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Welsh mythology making waves across the Atlantic

3 July 2019

Trailing Rhiannon workshop

An American student is exploring her Welsh heritage through her research of The Mabinogion.

Emma Watkins, who is currently studying a Masters in Welsh and Celtic Studies at Cardiff University and is an American Fulbright postgraduate, developed a play called Trailing Rhiannon in her final undergraduate year at Princeton University. The production reimagines the First Branch of the Mabinogi from the perspective of its female protagonist.

The play, which was initially performed near her home in New Jersey, has been developed further during her postgraduate year, with funding from the University’s School of Welsh and in collaboration with Chapter Arts Centre. A four-day workshop involving creatives from the Welsh stage culminated in a performance where the audience offered their feedback.

Preserved mainly in fourteenth-century manuscripts, the 11 medieval stories that make up The Mabinogion have their roots firmly in oral tradition, evolving over centuries before reaching their final written form.

Emma, whose father Paul’s side of the family is from Pembrokeshire, Wales, said: “My brother and I were very lucky to grow up with a father who was a novelist and an excellent storyteller, well-versed in the tales of Wales.

“On long car rides, he would entertain us with stories from the Mabinogi, which he would embellish with his memories of Wales, and snippets of family history.  As a result, Wales always played an important role in my family’s own mythology.

“Outside of my family, very few audience members back home had encountered the Mabinogi - although many expressed an interest in learning more after seeing the show. The research and development workshop in Cardiff has allowed us to explore the play’s resonances in contemporary Wales, sharing this theatrical adaptation with Welsh people who grew up with the Four Branches.”

Emma with her father, Peter
Emma with her father, Paul.

Emma learned about Cardiff University’s School of Welsh while reading Professor Sioned Davies’s translation of The Mabinogion. Professor Davies has supervised and mentored Emma during her time at Cardiff.

Following the play’s performance in its latest form, Emma now hopes it can be shown to new audiences – both in Wales and further afield.

She said: “Although Rhiannon’s story is deeply embedded in the Mabinogi and the Welsh landscape, it is also a story that is universally relevant - that of a resilient female storyteller using her voice to navigate injustices...”

“I hope that sharing Rhiannon’s story with wider audiences will inspire contemporary female storytellers, and at the same time, encourage a broader engagement with Welsh literature and culture.”

Emma Watkins

Professor Sioned Davies, based at the School of Welsh, said: “It was a privilege working with such a creative and committed student. Emma’s innovative adaptation highlights the flexibility of our MA programme, allowing her to combine academic research with fieldwork (interviewing contemporary storytellers) and creative writing.”

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