In Wales, performing is as natural as kicking a football about – it’s just one of those things we do, pretty much from the moment we totter onto the stage of our first school eisteddfod, a tradition that dates back more than 800 years.
The first Eisteddfod was held in 1176 at the court of the Lord Rhys in Cardigan, where poets and musicians gathered to show off their skills in a kind of medieval X Factor. The winner was awarded a seat at the Lord’s table, a tradition that continues today: the poet who writes the best verse in the strict metre known as cynghanedd is given a chair, while the best ‘free verse’ wins its author a crown.
These ceremonies – the Crowning and Chairing of the Bard – still form the solemn centrepiece of any big eisteddfod, but they’re just a small part of the whole picture, which sees hotly contested competitions for all kinds of arts, from choirs and dance troupes to recitation and rock. Above all, it’s just a lot of fun: communities getting together to show off their skills on stage, and having a good time into the bargain.
And it’s this sense of performance that pervades the whole of Welsh society, from the belting out of the national anthem before a rugby match, to the world-class performances of Welsh National Opera, to the new BBC drama village in Cardiff Bay, where major British TV series like Casualty and Upstairs Downstairs are made … and of course Dr Who, to which a new visitor centre is dedicated (doctorwhoexperience.com).
There’s open-air theatre, opera and classical concerts in castle courtyards and country gardens all over the country. Theatre also takes place on a grass-roots level: every town has its own choir and dramatic society, every hall and Scout hut hosts its own community events, and the sound of home-grown music leaks from the beer gardens and street corners. It’s just what we do.
Here are some of the world-class ensembles based in Wales:
Mining communities were famously rich in culture, with each colliery supporting its own male voice choir, dramatic society and silver band. Arts venues sprang up in every mining town, usually paid for by the men themselves, chipping in a few pence from their weekly wage.
Many of these venues are still thriving in Wales – places like the Stiwt Theatre in Wrexham, Blackwood Miners’ Institute, the Coliseum Theatre in Aberdare and The Parc & Dare in Treorchy – are still the cultural focus of their communities, with lively programmes of music, cinema, dance and theatre.
They have certainly moved with the times: the Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl used to be known for its annual miners’ eisteddfod; nowadays it’s renowned as home to the stupendous Porthcawl Elvis Festival.
At Llangollen International Eisteddfod they’ve completely reinvented the eisteddfod concept, inviting more than 4,000 singers, dancers and instrumentalists from around 50 countries to perform, climaxing with the prestigious Choir of the World contest.
The mines have mostly closed, but new arts venues continue to open. Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon is a great example. This stunning modern theatre, set prettily by the canal isn’t just a superb centre for the arts – its café is deservedly praised by the Good Food Guide. Now that’s music to our ears...