Monday, November 27, 2006

Blair's Statement

There's an article in yesterday's Observer which reports a statement Tony Blair is going to make this week..... Under this government, all reporting seems to be of things that people are going to say. Maybe so that, if the response is negative, they can pull out and claim that they never actually said it. Sometimes I wonder whether they ever do say it, or whether it's just the reporting that matters. Anyway - this statement, billed as "historic", is on the subject of the slave trade. While it isn't an apology as such, it comes very much into the realm of apology culture.

What the Prime Minister will (at some point) say is this: "Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and" (wait for it) "to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today."

Isn't this just apology culture at its worst? At its most glib, its most smug, its most self-satisfied? When Blair actually has done something stupid or wrong (like invading Iraq), he tends to say "I accept full responsibility", and then do nothing at all, when resignation would seem the obvious next step. In this case, he can't really be blamed for something that happened in history - and that makes the apology even more pointless. It simply has the effect of letting the present off the hook at the expense of the past. And the reality is that the present is well and truly on this particular hook. According to Anti-Slavery International there are more slaves in the world today than there have ever been before. About 27 million. And those are just the old-fashioned kind: the ones who are paid for. Never mind the children forced into being child soldiers; the victims of sex trafficking; the bonded labourers whose work keeps our food prices artificially low; the workers in sweat-shops who earn less than a dollar a day. "Different and better times"? I don't think so. Just times in which it's less easy for the West to see the appalling inequalities which it permits, encourages and perpetuates.

If the bi-centenary (of which our next project is very much a part) is to have any meaning at all, then it has to be about re-visiting the reality of modern slavery, and the legacy of the triangular trade period, in the contemporary world. It is true that the legal battle was won 200 years ago - so it is all the more terrifying that a practice on which a global moral consensus has been reached should remain so prevalent and should underpin so much of our global economy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thinking about Slavery

I've been thinking around the slavery issue, mainly because of the Dilemma project, but also because of some work I'm doing at Rose Bruford on political theatre. Dzifa sends me a rather disconcerting email from Accra, saying that there are rumours of another production. I'm not too worried - we have the writer behind us, and it's her text!

Juwon invites me to a show at the Lyric Studio, called Moj of the Antarctic. It's a solo piece, performed by a black woman called Mojisola Adebayo. Incredibly relevant to everything we're doing at the moment: the main story is about slavery, and also looks at gender! In a very playful way, Moj looks at the story of a slave in the Southern US, called Ellen Craft, who escaped in 1848 by disguising herself as a white man..... Talk to her afterwards, and plan a longer chat!

As the project grows, I'm looking at the different activities we can initiate around the theme of Theatre and Slavery. Talk to some of my favourite dramaturgical contacts around the globe. Rustom Bharucha emails from (interestingly enough) Brazil, with his usual incisiveness: "One has to be careful about essentializing slavery as the dominant reality of African peoples living in different parts of the world. Also, slavery coexists with different forms of servitude, particularly in the Indian context, which doesn't mean that slavery doesn't exist. Indeed, it does, in increasingly virulent, if invisible ways." Spot on.

I've been reading Robert J.C. Young's brilliant book: Postcolonialism - A Very Short Introduction. This book manages to deal with all the issues around the marginalisation of most of the world (of which modern slavery / global capitalism is, of course, a key part), without plunging into the dreaded "theory" with its willfully obscure language and apparent lack of relevance to anything but itself. Indeed, this book is startling in how directly relevant it makes its theme to the specifics of particular situations in the present moment. For one thing, it has the best discussion of the veil I've read anywhere, written long before Jack Straw started the current fever.

But the section that struck me most, I suppose in relation to the slavery issue, was to do with the term "Third World". I had always thought this a rather derogatory term, putting "the rest of the world" after Europe and America in terms of when it was "discovered", or third-class in economic (and by implication, other) terms. But it seems not. Young explains that the term is in fact derived from the "Third Estate" of the French Revolution, and was coined at the 1955 Bandung Conference, as a label for newly independent countries in Africa and Asia who wished not to be aligned with the capitalist or communist worlds then emerging as the super-powers, but instead to give a "third world" perspective on political, economic and cultural priorities for the globe. A very different idea, and a very positive one. I much prefer this concept to "the developing world"!

Saturday, November 11, 2006


I'd never seen a Sarah Kane play until Tuesday, when I went to the Barbican to see Thomas Ostermeier's Berlin production of Blasted. It's felt like a serious sin of omission, given the amount of discourse about her work on the university circuit, and the haste with which all the critics who condemned her so roundly when these plays were first shown have been rushing to canonise her since her suicide..... At the same time, there's a real trepidation attached to seeing this work. The writer's death colours it - you can't think of the violence as dark humour, as you do when you see similar things in (for example) Calixto's work . This feels like her sincere vision of the world, and the depth of the depression demands attention. I remember when a drama school took on her last play, 4:48 Psychosis, with students a few years ago, there was a real problem, and several of the cast needed counseling. So I went prepared for pain.

I'm not sure pain was what I got, though. Yes, the play was bleak and violent, with only the tiniest hints of hope for humanity - but it was also so cold in its extremity (and this may have been the production rather than the writing) that I found myself being impressed rather than moved, provoked rather than nauseous. Even when Ian eats the baby's corpse, the production's efficiency made it like reportage rather than viscerally revolting. There was a truly extraordinary coup de theatre when the hotel room set was completely zerbombt - and I guess this does serve as a symbol of our 21st century terror that our world may be blown apart at any moment. But the destruction was so blazingly well handled by director and designer, with the stage revolving backwards and forwards and a wall of white light using contemporary technology to look at the fragility of the contemporary, that we secretly felt that everything was actually under control. The violence remained safe - as, in the theatre, it probably should. The performance worked through this classical director controlling the romantic tendencies of the writer.

I found myself provoked by a programme quotation from Kane, where she says that "the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peacetime civilization". In other words, the play's private first half, dealing with the violence inherent in an erotic relationship, is the seed for the tree of the second half, when the soldier arrives and total horror breaks out in the room and outside it. I can't agree. Surely it's the other way round? Surely it's because the social structures within which we exist are so un-natural that our private relationships can become so abusive, so like warfare? Isn't the irrational violence that our species, alone amongst animals, shows to its own kind, the result of the disjunction between the bio-sphere for which we evolved and the techno-sphere within which we now live?

Saturday, November 04, 2006


I spent yesterday afternoon with Alaknanda. She's on great form, having spent some time with Bollywood glitterati, and is full of stories about the new dolls which Mohammed Al-Fayed is launching in Harrods, based on Indian film stars. Apparently he flew them over, with entourage, and put them up at the Ritz with the aim of driving them through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage for the launch..... Meanwhile, UK-based Asian actors are all being auditioned for TV plays about Saddam Hussein, and are being penciled in "for if he gets executed". Judicial murder is big news, clearly. No point making a bio-pic about somebody who just gets life imprisonment.

Alak wants to do Heiner Muller's play Quartet. We've been toying with this for a while, but this time it gets very serious. I think she's really committed to the idea of our working together now she's seen Dis-Orientations. We talk around the piece, and what we could do with it. I don't honestly feel I can commit the company's time to it for a while - we have to get through the next two major projects. On the other hand, this is a two-hander.... Alak is rightly clear that there's no point doing it on the cheap, though - it's a show which needs an amazing design. Also, we need to make it an event - a two-hander by a German playwright perceived as "difficult" won't make any waves here unless we can do something remarkable. Perhaps site-specific. But I do want to do this - it feels so much of the present moment. The aristocrats carrying on with the game, even though they know the apocalypse is just around the corner. Muller said that the play was about terrorism... and that was long before 9/11. "Well, we'll do it 2009" says Alak. Maybe, yes.

The evening at Canning House for Stone Crabs' Origens/ Origins project: Kwong Loke has directed a rehearsed reading of Plinio Marcos' Razor in the Flesh. Very interesting, given my recent thoughts about Brazil. This play was part of the Theatre of Resistance movement in the late 60s: and feels like a precursor to Quentin Tarantino or Calixto, with a bit of Sartre thrown in to remind you it's a 60s piece. Sex, drugs, violence and aging - all between three characters trapped in a room. Sadly, it hits the cliches in its characterisations, and indeed in its portrayal of Brazil - but it's inspiring to know that there's a real tradition of hard-edged theatre there.

We've just set up a new workshop for December 16th. Check the Laboratory blog:

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Inquests and Embassies

They weren't really inquests: there hasn't been a death. We lost quite a bit of money - but nothing like we'd feared, and the board meeting last week was in many ways quite upbeat. We had a sense of being able to look forward, with some very exciting projects on the cards.

The same was true of my meeting with Nick Williams at the Arts Council yesterday. Nick is now emerging as our ongoing contact point in the organisation, which is a relief, after we've been moved from officer to officer in the last few years. He's well placed to work with us, since he knows our sector of theatre very well, and is happy to contribute ideas in the light of having seen Dis-Orientations. Unusually for an Arts Council meeting, I find myself talking in artistic terms more than management-speak. He asks about how Re-Orientations might develop, and what the creative ideas are. I'm surprised what comes out - I tell him that I'm thinking in terms of new paradigms emerging in the re-structuring of relationships between the Western, Indian and Chinese characters from the first two plays (and some new ones), so that we avoid giving the sense that every relationship has to be dysfunctional. So far it's all been about what's breaking down - but alongside this there are always new things building up. Not least the intercultural dialogue itself.

I made another trip to the Hampstead mansion to talk to Ke Yasha about future developments for Dis-Orientations. I'm wondering about a tour next year, or going into 2008 and making it part of the Trilogy. The latter probably makes more sense. As on the press night, Mr. Ke's very positive about the possibility of this work touring to China with "minor adjustments" (like not showing the gay sex, just implying it; and not saying that Jiang Ching became Mme. Mao - although the Chinese audience will of course know that anyway). He feels there's more chance to get the work seen in Shanghai, partly because of Ruihong and SYT; and partly because in Shanghai "the sky is high and the Emperor is far away", while in Beijing people are more wary of the nearby central government censors. Guangzhou and Hong Kong are also strong possibilities. He thinks we should send an "explanation" that the piece is about the changes in China, the increase in freedom and so on - so that people see we have good intentions even if we've not made quite the piece they might like.... Apparently Chinese audiences and bureaucrats like to be told what the artist meant: not always easy with work of this kind.

We talk about the play - as with Nick, it's nice to move beyond the bureaucratic in an admin-focused meeting. "My impression about the whole show is very positive", he says. He especially liked the value we placed on traditional Chinese culture. At the beginning of the Open Door, he tells me, everybody wanted Western values and a fast-paced existence. But now, slowly, that is beginning to be balanced by a return to the traditional culture, to the meditational, the contemplative, the peaceful. I remember on my trip to Shanghai seeing people standing in front of trees in the city parks, communing quietly with nature, or performing Tai Chi while the traffic whirled around them.

Starting to move ahead with The Dilemma of a Ghost too. I met Ivor Agyeman-Duah at the Ghana High Commission yesterday. There's a clear contrast with China: here there is very little bureaucracy, and very little money - though there is a real enthusiasm to promote Ghanaian artists. He promises to broker some meetings...... More meetings. I really need to get some administrative help with this company........ I spoke to Nick about it, and he was quite helpful on ideas for core funding, though there won't be any sign of even a tendering opportunity from ACE for at least a year, and then it's all likely to be reduced funds (as I predicted in this blog, the Olympics are already making a big dent). One positive development on the admin side is that the Consortium (The Theatre Consortium, as it is now known) has constituted itself, got a bank account, and is making funding applications for rent, admin and training. Hardial Rai of Zero Culture really seems to know the funding system very well.... a great guy to have as an ally!