Thursday, August 21, 2008


I´m in Göteborg, and have been since Sunday night. This (at last) is the first hint of the Trilogy project coming together artistically, as I lead a workshop with our Swedish partner company, Teater Eksem. They are a young group, formed from drama school by several actors and a very dynamic producer, Filip Aiello. I found them through colleagues of colleagues when I was putting together the European proposal, and have got to know Filip quite well since (he and his partner Malin even came to Sidcup to see Attempts on her Life in the early part of the year) - but this is the first time I´ve encountered Malin and her colleagues as performers.

It was a calculated risk, I suppose. We needed European partners to secure the grant, and I was intrigued by the idea of introducing a Scandinavian element into this dialogue between Europe and Asia. Luckily, they turn out to be very talented, very open, and full of creative ideas. I feel a bit bad that only two of them will be chosen to work on the show.

The workshop has been far more than an audition process, though of course it fulfils that function. It´s also been the first chance to look at the material through Swedish eyes, and see what they may be able to add to the cocktail. We work on Strindberg (if ever there was a dramatist who had things to say about gender, it´s Strindberg), and on contemporary Swedish attitudes to Asia, to gender, to sexuality. We touch on the notorious porn industry. And, most fruitfully of all, we look at Swedish folklore. Until this week, I had never heard of the Näck. This mythic figure, much painted during the Romantic period, is an androgynous young man who plays the violin while sitting naked in water, and lures women to their doom. Given the Trilogy´s use of music, androgyny, Romanticism and drowning, this is a pretty resonant image for me! We work around the idea of Näck, and it begins to suggest many interactions with other areas of the work. Näck is pronounced "neck", and means "naked". He is a Water Sprite, a Trickster, and the ideal androgyne.

At the flat they've found for me, I spot on the bookshelves a study by Robert Lyons of a production of the Dream by the Götenborg director Eva Bergman. Having recently done the play (it finally closes tonight!), I´m curious to read what she did with it, and discover that she made use of a musician, whose image appears on the cover, based on Näck. Lyons discusses the folklore at some length, and the paintings of Näck by Ernst Josephson in the 1880s. He hints that there´s a further story here, when he says that Josephson "imbued the motive with an extraordinary vitality by channeling his own personal sufferings and conflicts through the figure".

As is this wasn´t synchronicity enough, I was sitting with Filip and Mia (one of the performers), waiting for a meeting, when who should walk into the coffee bar but Robert Lyons, who heads the drama department at the univesity here? So now we have a link to a researcher who has studied this figure in some depth, and is fascinated by the use we'll be making of him.

The meeting was with Birgitta Winnberg-Rydh, who is Artistic Director of the Göteborg Festival, and seems very excited by the idea of bringing the Trilogy here in 2010. It´s necessarily a brief chat, since this is Festival week, but the foundation is laid. It's a good week to be in Göteborg. I've seen Tim Etchells´piece with Belgian children (called That Night Follows Day), and heard him discuss his work at some length in the Open Lab curated by Ong Keng Sen (this being Sweden, the Open Lab can be held in English and nobody has any problem). I´ve also seen Akram Khan´s work with the National Ballet of China, bahok. Like our own work, this is concerned with the nomad, the migrant, with global diasporas and zones of transition. I loved his use of an airport departures board.

Tonight, I shall be staring at one myself, as I head back to London.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Holiday reading

I spent a week in Wales with the family, getting well and truly rained on. Luckily, the house we were in was beautiful, and I had Volume 3 of John Richardson's incredible Picasso biography to keep me happy. I love the way this writer combines the narrative of Picasso's life with his own critical insights, and somehow avoids the trap which so many artistic biographies fall into - namely, implying that every aspect of the subject's work can be related to their life in a specific and direct way. Psychoanalytical theory run mad. When Richardson does relate the paintings to biographical specifics, it's with a sense of the way in which the art transforms those specifics, making them resonant way beyond the moment of and impulse to creation. So his knowledge of the background to the paintings informs the viewer, without diminishing our response to the work.

It also serves very nicely to blow away the romantic myth of the solitary genius which surrounds so many visual artists. We theatre-makers are often perceived as rather second-rate in the creative stakes because we collaborate (in fact I once knew a painter who actually defined art as "something you do on your own"). Picasso was himself a theatre-maker, of course - but what this book demonstrates over and above that is the way in which the artistic milieu in which he moved served to develop him. Well, of course - it's called a culture. And what a milieu it was: Diaghilev, Nijinsky and sister, Massine, Cocteau, Dali, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Braque, Apollinaire, Brassai, Eluard.... even James Joyce puts in an appearance.

Having convinced myself how important collaboration is, I go on a round of Embassies related to the Origins Festival, and meet up with Nick Yu from Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (in London for a seminar at the Royal Court). We do lots of juggling of dates and funds. The most frustrating part of any project is this long gestation period, and at the moment we're in two of them!

My new book on Chinese theatre is out. It's co-authored with Doug Holton, and published by University of Stranmillis Press, Belfast.