Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Spaces

I spent yesterday morning at the new Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham. Actually, it's not even new yet - it opens in September, and is currently a building site. Gaylene Gould, the programmer, and I walk around in yellow anoraks, wellies and hard hats, imaging where the stage will be. It's a space full of potential - a cross between the larger space at Riverside and the Tricycle. About 300 seats. And there will be creative businesses on site, a rehearsal /workshop space and so on. All rather lovely.

Gaylene is keen to bring Dilemma here, and it's easy to see why. As I walk from the tube, I spot at least three shops advertising the facility to send money home to Ghana. We're right in the heart of London's Ghanaian community here, and that's the audience this centre has to reach if it's to make any sense at all as a focus for black arts. Not that this is an easy job. Gaylene seems very aware of the size of the task ahead - lots of her community contacts have involved people not really even knowing what a theatre is (they tend to think it's a cinema or a music venue). It could so easily go the way of so many of those Lottery-funded white elephants that now populate the country..... But somehow I suspect it won't. There seems to be a huge momentum behind this place, both from the management, the community and politically. It should be very exciting to be in there at the start.

In the evening I meet up with Elsie at the South Bank. It now looks as if our London run will be split between the Bernie Grant Centre and the new space here, known as the Front Room. Both managements seem happy about there: there's not likely to be any real overlap of audiences. The Front Room is a stage in the foyer - a rather odd idea as a theatre venue. I had been rather worried about this, but as we talk I start to see possibilities. After all, I've been saying all along that this production will need to feel as if it could happen in an African village clearing (indeed - all being well, it WILL happen there), so a space which has the same informality is actually rather appropriate. We find ourselves talking animatedly about ways of integrating the audience into the piece - as if they are surrounded by the ghosts of slavery (which, of course, they are).

Anti-Slavery International agree to collaborate on the production. This is all very good!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Athens and Africa

I'm in Athens for three days, getting things sorted out for the next incarnation of Nixon in China with the National Opera of Greece. Extraordinary hectic days, rushing around trying to work out how to schedule it all, and who will actually be here (!), at the same time as breathing in a sense of this city.... this city where theatre truly began. Or Western theatre, I should say. More time for that when I'm here for two months in March and April. The Acropolis and the Theatre of Dionysus - glimpsed today from flying taxis - I can hardly wait.

As usual with working abroad, the evenings are a bit of a limbo. Email, reading and blogging. Last night I went to see The Last King of Scotland (in English with surreal Greek subtitles). There's a moment when Idi Amin says the Greeks stole their philosophy from Africa, which of course brought the Athenian house down.... but he's kind of right, actually. Read Black Athena.

The film is fabulous. All the traps of Hollywod Goes to Africa have been subtly and wonderfully avoided (except perhaps for the presence of the Caucasian Angel - though this particular altruistic medic is played by Gillian Anderson, so seems human, and is offset by James McAvoy as the cynical, opportunistic, and frankly exploitative Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, through whose eyes we see Uganda - so I forgive them!). Forest Whitaker is stunning as Amin: I'm told he went all "method" and was like that even when the cameras weren't rolling, which must have been by turns hilarious and terrifying for everybody else. What's so brilliant about this performance and the film as a whole is that it only slowly emerges how monstrous this regime was. Through the first sections of the film we get Amin the clown, Amin the charmer, even hints of Amin the liberator. It's only gradually that this transforms into total horror - a horror that should make the West sit up and take notice, because the film is quite clear that Amin was the creature of the West: his coup engineered by Britain when the previous regime got "uppity". Just like Saddam Hussein in fact. As Peter Sellars says, if you want to know where the next dictatorship will be, just check out who the CIA and MI5 are being nice to.

I'm reminded of the very different approach to Amin in Third World Bunfight's pantomime of horror, Big Dada. There too, you saw how easily people were won over. I remember talking to Brett Bailey about the production, and his characteristic response, disturbing in its blank honesty: "Idi Amin was a funny man. I liked him."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


For the last few weeks, I've been back at Rose Bruford, directing Victory by Howard Barker with second year students. Although it's a different group of actors, the choice of play is a deliberate continuation of the work on non-naturalistic / political text which I did there before Christmas. Not that Barker is even remotely Brechtian, or at all PC. This is a play in which the "c" word is proclaimed nine times in less than two minutes in the very first scene. If ever there was a statement of iconoclastic intent.....

I've not directed Barker's work before, and I've always felt a bit dubious about it, although I've seen a lot of his plays (and boy is he prolific). Chris Corner's invited me to most of the Wrestling School shows over the last few years - I enjoyed The Seduction of Almighty God at Riverside in the autumn. And I have very fond memories of the Almeida's productions in the early years of the McDiarmid-Kent regime there: Scenes from an Execution and A Hard Heart. But my suspicion has tended to be that this is cold, intellectual work, with only a wilfully perverse and oblique connection to human behaviour, and little real political edge. How wrong I was! Working on Victory, I've come to feel this is incredibly powerful, funny and pertinent writing. It yields a lot of fruit in the rehearsal room. I'm left wondering whether the Wrestling School doesn't suffer a bit from Barker directing most of the productions himself: it seems to me that he directs the humour out of his own work.

Victory is set in the Restoration, with the returning Cavaliers taking revenge on the Puritans. Not that the piece is at all historical (the central character is Susan Bradshw, the widow of Richard Bradshaw, who was President of the Court that condemned Charles I - the historical Mary Bradshaw was married to John, and died before he did!). The razor wit and wild debauchery of Charles II is there, as is the deep seriousness of the Revolution - but it's really a play about modern times (it dates from 1983) dressed up in period frocks. The power of money is at the heart of it (great scene in the Bank of England) and alongside that sits the deep malaise of the present moment - the lack of any real dream, any real hope for the future.

Doing the play with young people, that theme emerges more painfully than ever. For all the success of their acting (and they've done this difficult piece incredibly well), there's very little understanding of, or interest in, this key theme. It's as if Thatcher's Children have taken over the younger generation: not only is there very little idealism, there isn't even much sense of its absence. The ending, when Bradshaw's daughter declares her intention to publish her father's visionary book, feels very moving in this student performance precisely because of its incongruity. This isn't the fault of this talented bunch of young people, of course - but of the world in which they are growing up: a world obsessed with the material success of the self, and with the utilitarian value of culture, education, everything. Because, in spite of everything, they DO have all the energy and vitality that youth has always had - it's social and educational conditioning which makes this so difficult to focus towards any sense of an impossible dream.

Monday, February 05, 2007

New Crowned Hope

Peter sends me the catalogue of his Vienna Festival to commemorate Mozart's 250th birthday: New Crowned Hope. It's staggering: a real tribute to what the intercultural future of the planet ought to be. Everything Peter dreamed of in his Adelaide Festival and was prevented from achieving is here, in this extraordinary gathering of creative people in a huge range of fields, paying tribute to Mozart and to the vision of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation which his final works, at once triumphant and meditational, embody. I love the presence of architecture alongside music, food alongside theatre, refugee work alongside dance. I must hold this model in my head as we start to work on the Origins Festival of First Nations Theatre which we're planning for 2008.

Meanwhile, other plans for 2008 lurch back and forth. I'm talking at length to people in China about possible presentations of Dis-Orientations and (I hope) the rest of the Trilogy there. There is still a degree of wariness about political content, which is entirely understandable - I keep mentioning Mr Ke's positive energy, and hope this filters through. The visit to Hong Kong will hopefully give me chance to do some reassuring in person - it's much easier than through email and translation.

2007 is also shaping up. Elsie Owusu is now going to do the set for Dilemma, which could be ideal since a) she's Ghanaian and b) she's an architect rather than a theatre designer. Given that this show will be going in to village spaces in Ghana (funds permitting) and probably a non-theatre space in London, we need to think about configuring space in a more radical way - redefining actor-audience relationships. Dzifa and Ama Ata both email today from Ghana to say how excited they are about this project. Mustn't let them down.