Tylwyth- why it matters

For the original reivew of Tylwyth see post here

So why then is Tylwyth important? It’s important for Welsh language theatre for sure. Though that’s not my area to comment on specifically, I will say from a personal perspective that it’s important from a non- Welsh speaker (or in my case struggling learner) perspective- because Llwyth 10 years ago was a leader in what inclusive feeling Welsh language theatre can be. My first Welsh language piece on moving back and still the gold standard to which I hold that feeling of being welcomed by a theatre even if I didn’t speak the language. The way Jones writes also feels authentic to my bilingual friends- he writes in what feels like ‘real’ Welsh to me having lived in a bilingual city and existed in a bilingual arts scene for 10 years now- that mix of English-Welsh sentences, formal and informal language, even the debates about words as we mix dialects. And that informality and reality is important for contemporary Welsh writing, at least from a somewhat outsider perspective. And most importantly it shows that you can be moving and funny and engaging and reach audiences across languages (the couple next to me communicated in BSL, then enjoyed the play as much as I did with my minimal Welsh).

Language of course isn’t the reason perhaps I’m still writing what will no doubt now be an essay. Why is Tylwyth important? Because it’s a decade of Queer storytelling. It’s a decade of owning Welsh Queer storytelling. Ten years ago it was a revelation to see the story of unapologetically a group of gay men on a Welsh stage. It still is to a degree. It’s all too often still a revelation to see Queer stories at the forefront. Much less in a main stage show. I was surrounded by, shall we say ladies of a certain age, who laughed along, applauded and cried along. Not too many years ago, as a Sherman usher I was fielding complaints that Peter Pan was ‘too gay’ (spoiler, Peter Pan is a SUPER Queer story however you spin it lady). And that meant something.
What also means something is Queer stories that age with us. A notoriously youthful and ageist community, the chance to address ageing and the new challenges of Queer life are really important.
And James addresses those issues head on. A lot has changed in 10 years, for good and bad for gay people, and for the first time we’re faced with a lot of questions it’s brilliant yet terrifying to address. In looking at family life- choosing marriage and children, Tylwyth asks out loud the scary and important questions many gay people ask themselves- how do I do this? Do I mimic straight culture? Is that what I want? Is it what I’ve been told I want or do I want it? And if you choose to navigate it another way, how does that work. In theory gay people should be able to rip up the rule book and do it another way. Just because marriage is on the table doesn’t mean it’s the only option, or that it has to be done the traditional way. So, James presents two couples- one committed by shying away from marriage (initially anyway) one married but questioning what that might mean down the line. He asks honest questions with the characters about open relationships even within commitments such as marriage. And for a community still getting used to the idea of marriage, negotiation of those boundaries as we age into those is a vital conversation (even if it makes us and perhaps straight audiences uncomfortable). The play tackles head on the difficult questions we often don’t say out loud about how to negotiate new definitions of marriage, and whether as a community we do need to re-write the rules.
Equally important and uncomfortable are the questions about children. Saying out loud again the uncomfortable truth that nobody is regulating how straight people have children-they do it all the time after all. But the how and when of how gay people do carries a weight of judgment. In the play the question of adoption versus a surrogate comes up. As does the underlying fear of not being ‘good enough’ to adopt. These are important conversations. We all have our prejudices no matter how much we try not to. We all ask ourselves questions that perhaps straight people never do.  
Simmering around these issues for the central couples are the wider questions of how the gay community is evolving. From the obvious dating apps, to the wider impact on community. Individually is asks the important questions about getting old and finding your place in the world, but also, what if the community you knew, the community that was your family is falling away, changing to the point of being unrecognisable. What then?
And for the harder themes- the themes of addiction, of substances and sex. They are important wider questions, that affect people across gender and sexuality lines. But it’s an important one that James asks for gay men. In the way relationships and pleasure are negotiated in the community and what this means for mental health, and addiction. The intimacy that is longed for and often fostered through these layers of artificial means, is not an exclusive, but a particular issue for gay men. And how that filters through generations is an important and neglected topic that needs to be spoken about. There’s a shift present, in the wider sense and in the play, that we are getting better at talking about mental health, but it’s still an issue. And as we see Gavin and Aneurin- men a generation apart- falling victim to the same issues, it’s clear much needs to be done to support within the community- as well as of course beyond.
And that also is the heart of what James does. The issues are all wider to than the community of gay men on stage but also are addressed through the specific way in which they affect gay men. And its right that as a community- and as a minority those issues, in a particular way are spoken about. James achieves it in a non-judgmental way about the community, one that is entirely without self-pity also but self-reflective. And that’s why two of the big revelations at the end of the play are so important beyond the play.
Aneurin reveals that he was raped on Hampstead Heath. The story he’s been telling (and a crucial link between the two plays) is that he was orgasmed as his Mum died. A note on one level on his storytelling persona, spinning a tale and being the centre of attention. There’s an obvious darker undertone to his hiding it, but also a broader commentary. The comment on how as a community, as a gay man, the ability to stand up and say ‘I was raped’ is culturally harder. That the capacity to talk and support a man in his position isn’t necessarily within the language and dynamics of that community. And of course, the darker undertone of how many men this is happening to. It’s a single line in the play. It isn’t over-egged or overdramatic. It’s allowed to simply exist as that revelation and open it up for the audience to fill in the gaps- both for Aneurin’s character and the broader commentary of the story. And it’s a vital conversation to open up. A play can’t answer or of course, solve all the elements there, but in acknowledging those, through Aneurin it feels like one of many important first steps.
The second of the revelations come from Dada, that he’s been living with HIV since he was 25. This is important for many reasons. Firstly, simply in its acknowledgment of HIV as part of what the Gay community faces- he tells Gavin to allay his fears slightly. That James makes the point of having Dada say he is both healthy and undetectable is important. It’s important the honest discussions are had around HIV but that also we keep that perspective on the virus- that for most people that is the reality, a manageable condition that they can’t pass on. Beyond that, Dada’s story is an important act of memory and history. There are many now aging with HIV as he has, for whom it has been part of their life story- living through so many changes, from fearful early days to discrimination to what hopefully is a more balanced, enlightened future. But with one sentence he opens up a whole history about himself and the community that we need to keep reiterating. For those who aren’t here to tell it. It shouldn’t always be the focus of gay stories of course, but in chronicling live stories of individuals and the community, HIV/AIDS is part of that history and one we should keep alive, again for those who weren’t able to. Moreover, theatre is an integral part of that oral history, the means through which memorial and protest were first made in the early years of the crisis. And it is therefore significant, indeed vital, that we keep that tradition as part of how the community talks about its history. It’s a small line with massive resonance within the world of the play and beyond. And for that alone even, what James has done with Tylwyth is important.

It’s also important for that reason. A chronicling of a community through a particular lens. And what a rare opportunity- a rare indulgence, to revisit that community a decade later. That sustained narrative for a community whose stories were hidden for so long. Might not seem that significance from the outside. But from the inside it really is. And that it’s a happy story, a story overall about the family you chose, your ‘tribe’ of course. I don’t think you can underestimate what that means to the community to which it speaks.

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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