Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pathways through the Festival 1: History and Representation

The New World
As ORIGINS 2017 approaches, and people are getting keen to book their tickets, we thought it might be useful to outline a few possible Pathways Through the Festival - giving you the chance to work out what events sit together well by theme or "feel".  Our First Pathway is about History and Representation.

At the heart of these ideas sits the contested figure of Pocahontas.  2017 is the 400th anniversary of her time in England and untimely death at Gravesend, aged only 21.  Celebrations can be complex: and this anniversary hasn't been without its controversy. Writing in Indian Country Today, Lisa J. Ellwood attacks the way in which the commemorations have seemed to appropriate Pocahontas (or Matoaka, as she was properly known) as a "Great and Powerful English Feminist".  Ellwood cites the alternative oral traditions of the Powhatan, which we also explored in our HIDDEN HISTORIES film.  According to this tradition, Pocahontas was abducted, raped and eventually murdered: a very different tale.   [You can see HIDDEN HISTORIES as part of our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House on June 15, or in a pre-festival screening at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham on May 27]  Our friend Graham Harvey (part of our TALKS programme) wrote a blog piece on the commemoration at Gravesend, which also problematises it in the light of colonial histories and post-colonial tensions.  As a Festival celebrating indigenous culture, ORIGINS can't enter this territory without an overt awareness of its being contested space.  So our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS night will be a Native American ritual, not a Christian one, at a site where she lived, not where she died.  It will involve contemporary Native American women who have travelled to England locating their own stories in relation to hers - or what hers might have been.  And the film we are screening about her, THE NEW WORLD, is an attempt to move beyond contested histories and into the realm of the mythological - the imaginative space where the real potential for healing can be found.

Observance by Julie Gough 
You might want to compare THE NEW WORLD with Julie Gough's THE LOST WORLD.  Julie's art constantly questions the way in which Aboriginal lands and artefacts are owned or represented by the dominant culture.  Like many of the voices in ORIGINS, hers is raised to debate the continuing dispossession of indigenous peoples, not only from their lands but also from their histories.  The same issues are tackled in very different ways in the theatre piece THE 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, in which Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman trace the indigenous Australian experience from first contact to the present day.  It's a great example of theatre and performance re-claiming history for the people on the receiving end of its more malign forces, superbly performed by the young Thitharr Warra woman Chenoa Deemal.  It's director, Jason Klarwein writes: "The language you hear in our version of this play is Chenoa’s language. The design elements of the show are based on the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where Chenoa grew up, the artworks of the people there, and the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland. We have taken the structure of this marvellously robust work and given it our experience. Our childhood and our pain. As well as the pain of generations of displaced First Peoples."
Tanya Tagaq
The question of History - who owns it, who controls it, who has the right to claim it - is perhaps most powerfully addressed by working with Museums.  ORIGINS first worked with the British Museum in 2015, and this year we're returning there, complementing their exhibition WHERE THE THUNDERBIRD LIVES with a screening of the extraordinary 1914 archive film IN THE LAND OF THE HEADHUNTERS, which opens the Festival on June 10.  A second archive film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, marks our Closing Night at the National Maritime Museum on June 25 - but this time the film is gloriously re-appropriated by the culture on which it casts its colonial gaze.  The great Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq improvises a live soundtrack to the film - embodying its representation
of the Arctic landscape and undercutting its construction of the Inuit as primitive "Others".  In many ways, this performance is an answer to the colonial writings of history that have continually dogged indigenous peoples - an issue also presented at our other NMM screening, PASSAGE, which sees the slandering of the Inuit by Victorian moralists like Charles Dickens, and the beginnings of reconciliation in the present day.  That whole history of mis-representation, leading to self-representation on film is traced in the wonderful (and very funny) documentary REEL INJUN, and countered by the re-invention of indigenous language itself in Christian Thompson's video installation BERCEUSE.
Spirit of the Ancestors
Talking about Museums and indigenous peoples often leads to the discussion of re-patriation.  It's a complex issue, but one which has to be dealt with.  TE KUHANE O TE TUPUNA (The Spirit of the Ancestors), which screens at Arthouse Crouch End on June 14, does just that.  It's a film from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, about the search for the the lost Moai Hoa Haka Nanaia, a statue of significant cultural importance.  That statue currently sits in pride of place in the British Museum.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Brexit the Stage

Intercultural Laboratory - participants from UK, Romania and Greece
Last time we ran our Intercultural Play-Making Laboratory, I had the impossible task of welcoming visitors from Europe on the day of the referendum result.  This time there wasn't quite such an element of shock - but Brexit inevitably hung over the week's work, as we dialogued with participants from Greece, Romania, Estonia, Portugal, Germany and the UK.  We actually started by inviting everybody to the V&A's symposium Brexit the Stage: if there's an elephant in the room, it's best to take notice.

The symposium was characterised by a tone of resignation.  Even David Lan, whose speech struck a more powerful moral tone than most, didn't dare to suggest that Brexit could possibly be resisted.  What seemed to me most striking and most disturbing about the day was the sense that Britain really was different from the rest of Europe, and that the difference consisted of a more mercenary approach, even to culture.  Mark Ball talked about British participants in the international theatre circuit being more transactional in their approach than Europeans (or anybody else, except Americans).  Christopher Balme, who has always had a global view of such things, looked at the UK's gradual policy shift away from an integral to an instrumental view of the value of culture; and suggested that the corresponding move in European cultural policy, from Culture 2000's belief in the inherent worth of intercultural dialogue to Creative Europe's emphasis on culture as a means to economic and social regeneration, was a reflection of British influence.  So at least we managed to mess Europe up before leaving it....

I retain a few little strands of hope as to what may happen in the negotiating process.  If, as seems virtually certain, Theresa May is re-elected with an enhanced majority, she will take that same transactional, indeed confrontational approach to the negotiation.  Her recent run-in with Jean-Claude Juncker shows just how alien this is to the European approach to policy: on the continent there is far less adversarial politics, far more consensus and coalition building.  The thought that the Brexit talks might be about "the best deal we can get" is itself anathema to the Commission.  The British government cares not a jot for culture or education - the most recent instructions from the DCMS to the Arts Council suggest that the latter should be transformed into a business development agency, a bit like UKTI.  But culture and education do still matter to the European Union, and they value the contributions that British educators, researchers and (yes) artists can make to their projects. It may just be that the EU manages to salvage our involvement in the programmes as a trade-off for some concession on tariffs or the like.  I'm inclined to direct the lobbying efforts towards Brussels rather than Westminster.

Turbulent times produce good art, though - and, fully aware of the irony, I can report that this Laboratory was the best we have done.  At our Evaluation session, and since, participants spoke about the freedom they had found in our approach, the way the workshop had enabled them to follow their creativity and emotional paths, to overcome fear, to re-frame their own roles as artists or educators.  One young man from Romania, who may or may not have known that he was arguing the case for Europe, said:  "It made me feel how travelling and communicating can help you grow...  If you put people together, it's better for everyone".

Simple really, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pocahontas 400

The real Pocahontas 
It's rare for me to blog twice in one day - but we can't let March 21st 2017 pass without commemorating Pocahontas.  It's 400 years ago today that she died, at Gravesend, where she was subsequently buried.  The grave itself was lost when the church burned down in the 18th century - but there's a statue in the churchyard, and today there's a service being held.

After all, the adult Pocahontas was a Christian.  She and John Rolfe had the first recorded intercultural marriage in North America, and she had to convert in order for that to happen, particularly as Rolfe was one of "the godly", or Puritans.  Whether, like other indigenous people, she thought of Christ as another deity to add to an existing pantheon, we do not know.  In fact, we know very little of what she thought at all.  The thoughts of indigenous people and women from the 17th century are rarely recorded, and Pocahontas happened to be both.

What we do know is that she had great symbolic value as a cultural ambassador.  Received by James I and Anne of Denmark as visiting royalty, she represented a PR coup for the Virginia Company and its tobacco trade.  Her manners and her religion served to demonstrate that the English Empire could "civilise" the "savage".  Or so it suited them to say.  It may well have been as a result of this convenient narrative and celebrity status that Captain John Smith decided to invent the famous story of the child Pocahontas saving his life - it certainly seems unlikely to have happened in quite the way he described it, and we know she was decidedly cold towards him when they met on her visit to London.  Although Pocahontas died here, her Powhatan companions made the journey home, and seem to have been among the leaders of the Powhatan rising against the colonists in 1622.  The visit may have been a PR success with the British public, but it wasn't one with the indigenous people.

On Saturday, we showed our film HIDDEN HISTORIES at the British Library, as part of their Pocahontas celebrations - and in June's ORIGINS Festival there will be a number of events to mark the anniversary.  We'll be holding a special evening at Syon House, where she stayed for a time, and screening the great, if slightly fictionalised, film about her life, Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD - a film characterised by the spiritual energy of indigenous cultures.  Perhaps that is where we should be looking for her real legacy.


The Roman Tragedies - The Illusion of Participation

The Roman Tragedies
This photo is unusual for a theatre blog - I took it myself.  In Ivo van Hove's production of The Roman Tragedies, many of the rules about theatre and spectatorship seem to be thrown out of the window.  You can take photos.  You can tweet about the show as it unfolds through its six-hour span, and the tweets are flashed across the stage during set changes.  You can move between seats, and onto the stage, where you sit in close proximity to the actors.  You watch the performance both live (at various distances) and on live filmed relays, both on the large screen above the stage and on the many TV monitors around the space (including, if you like, in the foyers).  Given that the Shakespeare text is spoken in a contemporary, prosaic Dutch, an eye on the screen is essential as that's also where the subtitles are.  In one of the most thrilling scenes, Hans Kesting  as Mark Antony delivered his eulogy to Caesar very close to me, and once or twice locked eyes with me (the spectator as crowd member) - but I also had to keep looking away from him to the broadcast version, so as to check what he was actually saying (the spectator as receiver of the mediated).  You can buy food and drink on stage, and eat it during the show.  You can check out the make-up area, where the performers are prepared to go on camera.  There's an info desk about the company's work, from where the set changes are announced, complete with musak.

The Roman Tragedies - the onstage make-up area.
It could all be incredibly gimmicky, I suppose - and it is certainly fun - but it seems to me that this is much more than an experiment with audience participation.  And that the participation is not actually participatory at all.  I saw the production when it first came to the Barbican in 2009, and then I wrote that "there's an element of real democracy about the whole thing. It raises endless questions about theatre and politics - not least whether politics might be turning into nothing but performance."   Reading that blog today, it feels like a memory of a more innocent time, as well as recognising the production as prophetic.  In its current manifestation, the production opens with the Trump inauguration being broadcast on TV, while Volumnia and Virgilia discuss the absent Martius, their private conversation also being broadcast.  There seems to be no boundary between the public and the private.
The Roman Tragedies - spectators and TVs
On one level, this reflects our current "politics as show-biz" - the desire to feel intimate with public figures, to be aware of their private lives, to have them live out those lives as a public display (Antony and Cleopatra is particularly strong in this way).  On another level, it suggests the privatisation of public space - the way in which reckless magnates like Trump, Farage and (the most immediate example) George Osborne have come to treat politics as just another part of their self-aggrandising, self-enriching projects.  And this is crucial to the way the performance works - or, at least, it felt so in the charged atmosphere of 2017, far more so than it had in 2009.  Because the apparent agency this production gives to the audience is not agency at all: we remain as passive recipients of the play.  If, as I said in 2009, the production is "democratic" (and at heart I believe theatre to be a fundamentally democratic form), then it is through the exposure of what is so profoundly undemocratic in the current moment.  We have ceased to be participants, and become mere consumers.

Van Hove cuts all the scenes where Shakespeare has the common people speak.  The actors address the audience as "Friends, Romans, countrymen" - partly live but more tellingly through the medium of broadcast.  We feel as if we could be part of the story, as if our role contains the potential for action - but in fact we spectate.  The performance provides us with basic needs - we can work out when to take a loo break and the food is pretty good.  But we retain our role as spectators even as we are offered the illusion of participation.  For the last section of the performance, we are ordered back to our original seats, facing the conventional proscenium stage in a conventional hierarchical relationship - and of course, we unquestioningly obey.  Even the final ovation, leaping to our feet as one, is somehow disturbing in this most uneasy of performances.

In June 2016, the people of Britain responded to a marketing campaign based on lies, misinformation and the manipulation of prejudice, conveyed through broadcast and social media.  This led to the shocking referendum result, which has since been exploited as an expression of "the will of the people" to chilling effect - the Brexit process is being rushed through without consultation or democratic process.  Trump's antics are only an Americanised manifestation of the same basic thing.  Last week I was grateful to the Dutch for an election that stemmed the tide of populism, and for a piece of theatre that clarified just what is going on.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

NATIVe at the Berlinale

Angry Inuk
Thanks to a grant from the lovely Film London, I've been at the Berlinale.  This huge, and very impressive film festival includes a strand called NATIVe, which showcases indigenous film every year.  With ORIGINS only a few months away (block out June 13-25 in your diary now!), the opportunity to see so many indigenous films in a few days, and to meet the people who made them, was too good to miss.

This year, the NATIVe programme focussed on the Arctic - which was another bonus for me.  In previous festivals, we've included lots of Australian, American and New Zealand films, plus a new strand of Latin American work in 2015 - but rather fewer from the cold North.  We did screen the Inuit films Uvanga in 2015 and Before Tomorrow in 2011, as well as the Sámi film Biekka Fabmu in 2013: but I've always wanted to apply a more sustained focus to the region, particularly in the light of climate change.  Canada's 150th birthday this year looks like providing us with the ideal opportunity to do this - even if the films themselves are subversive of that celebration.
Maligutit 
The "star" of the Berlinale's Arctic programme was undoubtedly Zacharias Kunuk's Maligutit (Searchers), which was packed to bursting on Saturday night in the biggest cinema I have ever seen.  The screen was so enormous that you had to sit many rows back just to take the whole thing in.  Provided the seat was suitable, this was a terrific way to watch the film, as the vastness of the Arctic location was central to the piece.  Kunuk is famous as the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner - an Inuit epic which has been voted the best Canadian film of all time.  Maligutit is similarly set amongst the Inuit, in their own landscape, with no sign of other cultures, apart from (this being the 19th century) the presence of kettles and a gun.  It's not a post-colonial film as such: the conflicts between Inuit groups that it portrays are not affected by the outside world.  But, in a way, that is in itself a post-colonial statement.  Kunuk is a filmmaker who reclaims the narrative and the viewpoint for his own people.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril
In Angry Inuk, documentary filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril also reclaims the narrative - and, in this case, the moral high ground.  Her film is an extraordinary, painstaking and powerful engagement from the Inuit perspective with the question of the seal hunt.  Alethea takes on Greenpeace, PETA, the Humane Society and the European Parliament.  Her argument is that seal-hunting is the means whereby her people acquire affordable food and (through the sale of sealskin products) make a living.  The seal is not an endangered species, and the numbers involved are small.  This is an entirely sustainable activity with a respectful approach to the animal, every part of which is used after the hunt.  The EU trade embargo may have had an exception for Inuit "subsistence" hunting, but that actually makes things less sustainable, as they cannot sell the fur.  The cultural effects are huge: not being able to live according to culture is one reason for the grotesquely high rate of suicide amongst young Inuit.  What is needed now is a direct engagement for the film and its maker with the anti-hunt lobbyists, so that a proper debate can be had.  And that is what we will try to achieve in our Festival.
Johogoi Aiyy
Both of these were films I already knew about and had been anxious to see.  Johogoi Aiyy (God Johogoi), on the other hand, was a complete discovery.  This astonishing film, from the Russian Republic of Yakutia, known to its indigenous inhabitants as Sakha, is set at the summer festival of Ysyakh.  A young horse herder called Johogoi goes there in the belief that he will meet the beautiful woman who appears in his dreams.  It sounds fanciful, of course - but what is incredible, and deeply indigenous, in this film is the way the spiritual narrative is totally embedded in the lived experience of the 21st century.  This even applies to the film's methodology: it was shot over two days at the real festival, with only two "actors" - everybody else in the film just happened to be at the festival, and interacted with the main character as if he were "real".  The result is one of the most moving cinematic experiences I have ever had.  If you're looking for one wild card at our festival in June: this will be it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2016

When Nobody Returns - Andrew French as Odysseus with Bayan Shbib as Calypso
Well - that was quite a year.  And I don't mean because lots of celebrities died.  Actually, I suspect that from now on, lots of celebrities will die every year - popular culture in its current form dates from the 60s and 70s, so, as the Americans say, do the math.  But perhaps that does make this a suitable moment to question the huge amounts of emotional energy that are now devoted to such people - famous for looks, quirky soundbites and private lives led all too publicly.  As George Monbiot argued recently, the Trump election is the logical outcome of this.  And it's making 2017 look daunting to say the least.

2016 was also, of course, the year of the referendum.  It was NOT the year of Brexit - the actual leaving of the EU - which may still be some way off...  Here's hoping.  Even so, it's already proving impossible to attract European partners to work with UK-based organisations on intercultural projects, either in the arts or in education.  This is going to make the future challenging for us at Border Crossings, where international collaboration is central to our mission, and where the structures of the EU have been hugely beneficial.  For the time being, we are continuing to run our intercultural theatre courses, which have to date had a European emphasis - but in future we'll be looking to engage more participants from the UK and the wider world.  This summer's course actually started on June 24th - the very day the referendum result was announced.  It felt difficult, to say the least, to welcome our European guests to London.

One of the key strands of our work during the year has been to address the European question of the refugee crisis.  Lucy has been working very directly with a number of refugee groups throughout the year, particularly unaccompanied minors and women - while I've been speaking about the role of culture in addressing the crisis at events in Karlsrühe, Stockholm and Brussels, including a significant contribution to the EU's Voices of Culture report on the question.  People often accuse the EU of being undemocratic - but I've never encountered genuine consultation and dialogue like this at a national level.  So we also have to re-think how Border Crossings can continue to have an active political voice in the aftermath of Brexit - it's really crucial that we maintain this in some way, as the interplay between theatre and policy is surely key to what we are about.  Sabine Frank, the former Secretary-General of the Platform for Intercultural Europe, says as much in our 21st birthday publication, 21 FACES OF BORDER CROSSINGS.

While we were working with refugees and talking about the relationship between culture and refugees, we were also making theatre that explored the contemporary Middle East and the aftermath of war.  Brian Woolland's new play WHEN NOBODY RETURNS was a sequel to THIS FLESH IS MINE, and we presented them together as a season with our Palestinian co-producer ASHTAR and our old friends at CSSD.  The plays were accompanied by Palestinian food, a series of talks on related themes, a Middle Eastern poetry event, and a reading of a new play by Tariq Jordan.  The whole programme has a coherence, and, as the lady from the Arts Council said to me on the phone just before Christmas - "This is exactly the sort of work we need after the year we've just had".

2016 was also the year we made our first documentary film:  HIDDEN HISTORIES: DISCOVERING INDIGENOUS LONDON had several acclaimed screenings, particularly one at the Houses of Parliament.  We were, of course, thrilled when the narrator, Mark Rylance, was knighted in the New Year's Honours List!  And if all that wasn't enough - we also rebranded the organisation to mark its 21st birthday, with a lovely new design by Kind Studio and a beautiful new website from Future Design.  We also launched the 21 Club for our major donors - please do consider becoming a part of this: with the cuts to arts funding and the loss of European sources, we are going to be ever more reliant on our donors to support this crucial work.

At the end of the year, I usually write a bit about other cultural productions and events that have particularly excited me.  It's very striking that almost all the great theatre I've seen has been in some sense intercultural or from overseas: we SO need to keep our links with the world if we are going to be a dynamic and energised society...   2016 was the year of Peter Brook's Battlefield and Robert Lepage's renewed Needles and Opium, of Lola Arias' Minefield and Lies Pauwels' extraordinary The Hamilton Complex- all of them international productions in London.  It was also the year of the Young Vic's Yerma - adapted and directed by Australian Simon Stone - and the remarkable Thebes Land from our friends CASA at the Arcola - a play from Uruguay.  Even the finest homegrown work - Simon McBurney's The Encounter and Katie Mitchell's stunning version of Sarah Kane's Cleansed - were international in outlook and European in style and sensibility: these are two British directors who work across the continent.  And it shows.

I'm writing this on the day our Ambassador to the EU tendered his resignation.  There's a rocky ride ahead - but Happy New Year, everybody.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Speaking in Stockholm


Stockholm is a very beautiful city: even in December, when it's dark almost all the time.  I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference there by Chris Torch of Intercult.  Once again, Rosanna Lewis and I were presenting the Voices of Culture report on the role of the arts in the refugee crisis.  It's starting to feel a bit like a Farewell Tour of European Capitals in the run-up to Brexit...

Anyway - here's a brief extract from what I had to say - which I suppose is also a bit of a Christmas 2016 message.

"It’s December.  I am so happy that this appalling, terrifying year is coming to an end - let’s just have a new one, shall we?  Not that 2017 is exactly looking full of promise……   January will see the unthinkable happen, when a President endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan enters the White House.  In March, Article 50 will, it seems, be triggered - with the agenda of what Teresa May has called “a red, white and blue Brexit”  - whatever that’s supposed to mean….     And everyone who might physically have some tiny chance of getting out of Aleppo will carry on trying to get out of the bloodbath that is Aleppo.  The flow of refugees is not going to be stemmed.

And what is the West doing?  It’s putting up walls.  Some of these walls are absolutely literal - the UK government built a huge wall in Calais as yet another barrier to the movement of refugees.  Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall right along the US-Mexico border and get the Mexicans to pay for it…  (hello..)…  And some of them are more metaphorical - like the deal the EU did with the Turkish autocrat to prevent Syrian refugees crossing into Europe.  Or the Swedish government’s sudden decision last January to impose border controls on the bridge from Denmark. This continent defined itself, declared itself in a moment of hope in Berlin in 1989, when a wall came down.  And today - we see the exact opposite.  It’s a very strange time to be running a theatre company called Border Crossings - just as it’s probably a very strange time to be running an organisation in Sweden called Intercult - and it’s a very strange time to be working with communities of refugees.

And yet it is in these refugees themselves that our most precious resource is to be found - and that is something called Hope.  Hope, which in turn leads to creativity and transformation.   Hope is that treasured vision in the deepest part of the human soul that people locate and draw off in the darkest of times, in the most pitiful of conditions.  Hope is what enables a human being to commit their body to a massively overcrowded, makeshift craft adrift on an open sea - that will take them to an alien land where they know they will not be made welcome.  And hope - for us - for artists and cultural workers - hope is the choice we make deliberately to follow the most difficult path in our own lives because of something that we believe in.  Justice."

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Weesageechak Begins to Dance

RELaps by Aria Evans
I've been in Toronto this week - thanks to the British Council here - for Native Earth's annual new writing festival, called after the Cree Trickster Weesageechak.  Being a trickster festival, "new writing" turns out not only to mean rehearsed readings, but new dance pieces presented as work in progress, and even extracts from a musical and an opera.

This is the 29th edition of the annual festival - from a company that will be 35 years old next year.  It dates back to the landmark moment in indigenous theatre, when Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters exploded onto the stage and offered a contemporary voice for First Nations cultures in North America.  Since Tomson, there have been a number of Artistic Directors - when we brought the company to the first Origins Festival back in 2009, it was led by the wonderful Yvette Nolan.  Today, the AD is a dynamic young Plains Cree man from Edmonton, Ryan Cunningham.  I first met him in Brisbane back in March, and we've had a lot to talk about....  Ryan has curated a festival that deliberately ranges very wide - not only in the forms showcased but also in the content.  For one thing, he's managed to bring over some Indigenous Australian artists from Mooghalin: Billy McPherson's play Cuz was read by First Nations actors from Canada, suggesting all sorts of parallels - and differences.  But more striking for me was the number of pieces - often the most striking pieces in dramatic or theatrical terms - that were made by First Nations artists but which resisted easy categorisation as 'First Nations work'.

The work of First Nations artists is often reduced to mere representation - as if they existed merely to report on the state of their peoples to an otherwise unknowing world.  Of course, that is never their own agenda: although there is inevitably a certain preoccupation with important questions about the meaning of indigenous cultures and identities in a world that largely shuns their traditional values and continues to marginalise their communities.  At its most sophisticated, for example in Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife (the Native Earth piece at Origins 2009), theatre becomes a space to deconstruct the process whereby identities have been written onto native peoples, and a process to articulate an historically informed response through the live body in the current moment.

In this year's Weesageechak, there was certainly an element of this - but I found myself most drawn to pieces in which the First Nations identity of the artists was (at least apparently) coincidental.  The young choreographer Aria Evans presented two pieces - a solo called link and a two-person piece called RElaps.  The latter was particularly strong - looking at emotional violence in intimate relationships.  Even more surprisingly, perhaps, the last night of the festival was a reading of a new script by a very well-known Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser - whose Métis identity has not hitherto been exactly proclaimed.  Brad's play, called Ménage à Trois, deals with the unraveling lives of three friends over a period of several decades - there's a particular emphasis on shifting gender and sexual identities from the 70s to the present, and on parent-child relationships.  The dramaturgy is deliberately fragmented, so that a scene from 2016 can be juxtaposed with one from the 70s.  The three main characters are each played at various points by three actors of different ages - a scheme made all the more complex by the fact that one character changes gender..... 

It's not remotely confusing, though.  In fact, it feels very like the mental and emotional processes through which human beings tend to think about their personal stories.  A moment from the distant past suddenly acquires new meaning in relation to the current moment.  It's like Eliot's Four Quartets in its sense of all time being eternally present.  Or even J.B. Priestley - when I talked to Brad after the reading, he acknowledged the influence of An Inspector Calls and  Time and the Conways.  If it's possible to imagine J.B Priestley crossed with Angels in America - that's sort of what this play is...   Except that I think it's an indigenous play as well.

At no point is any character mentioned to be First Nations.  Very possibly none of them are - although in last night's reading, every actor was a First Nations person, and that was very resonant.  For one thing, the gender change is something that would not surprise more traditional Cree people - as Tomson Highway has pointed out, the Cree language has no genders, and fluid gender identities characterise Cree Trickster figures like Nanabush.  At one point in the play a female character, Kit, is given the latest thing as a gift in the 70s - a digital watch.  She comments that this is a new way to look at time - that it doesn't go in circles any more, but in a number line.  The play seems deliberately to resist this, following the circular, indigenous, natural sense of time as a circular movement - time as something repeated and re-visited constantly, rather than time as a constant journey forward towards some "goal" or other.  At the end of the play, a child conceived in the 70s is reflected in one born in the present - and there is a sense that one is the spiritual sister of the other.  That attitude to time, history and spiritual connection - nestling within a play that seems on the surface to be very urban, postmodern and ironic - is surely about bringing indigenous ideas and spirituality into the contemporary space where First Nations people live today.