Friday, February 26, 2010

Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking

Ben Evans at Oval House has brought a show over from South Africa - I was at the Press Night yesterday. The company is Magnet Theatre from Cape Town. The play has a wonderful title - Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking - and that title is horribly appropriate to the theme of displaced people. As the richest country on the African continent (though I bet that's sometimes pretty hard to remember in Soweto), South Africa is the goal for most African refugees. I'd heard quite a lot about the Zimbabwean exodus to South Africa: the characters in this play come from a Francophone country - it's not specified which one.

And, in a way, that's my concern about the piece. It's very sympathetic in its portrayal of refugees, and it's very theatrical - but the characters are just refugees... we don't know from what, or from where, or how the political or cultural or social meltdown which displaced them occurred. And so the play becomes sentimental - it doesn't allow us to be moved to action, only to pity. It doesn't allow us to feel in any way implicated. And we are.

Because of this, all the theatricality (and there's lots, and it's impressive) doesn't really work for me. It's not in the service of real storytelling - it looks whizzkidding. I probably would be more positive about it, except that I've been studying a lot of work about refugees recently for a new MA Module I'm creating for Rose Bruford, and I've come to feel that contextualising the stories, as well as allowing the refugees to be heard, is crucial. The best example is Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravanserail. When I met her, she said that play was "A punch on the nose. For everybody."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Post-colonial Scotland, post-revolutionary China

Nisha and I saw David Greig's new play for the RSC at Hampstead. It's called Dunsinaine, and begins with the English army advancing towards the castle with branches in hand. So we're definitely post-Macbeth. I remember when we did Macbeth in Mauritius being interested by the fact that the colonialism actually comes at the end of the play, with Malcolm being swept into kingship by conquering forces. Most post-colonial productions, especially in Africa, make Macbeth the Mugabe-figure - but it's actually a bit more complex than that. Greig's play is concerned with the next stage - and the analogy with Iraq and even Afghanistan is very clear. You go in to topple a tyrant, you put in a puppet ruler, and the country degenerates into chaos.

My other little cultural treat this week was a Chinese film from 1964, called Two Stage Sisters. I went to see it because it's about Yueju, and Yueju before the Revolution at that. The film begins in the 30s, with a group of travelling performers in the countryside, and moves to Shanghai during the war years, ending after the establishment of the PRC. It was fantastic to spot the locations - especially the Peace Hotel and the wonderful Yi Fu Theatre - still today much as it was in the 40s. The revolutionary iconography is fascinating: early on, there's a moment when the main actress is strapped to a post, dressed in red, in a clear echo of The Red Detachment of Women, and near the end she's seen performing The White-Haired Girl. It's hardy subtle stuff: the last line is "Let us re-educate ourselves diligently, and always perform revolutionary operas". And yet, this film was banned in the Cultural Revolution. Apparently the fact that the performer who buys into decadence and capitalism is forgiven and re-habilitated was considered corrupt.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Here's a new easy way to raise money for Border Crossings that does not involve parting with extra cash. has launched a new way to donate – it’s been christened “Give as you Live”. It means you can search the web, shop on line from your favourite retailers, trade on eBay and raise money for Border Crossings.

You get great search results from Yahoo!, content from leading shopping providers and access to all eBay auctions. Every search you make creates a donation for charity.

Our special address is, all searches, shopping and eBay activity made from here will raise money for us.

Make sure you sign up so you can track your giving – it updates every 3 minutes, you’ll be amazed how quickly it adds up!

Everyclick has already raised over £1,022,751.47 for a wide range of charities around the UK, and Everyclick was voted website of the Year 2008 and has been recognised as a top 100 media tech company 2009.

Discover the new way to give to Border Crossings. Give as you Live.

Friday, February 12, 2010

11 and 12... and 14

A rich and fascinating couple of nights in the theatre, linked by West Africa and not much else. Peter Brook's 11 and 12 is based on the autobiography of the Malian writer Amadou Hampate Ba, and is largely concerned with debates (turning into conflicts) about how many times a particular Islamic prayer should be recited. Actually, there is only one scene in which you get to see any real conflict portrayed, so most of the time you have to take it on trust that what is being portrayed is a society in turmoil - it all looks and sounds rather peaceful and beautiful, with a wonderful Japanese musician sitting on the side of the stage, accompanying every action with a delicate soundscape. The main focus is on wise men sitting under trees, whose words may suggest that they are engaged in the world around them, but whose manner in performance implied to me that they were "rising above it". Whatever that's supposed to mean.

The best work I've seen by Brook has been fired by the energy of the immediate - like his Sizwe Banzi is Dead a couple of years ago (admittedly a bit late to protest against apartheid - but it felt like a lived piece of work). Where I part company from him is in his belief that there is something to be expressed through theatre that is "universal", and that stories from Africa and Asia are valuable not for what they say about the context from which they arise, but for "humanity". Of course, the West has much to learn from Africa (and vice-versa), but the reason for this is the difference between us, not the similarity. In his post-show talk (which was a tour de force, I may say), Brook explained that his first attempt to dramatise this story had been "very African", whereas now he was working with "humanity". In practice, this meant that the two wise men were played by Palestinian actors.....

Now - there's no doubt that these guys are very fine performers. But don't tell me they related to the story just because they were "human". And don't tell me that the audience simply read them as "human". Their presence was a clear and immediate reminder of another political conflict arising from a religious background. There's nothing "universal" about this resonance - and it's no less "spiritual" for that. Our spirituality is at its most profound when it engages with the actualities of our existence.

By contrast, I also went to the press night of The 14th Tale at the National. Rare to see the National take on something like this - a solo performance by a young black man, largely in the form of performance poetry. His name is Inua Ellams, and he manages to be very accurate in his portrayal of Nigeria, England and Ireland; of childhood and young adulthood; of family... and very funny indeed.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Peter Brook

Peter Brook is in London at the moment - his production of 11 and 12 is at the Barbican this month, and there's also a retrospective of films. On Thursday I went to see his film about Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, which he introduced himself - and today I've been at a lecture he gave for the Directors Guild.

I wrote a while ago in this blog about the importance of finding Elders in our culture, and receiving wisdom from them in the same way it's done among First Nations peoples. Peter Brook is certainly an Elder among directors. He's 85 next month. When I was just starting out, I was reading his books and studying his productions as "the model", and realising that all the model told me was that you had to keep changing, and that there was no specific doctrinaire method. It's amazing that he is still making fresh and challenging work - as I hope I will be in 40 years time.

Of course, this guru status isn't entirely a positive thing. The audience at this afternoon's lecture (which was actually more of a chat) was packed with famous faces - Trevor Nunn and Imogen Stubbs, Richard Eyre chairing it, Mike Leigh, Michael Morris.... so it was important that Brook didn't simply allow himself to be feted. Asked how he'd liked to be remembered, he replied that he didn't want to be remembered at all - except perhaps on a small scale by people he had worked with directly, and to whom he had passed on some sense of the craft. Of course, he will be remembered - if only for the books, which will doubtless be turned into "a theory" - but I think he's right to be cautious about this. Our art of theatre is ephemeral - and so are our lives. Maybe all the archiving and writing about theatre is actually just over-loading us. Maybe we need a little less theory and a bit more playfulness. On Thursday, he carried the same idea further, when Graham Sheffield introduced him in "god has condescended to come among us" terms, and the whole audience applauded for ages before he'd even said a word. That introduction and those applause, he said, were very dangerous. We must never elevate a human being to the status where what he says becomes something we will accept without question.

It seemed a strange way for him to introduce a film about the man he has acknowledged as a spiritual guru - but maybe appropriate for just that reason. Gurdjieff, after all, was a decidedly complex figure: I remember Robert Lepage's version of him as a naked devil shuffling around Tony as Frank Lloyd Wright in The Geometry of Miracles. Brook's Gurdjieff is very 1970s - a rebel determined to "seek truth" at any cost; and at times the film seems very dated and a bit pompous in its self-conscious spiritual significance. But it is also a thinly veiled autobiography, at its most interesting when it explores Gurdjieff / Brook's determination to keep looking for a better way of living, for something that feels deeply truthful, for endless journeying both physically and internally. It's also very clear that the artistic / spiritual search is not something which you can do alone. Gurdjieff's group of close friends work with him - and they are played by Brook's regular actors, like Bruce Myers and Natasha Parry. And the whole thing ends with Gurdjieff learning ritual dances, which look remarkably like the warm-up exercises at the Bouffes du Nord.

It's very true that you can't do these things on your own. I've been much helped by Paul coming into the company recently, and by the strengthening of the relationship with Polygon. But it's been a few months since I was in a rehearsal room, and I'm really missing the creative companionship of performers. The creative work is the real space where the search can be conducted.