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The only way is Patagonia: the Welsh adventure to South America

A new show combining live action and film, to be broadcast on S4C, explores the colony formed in Argentina by settlers from Wales. Artist Marc Rees explains how he was seduced by their story

A Welsh story … {150} creator and director Marc Rees. Photograph: Warren Orchard/National Theatre Wales

One hundred and fifty years ago this summer, more than 150 men, women and children set sail from Wales on an old tea clipper called the Mimosa to found a Welsh-speaking settlement in Patagonia. They believed that the remoteness of their Argentinian location would ensure the survival of the Welsh language and a culture that they saw as being under threat in the Welsh valleys.

But when the settlers arrived in their new home, it was not the green and fertile land that they had been promised. It was dry and inhospitable. You might think they would pack up and come home, but many stayed, building chapels that still stand and creating new lives for themselves. The number of Welsh surnames in the region is testament to that. The story of Y Wladfa – or “the colony” as the settlement is known in Wales – is one that every Welsh schoolchild grows up knowing, and was a key moment in Welsh nationalism.

“It’s very hard to distinguish between the facts and the fictions because over the years the two have blurred and bled into each other” says the Welsh artist Marc Rees. “What we are trying to do is to break down some of the myths and examine the reality. We’re not just looking at the past but looking at the here and now and the real legacy of what was set in motion 150 years ago.”


Founding father … Welsh Congregationalist minister Michael D Jones propossed the Welsh settlement in Patagonia. Photograph: The National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru

Inside a hangar in a business park just outside Cardiff, Rees is rehearsing {150}, an epic multi-platform experience, which he describes as a “walk-through archive”. The hangar is the only place big enough in the area to re-create the scale of the vast Royal Opera Stores near Aberdare, not normally open to the public, where {150} will be performed, close to the villages where so many of the first Patagonia adventurers were born and grew up.

In one section of the hangar, using just wooden pallets and bales of hay, an actor is re-creating the tale of John Daniel Evans’ legendary 1883 escape on his miraculous horse, Malacara, from an attack that left his three companions dead at the hands of indigenous people; in the next bay a group of women in Victorian bonnets are creating intricate patterns in dance to the sound of looms.

“The story of the Welsh in Patagonia is such a seductive story, it has the makings of a Hollywood epic: a tale of people driven by the dream of a utopian community who were wrong-footed at every turn and yet were determined to persevere whatever the cost,” says Rees. But even the brackets around the title, {150}, suggest an ambivalence and hint that there is much more to this story than the oft told one that celebrates the endurance of the original pioneers.

 

No turning back … Rehearsals for {150}. Photograph: Jon Pountney/National Theatre Wales

There is after all a paradox in the fact that those who journeyed so far to settle as immigrants in a desolate land were driven by the belief that their own language and culture was being diluted by incomers coming to work in the mines of south Wales. Particularly as the Chubut region where many settled was home to its own indigenous people whose language, culture and very existence was under threat from both the 19th-century Argentinian government and the new arrivals. There is irony too that one of the ways that Welsh traditions have survived in Patagonia is as a result of a sort of cultural Disney-fication of Welshness. The Welsh tearoom thrives, a far distant echo of the chapel tea tradition which has been prettified and commoditised for busloads of tourists coming off the cruise ships in search of a part of Patagonia that is forever Wales.

The Victorian minister Michael D Jones, the architect of the “new Wales” in Patagonia, thought that only isolation would prevent the assimilation he so abhorred, but 150 years on it is only through assimilation that the Welsh community has survived against all the odds.

As Fernando Williams, one of two Welsh-speaking performers from Argentina, who will perform alongside the Welsh cast, says: “If you ask the old people, perhaps some of them do still think of themselves as Welsh. But the younger generation like me, we have no problem recognising ourselves as Argentinian of Welsh descent, but we are Argentinian, and it is as Argentinians that we see ourselves and our future.” Williams makes the point that if the reality of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia is sometimes different from the myth, those Argentinians of Welsh descent who make the return journey to Wales often find there is a gap between the Wales they’ve been told about, and the real place.

It’s winkling out these untold stories that fascinates Rees. He points out that the story of the Welsh colony is one from which women are often erased – even though it was a woman, Rachel Jenkins, who thought up the idea of irrigating the land and so transformed the fortunes of the struggling settlers – and he is making sure that they are put back in the story. The voice of the writer Eluned Morgan – played by Eddie Ladd – who was born in 1870 on board the Myfanwy, en route to Patagonia, and who represents a bridge between the two worlds, is one that is heard eloquently through Ladd’s strongly physical language.

Appropriately, {150} marks the first collaboration between Wales’ two national companies, National Theatre Wales and the Welsh-language Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. They are joined by the Welsh language TV channel S4C who have commissioned a film, Galesa, written by Roger Williams, which will be intercut with the live performance elements and then broadcast in its entirety on S4C on 29 July. From the outset the TV film was conceived as an integral part of the multi-platform project and after Rees and Williams visited Patagonia together they decided that the only possible form it could take was as a Made in Chelsea style structured reality film with added magic realism. An S4C commission editor quickly dubbed it: “The Only Way is Patagonia.”


“We’ve used people living in Patagonia and given them the chance to talk about what they want to talk about and tell the stories they want to tell,” explains Williams. “They are sick to the back teeth of documentary makers and academics asking the questions that they want to ask and not letting the people who live there have their say or talk about the things and issues they want to talk about. And what they want to talk about is the present, not the past.”

“The story of the settlers is a great story,” says Rees. “But it’s only one part of the story. When I first went to Patagonia almost four years ago I was seduced by the romance of that story. I wanted to create a big all-singing, dancing show. I had visions of staging it simultaneously in south and north Wales and east and west Patagonia with massed choirs everywhere. But then I realised that the question I needed to address is how do we tell the now in a truthful way. That’s where the structured reality element comes in. It’s a piece about identity and who you are, what you cling on to and what you have to let go.”

Extracted from National Theatre Wales

 


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