Monday, April 30, 2007

The First Cut

Talk about coming down with a bump. I got back to England, fired up from my travels, the excitement of Nixon, of all I learnt in Greece, of the seeds planted in Hong Kong - and there was a letter from the Arts Council saying that they'd turned down our application to fund the development workshop for Re-Orientations. I make the dutiful phone call to check why - and get the response I pretty much expected. There's nothing wrong with the project or the application (though if other people were putting money in, they would be more likely to!!) - it's just that they have far less money to go round.

So - the cut has already bitten. In some ways, I'm not very surprised that it should hit us here; and I remain hopeful that they will fund Dilemma later in the year. But the development workshop would have been a closed, private period of experiment and exploration. No visible "outcomes", no boxes they can easily tick. Not many "art experiences" to put on record. Given that the Arts Council is under attack from both government and artists at the moment, it needs to APPEAR to be as active as it can, which means that work of this kind, which is not immediately visible, and has long-term rather than immediate results, will be the first to feel the pinch. Sadly, this also means that the development of really exciting, cutting-edge work, which needs this sort of time and space, will be cut short. And we'll end up with yet more of that blanding out which characterises our times.

The Arts Council has very kindly linked its website to this blog, and clearly likes to encourage the sort of discussions which are going on here - as much as anything because I'm certainly saying they should not have taken the cut they did. However, the internal decisions they are making are as disastrous as the ones imposed by the DCMS. If Grants for the Arts is so important to them, why do they fund it solely from the Lottery, which is subject to fluctuation, and was (remember this?) only ever intended to be a "top-up"? Why not spread the Lottery money AND the core funding through the Council, so that all sectors of the Arts economy are hit by Lottery fluctuations equally? OR - why not just redistribute a few funds internally, like cutting one huge gas-guzzling company, which could offset the entire cut to the small to middle-scale sector? Well - we know why, of course. Because a ritual sacrifice like that would cause such a big outcry - and they don't have the courage to take that on. So, instead, the entire experimental side of the arts world is subjected to the death of a thousand cuts. It will not do. Without experiment and vision, there is no inheritance.

And we need to find another way to make Re-Orientations happen. Which we will.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Interview with Aphrodite

The Greek National Opera’s Publicist is called Aphrodite – isn’t that fabulous? In the last hours before I leave Athens, she sits me down in front of a video camera and subjects me to the sort of interview I’ve been doing with lots of other people over the last few years (book pending – watch this space). The interview is a substitute for the pre-show talk Stefanos Lazaridis wanted me to do, but which somehow never materialised. With this version, he says, we’ll have something in the bag when he brings out a book on the company.

As we talk, I realise just how very fulfilling this experience has been. Although the opera is a piece I know incredibly well, it yields new fruit each time, and the particular context always gives it added resonance and meaning. By linking another exploration of this piece to the discovery of this country I’d never visited before, I’ve been able to articulate so many of my hunches about what we’re trying to do with this thing called theatre: its relationship to the political space, to democracy, to feminism, to spirituality, to healing. At one point, I find myself in the surreal situation of quoting Tomson Highway’s comment that the 21st century may turn out to be the age of the returning goddess, and realise that I am talking to Aphrodite!

The first show was on Friday. It was committed, urgent and a bit tense. The audience, I thought, felt unsure – especially after the Cultural Revolution scene. They seemed to be asking whether this was really opera. The second show (I’m glad I stayed for it), was more secure, and the audience was very different. Younger, a bit less “distinguished”, and far more receptive. Around me I could feel the reality of communication. Something stirring in this home of theatre. And so, today, I can go home with a sense that it was worthwhile coming here for two months.

And what a two months. Here are a few sample stories against myself……

The lead dancer, Emilia, tells me that before I did my first session with the dancers, they were warned by the Chorus that “He will talk for hours”…..

Outside the theatre one day, one of the male dancers came running up to me. “I love the way you are so passionate about your work”, he said. “A lot of people make fun of it, but I think it is great”.

On the first night, the same young man took one look at my Chinese silk shirt from Hong Kong and remarked "If you go to the reception wearing that, the Grecian men will mock you".

Adrian Thompson gave me a very nice bottle of wine as a “Thank you”. I was stupid enough to put it in my hand luggage, and somehow forgot about it at the check in. Moron. At the scanner, they ceremoniously put it in the bin. Another little sacrifice to the lunacy of the “war on terror”.

Monday, April 16, 2007


One of the funny things about opera is that, as the performance approaches, you rehearse less, rather than more. It's because of resting voices, and orchestral timetables. So we had a rehearsal on Saturday night, and now we don't get one till Tuesday night. Adrian Thompson was away on Saturday - so I played Chairman Mao. I don't think it's gone to my head.

I took advantage of the break to get on the bus to the Peloponnese for a couple of days. I based myself in Nafplio, and took trips to Ancient Mycenae (you can see the very postern gate through which Orestes escaped, with the Furies in fast pursuit...) and to Epidauros. I'd been very aware of this incredible theatre for a long time - it's required study for anybody interested in theatre space. Peter Hall and Denis Lasdun maintain that the Olivier is based on this space - but the two are so different in spirit it isn't true. The Olivier is basically a very big end stage with a curve to its front and to the auditorium. Epidauros is a vast auditorium, enveloping a circular orkestra by 270 degrees. The skene gets even less of a look-in than at the Theatre of Dionysus: it's so obvious that the open space of the orkestra was the key to Greek performances. The scale is everything people say, and the acoustic is truly incredible. Sitting at the back, which feels about a mile from the stage, I could hear people dropping coins onto the orkestra floor.

But what I had not realised before was the social context in which this theatre was built. It is part of the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the son of Apollo and a god associated with medicine. In other words, this vast theatre, seating some 14,000, is a space of healing. The sanctuary, known as the "cradle of medicine", was a place where people came to be cured, through medicine, and also through mystic processes associated with dreaming. They would sleep in the sanctuary, where they would dream of the god and find their cure.

What more perfect ideal is there for what theatre ought to be? A dreaming space and a healing space. Right at the end of Nixon in China, Zhou En-lai begs "Come, heal this wound". On one level, this is a personal thing, to do with his cancer. But it is also about the profound wounds suffered by China in the 20th century, and the wounds which the world continues to suffer today. As the opera ends, he hears the birds sing, and a new dawn coming, and decides to carry on with his work. So we send the audience out with a sense of the darkest things in our world; but also with a hope of healing, and the balm of music.

At least, I hope so.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Theatre of Dionysus

After several weeks in Athens, I finally get to make the great pilgrimage which every theatre-maker who comes here has to make. I climb the hill of the Acropolis, I walk through ancient Agora, and, carved into the southern slopes, I experience the space where this strange and obsessive art took birth: the Theatre of Dionysus.

Approaching the space from the southern entrance of the Acropolis site, you stumble on it almost unawares, entering through the stage right parados, like an ancient character coming from the city. Like so much else, this convention makes sense when you see the space in its reality. Stage right was the city because that was where the city was: stage left was the sea because, as you look over the theatre and the landscape, you can glimpse the shoreline in the stage left distance. This tells us something essential about this foundation of theatres: that it was absolutely engaged in the reality of its context. For all its mythological and apparently esoteric subject matter, the theatre of the Greeks was about the present moment, asserting and claiming its space at the heart of this mother of democracies. And that’s why it has to be an open space: because it is visibly in the heart of the city, and it is about open-ness in the public discourse. That’s why the dodgy events in Greek drama – the murders, the suicides, the self-mutilations – all happen offstage, in the closed private space of the skene, while in the open space of the orkestra, the chorus, and the audience they represent, debate these events and attempt to find a moral sense in them.

Everything about this form and its huge potential as a force for democracy makes sense in this space. Greek theatre was a compulsory attendance for the citizens of Athens, in preparation for legislation and jury service; and the auditorium is vast. But an auditorium, a listening place, is what it is. The acoustic is amazing – indeed, the space actually resembles nothing so much as a vast ear carved out of the hillside.