Over the weekend of 13 – 15 March 2015, Aberystwyth Arts Centre hosted a symposium dedicated to Y Mabinogi, curated by the storyteller and illustrator, Peter Stevenson whose work you can see here. The arts centre also hosted a specially commissioned exhibition of illustrations designed to complement the symposium.
The weekend was made up of talks from academics such as Professor Sioned Davies, discussions, informal tales, music including a showcase of Sharron Kraus’s new album and the highlight of the weekend was the day-long, unedited bi-lingual storytelling of the Four Branches of Y Mabinogi. Adverse Camber’s producer Naomi Wilds was there throughout the weekend and here’s her report from the event.
Project Mabinogi was a gorgeous three day indulgence fest in all things Mabinogi. We learned definitively that ‘Mabinogi’ is the correct term for this collection of Welsh tales captured in two medieval Welsh manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest (available to view at the National Library of Wales and through their digital archive). The name The Mabinogion came about through a mistake made during transcription and this name has stuck – nearly everyone used it throughout the weekend alongside Mabinogi, proving the ‘Authenticity Police’ were not out in force – one of the many refreshing aspects of the event.
On Friday, the academics stepped forward with lively presentations on a wide range of themes, from dating and genre classification, to issues raised by the many translations and what the tales reveal when they are told by storytellers.
Professor Sioned Davies’ keynote presentation was especially fascinating, informed by decades of scholarship and her own translation, which emphasizes the fact that the tales were meant to be performed. Her description of how each translator decodes and recodes the story felt similar to me, to the process storytellers go through, transforming the tales into oral renditions for modern audiences.
Storyteller Fiona Collins, conveyed the voices of numerous Welsh female storytellers and alerted us to contemporary issues of intangible cultural heritage, landscape and Welsh identity – reflected in the prioritising of the ‘four branches’ of the Mabinogi (tales of Welsh mythic heroines and kings) for performance the following day, over the Arthurian tales, which are often privileged by previous literary translators.
On Saturday the four branches were told in sequence, in English and Welsh, from 11am to 8pm (with breaks). Michael Harvey, Guto Dafis and Dafydd Hughes-Davies sped through the first and third branches, each taking a section and telling it solo with clear handover points. Christine Cooper, Fiona Collins and Cath Little told the second and fourth branches collectively, again each taking on particular sections but more often weaving between their voices. Artists Maria Hayes and Peter Stevenson drew and painted through the tellings, Maria Hayes’ live drawings were projected onto a screen above the storytellers and formed a dramatic commentary, as characters and relationships became transformed with a stroke of paint or sudden red streak of violence as the tales progressed.
Saturday had the electric sensation of a never-to-be-repeated event – hearing all four stories together, allowing layers to build up with implicit cross-referencing. The humanity of the characters and contemporary resonances in the stories really came through – the trauma and bloodshed of the Second Branch felt particularly chilling, salved by the magical resolutions of the Third. There were moments of real genius – the deft emphasis on a particular phrase here or injection of personality there (Cath Little’s tone of voice for ‘that is easily avoided’ when Blodeuwedd finally learns how Lleu is to be killed, skillfully blended direct speech and commentary in a stroke and Dafydd Hughes-Davies sudden drift into admiration of the workmanship of the rooms he was describing both relaxed and brought the room to life). There was a great feeling of collegiality – between those telling, and within the room as a whole. It was a serious undertaking, taken seriously by everyone there, but avoided feeling overly earnest, powered by the entertaining vigour of the stories and everyone’s delight in the experience.
Sunday was a day of reflection, along with a wonderful keynote about the politics of illustration, revealing the ideological standpoint of those commissioning or rendering the stories into art. Hovering in the air throughout was Sioned Davies’ tantalizing suggestion that perhaps further branches might exist somewhere, hidden in a dusty attic. If so, I’d trust Peter Stevenson and the collective expertise of Welsh storytelling to bring them fully to life in their next shared adventure.
Thanks to everyone who was involved in the weekend and to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, for providing a perfect, hospitable setting with the twinkling sea and open horizon breathing fresh air into the lungs of our imagination throughout.
Naomi Wilds, Adverse Camber Producer
Maria Hayes illustrations are available to purchase, please contact Maria directly if you are interested.