Language and Identity in the Welsh-Turkish Play Y Brain/Kargalar

“I felt that these lands were always wrapped around me like a mother, in the most difficult times of my life. And that they were healing me.” These words, spoken by Mel—one half of the Turkish refugee, Meltem, who settled in Wales—form the essence of Y Brain/Kargalar.

Meltem Arikan was forced to flee Turkey, leaving most of her family behind, after political accusations were made against her due to her writing. She started a new life in Wales where her husband unexpectedly died, and she was left once again to re-examine her place in the world, her sense of identity, and how to belong. In Y Brain/Kargalar, she examines the two parts of herself: the Welsh Mel and the Turkish Tem.

Y Brain/Kargalar, the first-ever Welsh-Turkish play, to anyone’s knowledge at least, covers much ground: it addresses everything from nature and womanhood to nationality and politics. The abstract nature of the performances and the dissonance of language within the production make it a highly subjective experience. Like travelling through both countries and hearing and seeing only snippets of someone’s life, the show offers a mish-mash of competing thoughts.

show poster

This fits well within the narrative of the Wales-based producing company, Be Aware. They have established themselves as integral to Welsh theatre, but the creative leads still hold on to elements of their Turkish heritage and cultural influences. Through their work, the artists seek not just to reconcile both their home and adopted cultures, but to integrate them and create a dialogue between them.

Be Aware was founded by Pinar Ogun in 2015 as a way to explore innovative performances with audiovisual works. Arikan has been a part of the company since then, but her previous plays looked more at women’s issues—2017’s Enough is Enough, for example, discussed sexual violence. With the Be Aware team growing to include Welsh creatives, and their recent partnership with Cardiff’s cultural hub Chapter Arts Centre, the company has been evolving. Y Brain/Kargalar, which was written by Arikan and explores the symbiosis and conflict of dual personal and artistic identities, seems to have been the logical next step.

There are two performers in the piece, each one playing one half of Arikan: Rebecca Smith Williams, a Welsh actor, is Mel, and Ogun, who is Turkish, is Tem. The characters speak in their respective languages: to each other, at each other, and to themselves. This becomes a theatrical depiction of the split in Arikan’s brain—half Welsh, half Turkish—sometimes as confusing to her as much as it is to the audience. Arikan uses the two actors and the two languages to express her journey and explore these two parts of her life.

The artists seek not just to reconcile both their home and adopted cultures, but to integrate them and create a dialogue between them.

The piece is in perpetual motion, veering towards dance but never quite reaching it. Some of it is abstract, and at times there is a literal push and pull between the pair of actors. There is even a moment of ecstatic dancing. A rhythm drives the show—drumbeats undercut the score consistently until the very last moment, when we are left in silence. The endless movement of the actors, directed by Phillip MacKenzie, suggests the journey from Turkey to Wales, but also the war raging inside Mel and Tem as they try to arrive at who they are, or arrive at peace with themselves.

Symbiotic at times and in conflict at others, the movement direction manages to at once communicate across all languages and also remain somewhat secret between the two characters. It anchors the speech, offering an expression of the dialogue, whether it is conflict, resolution, frustration, love, or contentment. It acts as a third language, allowing the piece to become comprehensible to those who speak neither Turkish or Welsh, or for when words of either language fail. It is also sometimes a way the two halves communicate with each other. The integral role movement plays in the piece is clear at the end in particular, when spoken language halts and we are left only with frantic movement before it dies away as the drumbeat stops. The audience is left in semi-darkness with the performers finally still.

two actors sitting onstage

Y Brain/Kargalar

Y Brain/Kargalar is an unashamedly lyrical piece even as it touches on dark themes like bereavement, exile, and isolation. Scattered throughout Lauren Orme’s video backdrop are crows, symbolic of both avian freedom and bleak omens. The tent-like set with beige material that also adorns the floor gives audiences a sense of the desert and the journey from Turkey, but moments of bleakness and the stark lighting show us the Welsh countryside. It is truly Mel and Tem caught between worlds—in both places at once and nowhere at the same time.

Language, both spoken and physical, is evidently the integral force of the piece. And the use of Turkish and Welsh, two languages that ordinarily don’t find themselves side by side, is a fascinating and ultimately powerful one. There is beautiful synchronicity in how the two characters speak to one another in these different languages, something many bilingual theatre productions attempt to achieve but fail at, but which Y Brain/Kargalar gets exactly right. At first, the very different-sounding languages feel like they hit against each other—the crisper Turkish against the more lyrical Welsh. However, as the piece progresses, there is a kind of musicality to the use of the languages side by side, and they start to mirror each other. Arikan’s writing brings them closer together in sound and in expression as her characters work to resolve the conflict of their two nationalities.

The idea of identities merging through language is key to Arikan’s writing. Her Turkish brain and her Welsh brain are distinct, speaking their own separate language, but they are becoming one. This is an expression of her identity: she is no longer a Turkish person in conflict with a new identity, but a Turkish person accepting and adopting a new culture alongside her original. The two languages co-existing in her mind and as characters becomes a striking expression of that.

There is beautiful synchronicity in how the two characters speak to one another in these different languages.

Y Brain/Kargalar projects beautifully crafted surtitles on the tent that forms the set: when Turkish is spoken, Welsh is projected, and when Welsh is spoken, Turkish is projected. This is done with an eye to design, with the words reflecting the way poetry is presented on a page, or fading and moving with the movement of the piece. At times, this may even be difficult to follow, like the path of thoughts in a mind.

But what if audiences do not speak either language? For them, the translations come in the form of a book provided at the door with a small light, which allows audiences to read along. The book echoes the lament Tem feels about leaving her precious books behind when she fled Turkey. It is beautifully put together, with the English on the right-hand side, arranged in verse or to evoke a poetic, visual representation of what goes on in the performance. But as much as it is artistically crafted, the book presents a barrier. The constant looking down, the difficulty reading in the dark, how long it takes to read versus how quickly the performance moves—the book cannot match traditional surtitles, which keep pace and don’t interrupt the flow.

two actors in rehearsal

Y Brain/Kargalar

Perhaps, though, like the design of the Welsh and Turkish surtitles, the book can be taken as part of the experience, saying something about language, access, and barriers between cultures. We as non-Turkish and non-Welsh speakers are excluded. Our difficulty with either language sets us as separate from the piece, and we do not experience the same performance as those who share the language. Instead of simply being frustrated with this, we can take it as a lesson in what it feels like to be an outsider in new culture, always a step apart from what is going on. Watching the show from this perspective, there comes a point where we have to make a choice: to embrace the performance as is or fight to comprehend every word of spoken text. That mirrors Mel and Tem’s own journey: the conflict between Tem needing to understand everything and Mel accepting the here and now.

While Mel and Tem never quite resolve the elements of their personality, their history, and their nationality that are at war, in the final moments they make peace with that. The stillness and quiet that follows all the movement and noise offers a moment of acceptance and of reflection, both for them and for the audience.

Y Brain/Kargalar is a striking piece. For non-Welsh and/or non-Turkish audiences, to really take in all the nuances of the political and emotional moments would require an additional reading of the English translation. But perhaps the kind of reflection that distance brings is part of the experience. Still, through movement and performance, powerful elements of Meltem’s story are portrayed clearly. It is a resonant reflection on nationhood and identity.

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