Owen Sheers has to have one of the most illustrious – and the most diverse – resumes of any contemporary writer from Wales.
A former rugby player, hailing from Abergavenny, Sheers is the first writer ever to have held the position of Artist in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union, in 2012. This achievement however is just one of the latest, in a list of many. As a younger man he read English at New College, Oxford, before studying Creative Writing at UEA, under Andrew Motion. His collection Skirrid Hill won a Somerset Maugham Award and The Dust Diaries, his debut non-fiction work set in Zimbabwe, was named the Welsh Book of the Year in 2005.
Also highly well-received was his debut 2007 novel, Resistance, an alternate universe take on WWII. Resistance takes places in Olchon Valley, in a version of Wales occupied by Hitler’s troops after the failed D-Day landings. It zeroes in on how the remaining civilians, principally women, attempt to resist the invading forces and the complex and varied ways such resistance can manifest. In 2011 the novel was also adapted into a film, directed by Amit Gupta and starring Andrea Riseborough in a quiet and controlled central performance, accompanied by Michael Sheen, Tom Wlaschiha, and Iwan Rheon.
Sheen joined the cast after a previous collaboration with Sheers in 2011, in one of the most notable and documented theatrical events to have occurred in Wales, this side of the century: a three-day production of Sheers’ play The Passion, unfolding over Easter weekend and set entirely in the town of Port Talbot. Sheen taking on the central role – a role which eventually saw him ‘crucified’ on a roundabout within sight of the local steel works and 12,000 audience members. The project is now available on DVD, entitled as The Gospel of Us.
Several of Sheers’ books have revolved around the subject of war. His play The Two Worlds of Charlie F. – revolving around the experiences of wounded and injured service personnel – was performed by a company of 30 recovering soldiers – The Bravo 22 Company – at The Royal Theatre Haymarket in 2012, and went on tour nationwide this summer. Sheers claims to have briefly been interested in joining the army after university, but turned away from this vocation. Instead forming a vested interest in poetry, and in particular, the war poets – he has both written a play about Keith Douglas and played Wilfred Owen on stage, at Hay Festival.
This has proved a wise decision on Sheers’ part. His debut collection of poetry, The Blue Book, was nominated for the Forward Prize and the Welsh Book of the Year; an award he scooped this year, for his verse drama, Pink Mist, also about experiences of contemporary warfare from the perspective of serving soldiers, and their families and friends. Sheers also served as the face and voice of the BBC 4 series, A Poet’s Guide to Britain, the accompanying anthology of which is published by Penguin.
Yet despite his profession that poetry remains his central passion, one of Sheers’ lesser known, but no less compelling achievements, is White Ravens: Sheers’ contribution to Seren’s excellent New Stories from the Mabinogion series. In White Ravens Sheers updates the Second Branch of the Mabinogion – featuring Branwen, the daughter of Llyr and sister to the giant Bendigeidfran – by displacing the action into two stories set in two different times. That of Rhian, a twenty-first-century Welsh farmer’s daughter, and that of Matthew O’Connell, a government official in WWII tasked with escorting six raven chicks from an obscure farm in Wales to the Tower of London.
Two seemingly disparate stories weaved together by the myth running throughout the foundations of both. Indeed, myths and stories seem to be the principal preoccupation of White Ravens, which, in the words of Sheers, ‘is a story about many things at once, one being the nature of stories themselves: why and how we tell them, and why and how we use them.’
Whatever the answers to these questions, there can be no doubt that Sheers is one of Wales’ master contemporary storytellers, whose own way of telling stories is something to behold.