Gwerincymru — o Gymru o’r byd
Beyond The Border: A magical WOMAD of the word
by Mick Tems
Suddenly it’s summer – and the magical storytelling Beyond The Border festival will be weaving its enchanted web around St Donats Castle on the Vale Of Glamorgan coast, starting from Friday June 29 to Sunday July 1. This is no run-of-the-mill folk festival; Beyond The Border invites amazing wordsmiths and fabulous musicians from all over the world to share their culture with festival-goers from far and wide. This year, the festival will be celebrating 200 years of Grimm´s Fairy Tales, journeying along the Silk Road to the delights of Persia and Central Asia, exploring the myths and legends of Celtic Britain, following Tales to Sustain and Stories for Health, and honouring the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Festival director David Ambrose adds: “We’ll also be including some shows that are there simply because they’re too good not to have – whatever their theme!”
Beyond The Border started life in 1993 in the breathtaking surroundings of St Donats Castle. It’s still at the castle, says David, but these days only for two years: “We spend the intervening year running other projects and promoting storytelling in other ways, other places. But St Donats Castle is where it began, and where we return to every other year. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect place for a festival of stories – a fairy tale castle perched on the cliff-top, enchanted gardens, wild woods and a prospect of the sea - it’s a magical location.”
David outlined the festival’s history: “We started Beyond The Border as a project of St Donats Arts Centre, building on four or five years of pioneering work developing adult audiences for performance storytelling. In the late 1980s, St Donats was one of the very few venues outside London that was actively promoting performance storytelling, the retelling of traditional stories for a largely adult audience, at that time.
“The 1993 Beyond The Border was a one-day festival. It was such a hit that the next year we extended it to three days. The year after that, 1995, was UK Year of Literature, and Dylan Thomas’s birthplace of Swansea was UK Capital of Literature. That’s when Beyond The Border really took off. The name of the festival comes from a line in Thomas’s famous Poem In October: “All the gardens of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales beyond the border…”
“In 2005 we made the decision to make it a biennial festival. And then, last year, Beyond The Border became a separate company and registered charity. We’re no longer a part of St Donats Arts Centre, although we’ll always have those close historical ties with the Arts Centre and the castle.”
Beyond The Border is a unique festival in that it celebrates the power and beauty of the spoken word, and it incorporates relevant traditional and roots music. David elaborates further: “It’s about celebrating the world’s oral traditions; not necessarily all aspects of the spoken word, but more about focusing on orally transmitted culture, and especially narrative – everything from sacred myths to one-line jokes. And that means including songs, ballads, sung epics, alongside spoken stories.
“From the outset, we saw Beyond The Border as a kind of cross between a Literature Festival like Hay, and a World Music Festival like WOMAD. Someone called Beyond The Border a WOMAD of the Word – we like that. We say it’s about bringing the World to Wales and presenting Wales to the World.”
The Company Of Storytellers are one of the highlights of Beyond The Border. In 1985, professional storyteller Huw Lupton (who won the Radio 2 Folk Music Awards for his song One In A Million, co-written by Chris Wood) used his love of traditional music and the spoken word to draw together Ben Haggerty and Sally Pomme Clayton with a wealth of tales for adults, not a children’s art form.
David said: “These are the pioneers of performance storytelling, and still among the very best in the land. Few people have done more than these three to revive the art of storytelling for contemporary audiences, elevating it from being misplaced in the section marked Children’s Entertainment, alongside Jackanory, and instead reminding us of the wealth and power of traditional narrative from throughout the world. As the Independent newspaper said: ‘The Company of Storytellers have spearheaded the revival of storytelling, helping to transform it from a moribund anachronism to a vigorous and contemporary form of entertainment’.
“And the piece they’re performing at this year’s Beyond The Border is a specially-commissioned revival of one of their greatest hits, a boundary-breaking piece of work called The Three Snake Leaves, which brilliantly interweaves ten or 11 very different stories from The Brothers Grimm, all very humorous, cruel, moving, into a rich tapestry of story. We have invited these master storytellers to recreate this work and add to it by bringing in two of our finest Welsh musicians, Dylan Fowler and Gillian Stevens, who have worked with the Company to create a specially-commissioned score which they will be playing live at Beyond The Border 2012. It will be a highlight - one of many!”
As well as The Company Of Storytellers, Beyond The Border celebrates 200 years of the Grimms Tales. Festival-goers can expect a magnificent living celebration of one of the greatest collections of fairy tales in the world, said David: “We have invited several other UK-based artists to also include stories taken from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, some of them very much for adults indeed. Jamie Crawford and Cat Weatherill have late-night tellings in the Tythe Barn of some of the darker Grimm’s stories. Our very own Daniel Morden, the Abergavenny-based storyteller, will be telling Grimm’s Stories for family audiences in the beautiful Blue Garden of the Castle, including a version of the Water of Life story which he will end on a cliffhanger, and then invite audience members to come up with their own possible endings.
“And then we’ve got our international artists from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy including the extraordinary Storytelling Circus of Nicole and Martin - Grimms’ stories told through a mixture of music and circus theatre in the magical setting of a circus Big Top. It promises to be another highlight.”
There’s another sombre centenary which deserves to be marked – Titanic sank 100 years ago after an encounter with an iceberg. Beyond The Border commemorates this disaster by inviting the US storyteller Pam Faro to give her moving, first-hand account of the Titanic sinking: “She got this from her great Uncle Olaus, who survived the disaster,” said David. “What makes his story all the more extraordinary is that he was a third-class steerage passenger who lived to tell the tale. Not many of them did.
“Pam Faro’s story is also part of a strand in our programme that looks at true-life stories, and in particular that interesting foggy hinterland where personal stories meet myth. Also in this strand is Canadian Dan Yashinsky telling the inspiring story of how he talked his seriously sick son through neo-natal intensive care - and the storytelling laureate Taffy Thomas, MBE, whose performances will include his own account of the stroke that nearly killed him, and how stories helped him recover.
“Over the weekend we’ll be collaborating with the organisers of True Stories Told Live Cardiff to present a series of short 10-minute tales, told by the people to whom they happened, people who would not call themselves storytellers, but who, like all of us, have a story to tell.”
The magic of Beyond The Border is that the festival brings together artists from Kurdish Iran, Canada, Wales, Germany and klezmer/eastern European music in an international storytelling folk festival; David describes it as: “A magnificent feast for the ear! Taffy is among the guests, and he’s going to perform Take These Chains From My Heart again.”
In an emotional, tingling show, a packed audience gave Taffy a standing ovation. “My greatest memory is Taffy’s performance,” says David. “Apart from being moved to tears by Taffy‘s show, probably seeing Taffy joining in with his son Sam, who was also there with his wonderful street theatre group The Chipolatas, a lovely living example of performance traditions being passed on. Who was the proudest – father or son?”
Wonderful harper, singer and storyteller Nick Hennessey is on the bill for the whole weekend. Said David: “The multi-talented Mr Hennessey will give us three very different shows - on Friday night he will perform Where Curlews Call with storyteller and naturalist Malcolm Green. It’s an account of a particular patch of countryside in the North of England which the pair of them visited every month for over a year, gathering impressions and stories which they’ve woven together into a music, song and story show, that will of course include Nick’s fine harp playing.
“Then on Saturday afternoon, Nick will join Hugh Lupton for The Liberty Tree, a beautifully crafted set of songs and stories that charts a history of English dissent, from Robin Hood up to Poll Tax protesters and beyond. It will include extracts from the poetry of John Clare, about whom Hugh Lupton has written so well in his book The Ballad of John Clare. The Daily Mail called it ‘an exceptional evocation of an England lost’.
“And on Sunday afternoon, Nick will give one of his magical solo performances in the Blue Garden, a perfect place to showcase his many talents as storyteller, ballad singer, and multi-instrumentalist.”
In addition, Beyond The Border has been running monthly storytelling events for years at the Wales Millennium Centre - one of the most successful “outreach” projects that the festival has run. David says: “This year, we’re taking the summer off to concentrate on the festival. We’ll start the series again in September. Check out our website to see who’s appearing when – all shows are free!”
“And of course there will be Real Ale - Beyond The Border would not be Beyond The Border without it! The Western Mail once listed visiting the Real Ale Bar at Beyond The Border as among the top ten things to do in Wales before you die.”
Ticket prices, says David: “Are extraordinary value! The cast of performers at Beyond The Border is unique, not just in the range of styles and genres they represent, but in terms of geography – where else are you going to have the chance to witness oral tradition bearers from Kazakhstan or Tehran, masters of their art, without going to those countries?
“And never mind the quality, feel the quantity – there will be over 100 performances to choose from during the festival. That means over the weekend you could see at least 15 different shows, and at £100 for a weekend (or £250 for a family of four) that works out at well under £7.00 a show. That’s a lot less than 15 visits to the theatre. And there’s free camping on our wonderful cliff-top camp site. If you can’t come for the whole weekend, we have afternoon or evening tickets for just £25 for adults, £12.50 for children.
“I think the UK-born roots music element is particularly strong this year, with She’koyokh, who have been nominated for a Songlines Music Award, appearing on Friday and Saturday; our very own Fernhill on Saturday and Sunday; and the seminal fusion band Transglobal Underground bringing the festival to an exuberant rousing close on Sunday night. And we’ve just announced that we’ve added a live performance of Julie Murphy’s acclaimed new album A Quiet House to the bill – that’s one not to miss. We’re still adding to the all-star line-up.
“Anyone hasn’t got their tickets yet, or just wants to know who’s appearing, can visit our website, www.beyondtheborder.com, to find out more. We are looking forward to welcoming people to St Donats Castle for the best Beyond The Border ever.”