A Weekend In Butetown



Gwyneth Lewis explores the contemporary life and fascinating history of the largest Somali community outside Somalia as National Theatre Wales visits Butetown in Cardiff for a one-off reclaiming of a unique migratory and poetic heritage.

In the days when Cardiff was one of the shipping centres of the world, it's docks areas, like so many similar places around the UK and around the world, became special multicultural, multilingual communities. These port areas were often isolated from the cities around them, while at the same time closely connected to places thousands of miles away.

One of the biggest communities to thrive in Cardiff's Tiger Bay, as it was called, was made up of Somali sailors and tradespeople, who settled half way up the Bristol Channel in such numbers that it became the largest Somali community outside Somalia itself.

Inside that community, they kept alive the traditions and stories of their relatives in the way that generations of Somalians had done - through story telling and poetry. As the 60s turned to the 70s and 80s, these stories were still told in terraces in Butetown (the ideal workers house village built for the dockers by the Lord Bute, and cassettes of the storytellers in Cardiff and back home would travel between the two places on the ships.

The first production in National Theatre Wales' third season, De Gabay (The Poem), will be a two-day, site-specific exploration of the Butetown area of Cardiff, with a focus on the lives of its young Somali poets and the generations that came before them. The cast and crew will include members of the local community, and the audience will move between docks, lock gates, the pubs and pilot houses of the shoreline and the houses of individual families to hear the stories of the two communities together.

It's a performance idea based on the Passion in Port Talbot, which was the great success of NTW's first season. It has been written by 5 young Somali poets alongside John McGrath, the artistic director of the NTW. It is an attempt not just to tell a remarkable history, but also to unite two ancient poetic traditions - the Celtic Eisteddfod which still dominates the lives of children in Wales, and the oral history poetry of the Somali people who have made Cardiff their home.

In this programme poet (and transatlantic sailor) Gwyneth Lewis visits Butetown as the performance comes through the community. She talks to members of the community both young and old and listens to their stories and their poetry. She asks about their traditions of theatre, and how the community has kept its cultural independence within Wales for 100 years. She goes inside the houses of those who will be visited by the audiences promenading through their lives, and talks too to the actors (some professional, others just volunteers who couldn't turn down the temptation) about how it feels to tell these stories. And she talks to John McGrath and the poet/writers of the play, young men who came to Cardiff in the 80s and 90s who add yet another layer to a remarkable story of mix and migration.

The backdrop of the theatre weekend itself, with its street parades and public performance, will sit alongside the very personal stories of the community today.