De Gabay, Butetown, Cardiff

Since it was launched, National Theatre Wales has travelled all over the country, working closely with a huge variety of Welsh communities, places and landscapes. So it is fitting that the company launched its third season with an event created in close collaboration with the large Somali community in Cardiff. Initiated by five poets (Daud Farah, Ahmed Ibrahim, Ali Goolyad, Hassan Panero and Ahmed Yusuf), De Gabay (meaning “poem or song”) rolled out over one day, bringing something of the community’s history and culture to the streets.

The shape of the piece was attractive. It started small, with audience members visiting Somali households in Butetown (an area near Cardiff Bay where many of the Somali population live) for intimate meetings with the residents, then travelled, gathering in size like a rolling stone. Two parades traced separate paths through Butetown: one representing the earliest immigrants, the seamen of the 19th century, and the other the younger generation, many of whom fled civil war. They mustered at the Coal Exchange for an intergenerational battle of words – a parlay in poetry – then finally took over the seat of power itself, performing inside and outside the National Assembly for Wales’s handsome Senedd building.

From informal chat in private homes to a “parliament” in the debating chamber of government, the piece travelled from small to large, from private to public, from past to future, with poetic exchange as a link. Threaded through the journey were shipping containers, acting as checkpoints: apt for a dockside story of sea-crossings. And the show, directed by Jonathan Holmes and garlanded with music, dance and song, acted both as a celebration of resilience and an opportunity to explore tensions.

What held it back, then, was a crucial lack of detailed content, context or substance. For anyone not familiar with the city, the area and the history of the people, hard facts were hard to come by. Opportunities for performers to meet audience members and tell their stories were taken by some, but not others, while the significance of a venue such as the Coal Exchange remained unexplained. Generous, hospitable and performed with infectious warmth, the show did much to open up the area, make connections and give voice to feelings. The finale, as a giant puppet-man of words walked out across the dark sea, was striking. And this was a project in which process was clearly as important as end product. But even so, without clear narratives, detailed personal testimonies or historical background, it felt like a missed opportunity.

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