Storytelling festival Beyond The Border celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, and – as Hari Berrow discovered – veteran and emerging storytellers alike used its theme, ‘The Time Is Now’, to demonstrate that the art is needed now more than ever.
Storytelling is an art form that has persisted for thousands of years – it was the way our ancestors shared generational knowledge, the way they entertained each other, the way they warned and cautioned one another. Alongside traditional retellings of old stories at the Beyond The Border Storytelling Festival, in rural Carmarthenshire, came explorations of climate change and the Anthropocene, and reflections on our relationships with the Earth and each other.
Beyond The Border: a festival for reflection
In a time where it feels like urgency is needed more than ever, many of the shows at Beyond The Border were welcome reminders that we cannot rush into healing like a bull in a china shop, we must slow down and reflect on the actions of those who came before in order to understand where we need to go next.
For the ecologically minded, there were a number of highlights. Carl Gough’s Nexus was a remarkable exploration of the Floridian Everglades, sharing their history, their cultural and ecological significance, and the stories of those who helped to protect them from human destruction. David Ambrose’s Flowers And Folktales Story Walk was a wonderful reminder of the intimate connection between humans and flora, with fascinating insights into the medicinal benefits of plants often dismissed as weeds. And SWYN, by Collective Flight Syrcas, offered a beautiful reflection on the healing that comes with being in nature, investigated through physical theatre and aerial circus performance.
Beyond The Border 2023’s cross-cultural theme
There was also a big emphasis at this year’s Beyond The Border festival on sharing across cultures and celebrating the many ways that storytelling takes place across the world. Not the most anticipated, but certainly one of the most joyous events at the festival was Bevin Magama and Alim Kamara’s Animal Folktales, where the two storytellers – from Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone respectively – shared stories from across Africa. Interactive, welcoming and hilarious, both performers spoke to storytelling’s immense capacity to bring joy.
Magama and Kamara both brought their own solo performances to the festival, with Magama’s Poking The Crocodile –an autobiographical piece about growing up in apartheid Rhodesia and the transition into modern-day Zimbabwe – becoming one of the most discussed shows of the entire weekend. Abbi Patrix’ The Chinese Experience also offered a fascinating insight into the storytelling tradition in China and the efforts of the individuals seeking to keep that tradition alive.
N’Famady Kouyate also brought the music of West Africa to the festival – while he had many remarkable and illuminating offerings at the festival, the most noteworthy has to be his performance with his band The Successors Of The Mandingue. Electrifying, illuminating and joyful, the festival could not have asked for a better closing performance.
One of the reasons many return to Beyond The Border is its otherworldly nature. Everyone is willing to sing if you ask them; there are no awkward silences and I didn’t hear a single word about a storyteller that wasn’t unerringly supportive. On the way back to the campsite one evening I heard someone say, “See, people just aren’t this nice in the real world,” and something about that feels true: it is a space unlike any other.
Still room for improvement
That is not to say Beyond The Border did not have its downsides. Like everything else, sometimes the complexities of organisation can let a festival down. The campsite, for example, was at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. As cars were not allowed on the site, this made unpacking difficult and caused a few accessibility issues for some audience members. I also could not find the dishwashing facilities – possibly because I am not very observant, but I did see a lot of people washing their dishes in the toilet sinks, which eventually led to them being blocked. (This was apparently very disruptive for a few of the shows in the Glyndwr tent, as they were right by a toilet block.) The food offerings were very limited, with only two or three stalls open at any given time. As for performers, general advice for the future: assume you’re quieter than you think you are in the tents without microphones, and louder than you think you are in the miced-up ones.
None of which diminished the weekend too much. The remarkable talent on display at every venue on site was inspirational. As an audience member, you were transported to world after world after world. I feel now is time to do some honourable mentions: Mair Tomos Ifans and Sioned Webb’s Telyn Tales featured hilarious re-tellings of harp-related folk tales and beautifully performed harp music that supported the words as effectively as it stood alone. Christine Watkins’ The Washers, a series of stories about washerwomen, was performed throughout the weekend by a number of different storytellers – it was Watkins’ own performance of The Night Washers that stood out to me. Her presence, her belief in the importance of the story she was telling, and her energy was enthralling – watching her is a powerful experience.
TUUP and Daniel Morden steal the festival
TUUP and Daniel Morden had the whole festival in the palms of their hands. Every show they were in (particularly the one they were in together) had people queuing to beyond capacity – unsurprising, as both are incredible at what they do. The Devil’s Violin’s last-ever performance, with Morden, Oliver Wilson-Dickson and Sarah Moody, was probably the best thing I saw at the whole festival. The way music and story are integrated, the power of Morden’s stage presence and the sheer skill of Wilson-Dickson and Moody’s musicianship will stay with me for a long time. My boyfriend (who basically had no idea what any of this was until I brought him along) is still talking about it days later.
There is far more that I could talk about, but suffice it to say Beyond The Border is an experience any other. With the festival a biannual offering, should you make plans to go in 2025? Categorically yes.
Beyond The Border, Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire, Fri 7-Sun 9 July
words HARI BERROW