mamgu!’ is the most culturally inspiring thing I have experienced for a very long time.
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The literary discovery of the year was Margiad Evans’ Autobiography which turned out to contain some truly sublime nature writing, all the better for being entirely unexpected when I started to turn the pages.
Rather than have me wax lyrical much better to have her do so, here describing a stoat, spotted on a ‘small vivid emerald patch of sward, no larger than a man’s dinner handkerchief’:
But this one! turning and winding, as if with an invisible companion to his joyous pattern of flow and bend, keeping always within the boundaries set by the little patch of green, best grass, how softly and silently his feet fell! As silently as the sunlight descends on the ground his four pads touched it. Like a shadow, a rift, a spirit creature without colour or sound. He must have been brownish or silvery red, but I didn’t notice. All I seemed to see was silence, innocence, delight: silence in contrast with movement, and movement against still ground.
The stand-out film of 2022 was Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which delivered spellbinding performances from Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan in a touching tale about the end of friendship, male inadequacy and the loneliness of islands.
One of the side-benefits of seeing it was re-watching Gleeson and Farrell’s hit-man double act In Bruges, which, in a sense can be seen as a dark companion piece to the new film.
Both are filmed in a painterly way, with individual scenes painted into being.
I’ve seen Banshees three times already and it reaps new rewards with every viewing.
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In terms of 2022’s Welsh cultural highlight, John Cale’s 80th birthday homecoming for a special concert at Wales Millennium Centre took some beating.
It was the centrepiece of October’s Llais festival and ironically, it wasn’t Garnant’s greatest gift to the world who shone brightest on the night, but Blackwood’s.
Cale was joined at various intervals by Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys and James Dean Bradfield – the first two were wonderful, but Bradfield completely stole the show.
Listening to his version of Cale’s classic Ship of Fools was a jaw-dropping experience. It’s a song that references Tennessee, Arizona and Memphis before introducing Swansea, Mumbles and Ammanford in the most unexpected fashion.
This lyrical journey ends in Garnant, which, heart-meltingly: “Stood its ground and asked for more”.
The song’s title has deeper historic connotations and Cale’s lyrics have a deeper meaning too, but for one night only it was enough to listen to two Welsh musical immortals singing about their own places – our own places – and making them sound mythical and beautiful.
For Cale, this is a home long left behind, but as sung by Bradfield, who still lives within an hour’s drive of Garnant to the west and Blackwood to the east, the song had a lasting resonance all of its own.
Jez Butterworth isn’t Welsh, although his brilliantly bonkers television series Britannia does have Mackenzie Crook playing a Welsh speaking Druid, which is service enough to the nation.
Butterworth’s lasting cultural contribution though is likely to be Jerusalem, a drama described by critics as “a historic piece of theatre”, “the holy grail” and “the play of the century” after it first took London by storm in 2009.
Crook starred alongside Mark Rylance back then, and they were back in tandem for the show’s revival in 2022. If anything, the second coming merely enhanced Jerusalem’s reputation.
It felt as timely this time around as ever – maybe even more so – while anyone who thinks of Wolf Hall’s Thomas Cromwell as Rylance’s career defining turn clearly hasn’t seen him as ‘Rooster’ Byron.
And talking of career defining turns, Michael Sheen topped his pitch-perfect portrayals of Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough with two heartfelt monologues in 2022.
Firstly, there was his footballing call-to-arms, an impassioned, stirring and masterful performance to send Wales on their way to The World Cup.
But the longer lasting impression was made by his nuanced and thoughtful meditation, self-filmed on his phone, on a beach – Aberavon possibly – on September the 16th.
This was Sheen not as populist rabble-rouser but as thought-provoker, a lone voice and a brave one.
He asked his audience to ponder the significance of Glyndŵr Day, of a new king’s visit to Wales on that very date and the news that we were to have a new Prince of Wales by decree.
In centuries gone by, Sheen’s words would have been seen as sedition. Even in 21st century Wales there were plenty who felt that he’d gone too far. He certainly went against the grain.
But in so doing he gave a voice to many who felt neutered by the monarchist propaganda which drowned out all dissenting voices in September.
Ok, it wasn’t ‘culture’ necessarily, but as a stand which might bring about cultural change, it felt hugely uplifting.
If it takes Sheen – and the nation – further along the path of political self-discovery, one can only hope that it might prove hugely significant too.
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