Tuesday, September 29, 2009

European Culture Forum

I'm in Brussels as a guest of the EU, for the European Culture Forum - a two-day bunfight involving policy-makers, producers, advocates and even the odd artist from all over Europe, plus a few from elsewhere. Given the importance of the European element in much of what we're doing at the moment, it seemed important to be here - and, well, they did ask....

Not that Britain is particularly well represented at this event - as so often in Europe, though it's not exactly very far by Eurostar. I bump into Yvette Vaughan-Jones from Visiting Arts, who was on the same (very early) train as me this morning. She knows she needs to ask me something, but the 4am start prevents her remembering what it was... I also have long chat with Deborah Shaw from the RSC, who I last met in Hong Kong. She runs the intercultural aspects of their operation, which at the moment seems to mean work with Russia (as witness the new plays just opened) and with the Middle East. She tells me that Arabic has no infinitives, so that when "To be or not to be" is translated, it comes out as "Shall we be or shall we not be", which makes the abstract question a whole lot more immediate, catapulting it into the political arena.

Not much coming from the stage is as exciting as this - though there are odd gems among the plethora of platitudes which tend to be obligatory on such occasions. The liveliest sessions are, predicably enough, the smaller ones - like a discussion of access and participation, or the session around the Platform for Intercultural Europe. Border Crossings is now a member of this Platform, and I spend some time discussing its implications with Sabine Frank (who runs it) and Chris Torch (from Intercult in Sweden). They are both very keen to integrate cultural action more fully into other aspects of policy (particularly social policy) - and I'm very enthusiastic about that. The one area where I find myself diverging from the Platform is when it states that "The potential lies in... highlighting similarities rather than differences between people." If you do that, then where is the drama? Without conflict, there is no cultural production, nor indeed any dialogue. This is a basic problem in a forum of this kind. We talk about the arts as a social bond, and indeed they are - but that must not blind us to the fact that they are actually about divisions and differences and conflicts and turbulence.

In the evening, there is a concert which makes the point very well. It's programmed, and mainly conducted, by the wonderful baroque specialist Jordi Savall. Watching him and his performers, it becomes very clear how dialogue is at the basis of all European culture. In the baroque, one instrument answers another, one phrase complements the next. It's a fallacy to see this music as still and beautiful - its beauty in fact lies in dynamism and change.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Clive James and Australian Literature

I was invited to Australia House the other night for the launch of a new Anthology of Australian writing. It's a very exciting book - a fantastic range of different sorts of literature, and a clear decision to resist the "progress" narrative (which would have constructed Australia as Terra Nullius, waiting to be turned into the sunny happy land of today by the colonists...). However, Clive James, who was one of the Aussie luminaries paraded to launch the book, seems still to live under such delusions. Even though he was on a platform where his remit was surely to praise the book, he started laying into it for having "too much Aboriginal writing".

Now, what does this mean? Does it mean that there is too little "white writing"? But, of course, the idea of "white writing" is absurd - it ranges from James's own comic reminiscences to the profound engagements with history and landscape found in Thomas Keneally or Louis Nowra. But doesn't that rather explode the concept of "Aboriginal writing" too? After all, Jack Davis is not the 19th century Aboriginal woman Tasma, and she is not Sally Morgan, and Sally Morgan is not Lionel Fogarty. So was Clive James in fact saying that "once you've got one Aboriginal, you've got them all"? I suspect that is the logical conclusion.

Given that only 12% of the book represents the words of the country's indigenous people, it seems little enough to me. After all, what is Australian culture if it isn't Aboriginal culture?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Research Centre

On Friday, I was invited out to Royal Holloway for the opening of Helen Gilbert's new Centre for Research in International Theatre and Performance. I used to teach there quite a lot - but haven't been back for years, in spite of being in regular contact with Helen, and some contact with other people in the department there. Chris Megson, sporting a new beard, sat next to me during Joseph Loach's lecture which launched the whole thing. We were both a bit blown away by the range of scholarship on display. To discuss a native American museum and casino in terms of Orphic myths and Miltonic theology is pretty complex stuff.

The whole idea of a research centre in this area is very exciting for us, of course - but especially important at the moment, since its first project is around the performance of indigenous identities. Helen's already contributed some of her funds towards the writers who came to Origins in May. Now that we're looking towards further festivals, the dialogue with the centre could be really productive. On Friday, they had a wonderful indigenous Australian performance poet and film-maker giving a short presentation. I talked to her afterwards - we knew all the same people, of course!

Simon Anderson emails from Canada House. They're running a series of films in partnership with the National Maritime Museum coinciding with their current exhibition, The Northwest Passage: An Arctic Obsession, and have asked me to introduce the one on October 13th. Here's the full programme:

Arctic Film Programme
Canada House, Cockspur Street entrance, Trafalgar Square, London SW1Y 5BJ
Doors open 18.30 for 19.00 start
Advance booking only through the National Maritime Museum on 020 8312 8560.

Sept 22
Film double bill:
Henry Larsen's Northwest Passages (1962, 27mins)
Norwegian-born Superintendent Henry Larsen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage
in both directions. In this film he relates anecdotes of his voyages in the tiny schooner, the St. Roch.

Northwest Passage (1970, 26 mins) Dir. Bernard Gosselin
It took a supertanker like the U.S.S. Manhattan, assisted by a nimble icebreaker, the Canadian John A. Macdonald, to realise the dream of centuries: the navigation of a commercial sea lane through the Arctic channels. This is a record of that historic expedition, filmed in colour from both ships and from a reconnaissance helicopter. Commentary by ships' navigators and observers, and shipside sounds of formidable sea ice groaning, straining and cracking make this an adventure rarely seen on film.

Sept 29
The Necessities of Life (2009, 102 mins) Dir. Benoit Pilon
Set in the 1950s when a tuberculosis epidemic in the Far North forced many Inuit to go to various Canadian cities for treatment. Tivil (Natar Ungalaaq) is taken to a sanatorium in Quebec City. Uprooted, far from his loved ones and faced with a completely alien world, he finds himself unable to communicate with anyone.

Oct 6
Atanajurat: The Fast Runner (2001, 161mins) Dir. Zacharias KunukCannes Camera d’Or winning Atanajurat is Canada's first feature-length fiction film written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit. An exciting action thriller set in ancient Igloolik, the film unfolds as a life-threatening struggle between powerful natural and supernatural characters.

Oct 13
Before Tomorrow (2009, 93mins) Dir. Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu
Circa. 1840, some Inuit tribes still have never met any white people, although rumours circulate about what they might be, where they come from, and why. Before Tomorrow tells of a woman who demonstrates that human dignity is at the core of life from beginning to end, as she faces with her grandson the ultimate challenge of survival.

Oct 20
Passage (2008, 108 mins) Dir. John Walker
It was news that shook the English-speaking world. Celebrated British explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men had perished in the Arctic ice during an ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage. More shocking, they had descended into madness and cannibalism. Passage is a story of incredible sacrifice, stunning distortion of the truth and single-minded obsession. It challenges the way we look at history.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rehearsing with the Roma

O Patrin, the Participation and Learning project for the Origins Festival, is in rehearsal, and starts touring schools next week. I went in to see them yesterday. Dan, from the Roma Company, has written and is directing the piece, and he's working with two Roma performers and one non-Roma who seems very knowledgeable! Gabrielle from Polygon is also in the room, and a movement director. One of the Roma performers, Sarah, is a very accomplished musician, so the piece is full of song and dance. Lovely to see that this work, like the pieces we create directly ourselves, follows our aesthetic of combining non-naturalistic theatre forms with the more "real" scenes.

The production is a response to the workshops which Dan and the company did with the visiting First Nations companies during the Festival. What's great is that the piece doesn't become didactic about this - the contributions are there in poetry, movement and music, making the Roma experience resonate with others, but they are not overtly stated. When Roma performers speak a piece of text by a Maori ("A spiritual thread binds us together"), then the resonance is so powerful that there is no need to explain it. In any case, the show will be followed by a workshop, so the schools' audience will be able to get directly involved in the debates, which makes it all the more exciting to work by stealth rather than statement.

On the Travellers' Times Blog, there is an article which points up the parallels between the indigenous Australian experience and that of Roma people in the UK. It's by the Roma journalist Jake Bowers, who has often pointed up these similarities of experience.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rustom Bharucha

After several years of email friendship, I finally met Rustom on Friday evening. He's in London for a huge Shakespeare conference at King's, and clearly enjoying it enormously. Conversation with him is a stream of highly sophisticated consciousness: "These guys really know their stuff. We had Stanley Wells talking this morning. Amazing. About the Sonnets. And there was a woman from Canada who really challenged the canonical thing - asking whether we should abandon the numbering of the Sonnets. It's always numbering and ordering. Like the system which forces you to do lighting cues in a particular way. It's all being exploded though. When I was young in India we were taught John Galsworthy. Galsworthy! Then in 1978 Edward Said came along and everything changed. Everything. And now, they're approaching Shakespeare through post-colonial theory, through feminism, through queer theory.... I saw As You Like It at the Globe. Apparently it's one of their better productions. But I couldn't get the radicalism of the text I was hearing to fit with the safety of what I was seeing. I mean, in the end, the production becomes an affirmation of heterosexual marriage..."

I'm parodying, of course - it's exciting to be in the presence of somebody whose mind is so incisive and so eclectic. And great to feel that he's so supportive of all we are doing. He's really delighted about the notice Theatre and Slavery got in The Drama Review.

As part of the conference, we see an extract from a version of The Merchant of Venice performed by the Taiwanese BangZi Opera. This is a new form on me, though it has a great deal in common with Peking Opera (percussive puntuation) and with Yueju (sheng boots and a largely female cast). Shylock (a Saracen merchant in this version) is played by a tough little woman in a false beard, and is presented as a comic figure. Portia is romantic, Bassanio heroic, Antonio tragic. The naivety of the whole thing is actually rather refreshing, and we're reminded that, for centuries, this was how the play was done in the West. I never thought I'd actually see it like this!

Monday, September 07, 2009


Last week was crazy and wonderful. We spent Tuesday and Wednesday teching the show - long days which lasted into the late evening, as we struggled our way through the whole thing. I'm usually fairly efficient in techs - but the first go at any devised piece is always more complex than scripted work, because the reality is that the play isn't even fully scripted at that stage (it still isn't!), never mind rehearsed. We'd managed to work our way through the first half while Denise and Micha were with us, but the second half was still no more than a series of scenes, and I had to stage the transitions at the same time as lighting them, sorting out the sound cues and integrating video more fully. In work of this kind, the tech is not an add-on, but an integrated part of the production's creation: that's why it was so important that we did it in this period, rather than waiting for Manchester.

On Thursday and Friday mornings, we had dress runs, with extensive notes afterwards. The first time through, the main preoccupation for everybody seemed to be with costume changes. The Chinese actors are used to large companies of dressers and make-up artists - and hardly anybody is used to appearing as so many different characters, all of whom have to look different, in a comparatively short play. By Friday morning, we had just about got to a stage where it was possible for a showing to happen - which was just as well, since they were on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

Our invited audiences were wonderful. On Friday, there was a younger group - very diverse - with Swedes, Chinese and Indian people much in evidence. The different laughs rising out of different areas of the audience were very exciting, and instructive. On the Saturday, we made some key changes before the second showing - clarifying bits of the "back-story" which hadn't been apparent to the first audience, adjusting a couple of scenes to overcome language barriers, and speeding up the bits that had dragged. The second showing was a huge leap forward from the first. This time the audience included lots of very knowledgeable and articulate people - Paul Sirrett from Soho, Alaknanda Samarth, Juwon Ogunde, Di Robson, Sarah Nunn... and so on. Haili and Peter were there from earlier casts as well. So the post-show conversation lasted well over an hour, and was incredibly helpful. Not everybody in the audience agreed on everything - there were some people who wanted a stronger sense of "closure", or at least to "know what happened to the characters", while others were excited by the open-ness. It's interesting that the people who wanted narrative closure tended to be white Europeans: Asian people were much more open to the open! There was also a very useful conversation about Song and Alex's lesbian relationship, which continued over our "au revoir" dinner afterwards. This will be hugely helpful for re-working the second play.

On Sunday, I delivered the Chinese performers to the airport, and got the (now much bigger) set back into storage. Once again, we're at a beginning point.