Wednesday, March 26, 2008

China controversies

The unrest in Tibet is making our work with China more controversial. With Spielberg pulling out of his Olympic role, the French talking boycotts, and nightly coverage of human rights violations, it's not really surprising that one actor has already voiced doubts about working in China for political reasons. And yet.... I tend to doubt the value of boycotts, particularly cultural boycotts. If artists simply shut up and abandon people because they disapprove of their government's policies in certain areas, then where is the hope for a way forward? Where is the possibility of dialogue?

I re-read the open letter which Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil sent to the people of Israel when they went there with L'Indiade in 1988. It states in great detail the very specific beliefs held by the company members on the Palestinian question, and on the way Israel had dealt with that question to date (and sadly it remains deeply relevant). Then it says: "We have hesitated about coming; we have talked, we have consulted a fair number of you, and we have decided not to add a facile refusal to so many criminal refusals. Nothing will persuade us to despair of the strength of words, to renounce our faith in humanity and also in art. We shall never renounce them."

Of course, this letter was published in five Israeli newspapers, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. I doubt whether such a letter would be published anywhere at all in China, even online. But that does not invalidate the truth and the inspirational quality of what it says. Or of what theatre can, with hope and passion, perhaps achieve.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Minghella's last movie

Last night, I was invited to the BFI for the premiere of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I'm not quite sure how the BBC put together its guest list - the talent on display ranged from Sanjeev Bhasker and Meera Syal via Jacqueline Wilson, Joan Bakewell, Alan Rickman and Andrew Marr to Tessa Jowell and Edwina Currey. I mean... Edwina Currey?? Still, somehow I was on the list, probably because of the involvement with African theatre and BBC Africa Beyond.

Mid-afternoon, glancing at the Guardian website, I realised that this was going to be a rather unusual film premiere. The director, Anthony Minghella, had died that morning at the age of 54.

I met him a couple of years ago when he came to see Nixon in China at the Coliseum. He was very much in evidence around ENO at that time, directing a version of Madame Butterfly, which was not his best work. He was incredibly generous about Nixon, though - and managed, while clearly being aware of his superstar status, to avoid any hint of arrogance or condescension. In fact, he seemed rather humble to me. This impression of him as a man, formed on the basis of one brief interval chat, chimed in with what lots of people were saying about him last night - Richard Curtis and Mark Thompson made speeches before the screening, as did Anthony's brother Dominic and his producer. Knowing the work, it doesn't surprise me very much - and I would emphasise that I mean all the work, including the stage plays which will probably get ignored in the obituary hype, but which I think are most expressive of his artistry. Made in Bangkok, one of the biggest commercial flops of all time, is a brilliant play - and I'm happy to acknowledge its influence on aspects of the Orientations Trilogy. It's very acid, very brutal - and at the same time very humane and compassionate. What theatre ought to be.

The same qualities are there in this last film. I read the novel last year - basically a series of comic anecdotes around some engaging characters. But Minghella makes use of the Botswana setting to flesh the whole thing out, and to place the characters in a spectacularly photographed landscape, which makes real sense of them. He draws off his dramaturgical talent to make links between storylines where the book had none, and so crafts the film into what feels like a multi-stranded narrative. And it's great to see an artist go out with a piece of work that is so deeply life-affirming. So warmly comic, so gleeful.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Attempts on her Life

Attempts performed a week ago, for a mere four shows, but I'm only now able to think and write about it, not least because ever since I've been laid up with a very dicky stomach - which I don't think was a case of post-show depression.... I mean, it wasn't as if I didn't have stuff to do!
I feel very proud of what a group of students were able to achieve, and very empowered by what I've experienced with them. One of the joys of working in a drama school is that the "permission to fail" which we all go on about in theatre, but which in reality doesn't really exist, is actually present. Because the institutional priorities are educational rather than artistic or commercial, you don't have to make something that's a sure-fire hit. You can take risks. And so, for me, directing in drama schools allows for a space of experiment, where I can try things I wouldn't dare try professionally.
And what I learn, of course, is that I should do them professionally. In this case, the key has been the complete open-ness of the process - of allowing everybody in a very diverse group a real voice, and encouraging those voices to be different from one another. It's also been really interesting in terms of the way text can be part of what is actually a devising process. We touched this a bit with Dis-Orientations, but I feel I can find ways of going much further with it when we re-visit that play and make its sequel. Attempts on Her Life is an authored play, of course, but one completely open to many, many interpretations. Maybe I could ask a writer or two to "seed" a devising process with some massively open scenes like this.... maybe this would be a way towards giving our devised work some of the textual wealth and dramaturgical discipline of our scripted pieces. I often feel that the devised work is the core of the company in terms of its cultural and political-artistic agenda, but that the scripted work is often more critically successful, and that this is why.
On the other hand, maybe only Martin Crimp knows how to write these sort of scenes.....

Monday, March 03, 2008

Learning from Students

Attempts on her Life opens this week, and I'm making use of the lull before we start to plot lighting to catch up a bit on the blog. It's been an extraordinary process, and immensely valuable for me in developing my devised work. Because Martin Crimp's script is so open, so ambiguous, so freeing for the performers and the director, the process has been very similar to that of devising. Except that the language is rich and disciplined, in ways which text derived from improvisation tends not to be. It's set me thinking about ways of integrating pre-exisiting text into the devising process, or of using a writer in a devising process, without that person acquiring the dreaded authorial authority.

The students have also taught me a huge amount about what it means to be alive right now. It's great to do a play about the present moment with young people - they've grown up with the internet, with media dominance, with the war on terror. The other day we talked about 9/11 - it turned out that one of them celebrated his 15th birthday that day. So what to me seems strange and new, is to them familiar and ordinary.

Seeing the world through such eyes, I went to Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hedda Gabler at the Barbican last week. Fantastic to see an Ibsen production which wasn't bogged down in period detail and Norwegian depression. Ostermeier drags the story into a cold and sharp contemporary reality, with the result that the play becomes extremely funny, like one of Calixto's blood and sperm productions. The reviews have been complaining that it isn't "moving". I'd have thought that was exactly the point.