Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire, Fri 2 + Sat 3 July
Once upon a time, there was a pandemic that stole a year from us: it’s a story that we’re all too familiar with. Perhaps I’d best leave the storytelling to the professionals, of which Beyond The Border had assembled the very best of. Having been starved of social interaction during the tumultuous and isolated rollercoaster that we’ve been collectively locked on for the past 16 months, this festival served as a COVID oasis – though thorough and well implemented, the safety precautions served to enable socialising rather than hinder it.
Aided by the smaller number of attendees and the compact site, a lot of effort had clearly been made to encourage a strong sense of community, and it wasn’t uncommon to bump into a storyteller in the communal areas. While billed as a storytelling festival – Beyond The Border was founded in 1993 to promote this artform – the weekend celebrated communication in its many incarnations, such as poetry, folk music, workshops, and even a bit of rap during the closing ceremony.
And while the festival may have provided respite from the challenges of being confined to the home, it didn’t make us sacrifice the creature comforts we associate with it. The hole-over-the-cesspit toilets of other festivals were nowhere to be seen, in their place plush flushing loos and hot showers for campers. BTB’s commitment to accessibility, too, was faultless: from wheelchair-accessible toilets and easier story walks to putting guidance on age appropriacy and trigger warnings on performances, the measures put in place ensured that lovers of storytelling would be able to attend irrespective of most factors. The catering situation was less memorable (carbs, carbs and more carbs sold from three food trucks), but the prices were pretty reasonable, at least by festival standards.
We began on the Friday with an in-person story walk led by Amy Douglas and Fiona Collins, who were equally tremendous. The duo’s personability and clear talent, visible even to those less versed in live storytelling like this reviewer, made for a delightful initiation. Nestled in the centre of Dinefwr, the festival deeply entwined itself with the National Trust site across the whole weekend. Story walks, both in person and digitally, weaved amongst the castle, the stately home and the surrounding grounds, all with a backdrop of the deer park.
Of the two performances with a more experimental bent that we visited, Stars And Their Constellations was more of a success. Sarah Lianne Lewis’ instrumental compositions served as a sonic backdrop to the gravelly tones of legendary storytellers Daniel Morden and Hugh Lupton as they narrated the mythology of the constellations. Conducted atop a hill under a cloudy sky, we listened via headphones, akin to a silent disco – the intimacy added to the performance’s gravity and grandeur.
The rewards of Mother Tongue, a series of performances deliberately not delivered in the lingua franca to demonstrate the universality of stories, were more inconsistent. Sef Townsend’s opening set was fantastic – with the aid of props, his Dutch and Yiddish story felt easy to understand despite my monolingualism – and the performance’s musical interlude, courtesy of Rajesh David and Stacey Blythe, synergised Indian and Western music to hugely enjoyable effect. The other acts in the performance didn’t reach those, but it does provide a segue into appreciating BTB’s commitment to bilingualism – accommodating Welsh speakers was a far cry from a checkbox exercise.
The musical highlight of the weekend was Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita’s set, which saw them perform their 2018 album SOAR, a project that fused the former’s harp with the latter’s kora. Both prodigies of their respective instruments in their own right, they were tremendous in concert, with Finch’s gracefulness complimenting Keita’s relentless energy, and it was easy to see why they’d won BBC Radio 2’s Folk Award for Best Duo in 2019.
Another musical act that stood out was Will Pound’s maiden performance of A Day Will Come, his latest collaborative project that laments the UK’s departure from the EU. Armed with an arsenal of instruments – bagpipes, fiddle and accordion to name a few – it was actually Bohdan Piasecki’s poetry that almost overshadowed the music. Poignant and ethereal, its genius was in its ability to transport an audience into his shoes, and to allow them to experience the sense of exclusion that he felt as an immigrant in a polarised Britain.
Should you go to Beyond The Border if you’re not a fan of storytelling? Perhaps not, although you’d probably still have a good time if you leave any preconceptions at the front door. If you are a fan though, the festival is the mecca of the artform, and an event you can’t afford to miss.
words ALEX PAYNE
Discover how our Buzz Culture learning experience is helping young people all over Wales get the skills they need to get ahead.