tue 25/06/2024

Keeping up with the Joneses | reviews, news & interviews

Keeping up with the Joneses

Keeping up with the Joneses

The epic story of Welsh Patagonia finds Wales's two national theatres collaborating

'I am a bit of a conceptualist': Marc Rees with cast members in rehearsal for {150}Jon Pountney / National Theatre Wales

Gruff Rhys has called it the Great Welsh Media Gang-Bang. This year everyone who is anyone (who can get funding) has hopped on a plane for Argentina to follow in the footsteps of the 150 Welsh men, women and children who emigrated to Patagonia 150 years ago – broadcasters, musicians, politicians, journalists, comedians.

Meanwhile, back in Wales, the 150th anniversary has occasioned the first ever collaboration between Wales’s two national theatres: National Theatre Wales and its Welsh-language sibling Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. The production is called {150} and it is the brainchild of Marc Rees. Rees had the idea for a trilingual venture at the start of 2012 (the production will also feature Spanish). And he has an almighty canvas on which to work.

The story in brief is as follows. Inspired by a nationalist minister from Bala in North Wales called Michael D Jones (pictured, courtesy of National Library of Wales) to seek land and linguistic freedom, a group of hopeful settlers left Liverpool in May 1865 on the Mimosa, bound for the Atlantic coast of southern Argentina. They had been promised fertile plains but found a desert valley through which a lazy river meandered. It could and should have been a catastophe, and nearly was. Dire poverty was certainly the lot for the original settlers and those who soon followed. But they built chapels in which to bolster their faith (pictured below: Capel Salem), and canals with which to irrigate the valley. After 20 years they had run out of land to farm, so a mainly Welsh group of fearless gauchos set off for the Andes in search of a green valley they’d been told about by the local Tehuelche Indians, 400 miles to the west across inhospitable terrain. And here a second community was established. This twin-headed Wales beyond the ocean is still known as Y Wladfa, the colony, although of course it was no such thing. And many descendants are still called Jones and Williams, Jenkins and Roberts (see gallery overleaf), and hundreds and thousands of them still speak Welsh.

It is an epic story involving strife, faith, cowboys, Indians, landscape and a great deal of breeding (there wasn't much else to do after dark). If only someone could be persuaded to bankroll it, it would make a glorious 10-part television drama. Instead, Rees has chosen to come at the material from an oblique angle.

“I was determined to subvert the myth,” he says. “People know the romantic stuff. You can’t help being seduced by it. It hits you what an extraordinary story it is, of tenacity, of survival, almost of betrayal. They were told it was the land of milk and honey and when they arrived it was shit. It took them two months to get off the beach. They had to live in carved-out caves. It must have been such an extraordinary shock. It must have been incredibly disillusioning.”

Rather than focus on the men of the community after many of whom the streets of Puerto Madryn and Trelew are still named - including Michael D Jones and founding governor Lewis Jones - Rees says the show is “a homage to the women of Y Wladfa" (pictured below in rehearsal). They often get forgotten about.” It was a woman's idea to build irrigation canals. From the wheat consequently grown in the fields, women baked the bread which went on to win an award in Paris in the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. From the plumage of local rhea birds they made dusters which were sold in Buenos Aires, and plucked feathers which adorned fashionable hats in Europe. There is also a proper focus on the native Indians who taught the Welsh how to hunt and farm, traded with them, and told them about the lush Andean valley. “Without them I don’t think they would have lasted 15 months,” says Rees. The play also confronts the one murderous encounter between the two communities.

As well as the history, {150} has a contemporary element, riffing on the real-life story of actress Elizabeth Fernandez, an Argentine with no Welsh roots who conceived an ambition to appear on the Welsh soap Pobol y Cwm. Through a filmed story of her return to Patagonia, {150} will interrogate the idea of a future in which the Welsh language and culture in Patagonia are reliant on enthusiastic Argentines with no Welsh DNA. “Assimilation is inevitable,” says Rees, “but the future is dependent on people who are not of Welsh descent wanting to learn and keep those traditions going. And that in a way is a new identity.”

The play will be performed in the store of the Royal Opera House in Abercwmboi, a village near Aberdare at the top of the Cynon valley. It was from this tiny corner of the Welsh coalfield that a large minority of the Mimosa’s passengers was drawn. They were miners, not farmers. 

Rees feels like the right person to lasso the various elements of the story into a theatrical experience which will include “a full-on Patagonian eisteddfod” and filmed sequences shot on the most recent of his research trips to Patagonia. He has worked with both the national companies, and has been instrumental in helping to shape the modern theatre-making ethos of Wales. Neither national theatre has a permanent home and both have embraced the idea of roving round Wales looking for non-traditional spaces in which to tell stories.

“I am a bit of a conceptualist,” explains Rees. “Also I’m an archivist but fundamentally I’m a theatre archaeologist. I exhume the multi-layered history of a site, shape what that archive looks like as a totality. And the audience would walk through that experience.”

Experiences that audiences have walked through include, in NTW’s opening season in 2010, For Mountain, Sea and Sand, which explored the history of Victorian excursionists in Barmouth on Cardigan Bay. For Theatr Genedlaethol, Rees mounted Tir Sir Gâr in Carmarthenshire’s county museum; it investigated the impact of the modern food industry on a local farming community. Last year Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited involved an investigative promenade around Dylan Thomas’s Laugharne. And for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 Rees hired a wingless fuselage and took it on an odyssey through Wales for a series of performances, exhibitions and collaborations. Adain Avion started in Swansea, stopped in Ebbw Vale and ended up Llandudno, where Rees now curates a cheerful arts festival in September. There is not a lot of sitting down at his shows, and the same goes for {150}. “I would describe it as a walk through an immersive archive of the history of Y Wladfa as it was and as it is now.” 

The figure within {150}’s enigmatic, all-encompassing brackets felicitously alludes to both the anniversary and the number of passengers on the Mimosa. Rees has taken it as his cue to divide the audience of 300 into two groups of 150 who will be separately guided through the two halves of the story (one led by Rees, the other by producer Siân Thomas). The music composed by John Hardy will have 150 bars. The women will wear ponchos measuring 150 x 150 cms. And the performance/installation/guided experience will last 150 minutes.

Rees approached the two national theatres separately about a collaboration. “I think they felt it was the perfect subject matter and I think they felt it was in safe hands. To have that trust is fantastic. They gave me some money to go to Patagonia and explore what the idea could be. The most extraordinary thing is to have that much time to research something. You can really reach the depths. I’ve filtered it down to its essence, and I think the essence is very strong.”


Overleaf: Welsh Patagonia in the arts, and a gallery of Welsh Patagonians

Brush up on Welsh Patagonia

Patagonia. Marc Evans’s bilingual film in Welsh and Spanish followed a young Welsh couple in Argentina to reignite their relationship and research the Welsh community, while an elderly Argentine woman goes back to Wales to look for her mother’s birthplace.

Separado! Super furry Gruff Rhys’s psychedelic search for a guitar-strumming gaucho René Griffiths who sang in Welsh.

Huw Edwards in Patagonia. Superior documentary tells the epic story of the Welsh settlement from soup to nuts in two languages for BBC Wales and S4C (available on BBC iPlayer and on S4Clic.

Gwalia Patagonia. The prolific Welsh author Jon Gower tells the history of the original settlers and their 21st-century descendants.

Patagonia: Crossing the Plain / Croesi'r Paith. Actor Matthew Rhys made a documentary about following the gruelling trek across to the Andes taken by the original settlers. This is the bilingual pictorial book.

Galesa. Extended version of the film shot for {150} by Marc Rees and Roger Williams, to be shown on S4C.


Browse the gallery below of Welsh Patagonians encountered by Marc Rees in researching {150}. Click to enlarge. Portraits by Andrew Morris.


They were told it was the land of milk and honey and when they arrived it was shit

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