Monday, July 25, 2011

The Tree of Life

I went to see The Tree of Life last night. It was, I admit, with a degree of trepidation. For one thing, some aspects of the film (which I'm sure must be at least partly autobiographical by Terrence Malick) seemed a little close to my own life (actually, as things turned out, that wasn't disturbing at all). For another thing, the film had been met with derision, laughter and catcalls at Cannes, and with silent awe in other less jaded spaces. Neither boded too well, but - the film just sounded interesting.... and that matters. Arouse and hold intelligent interest. That's our business.

Much of the controversy concerns the film's Christian content. And it is Christian, no doubt about it. Christianity has had a bit of a bad press recently, thanks to the lunatics on the American Evangelical right and the bigots who've been elected at the last two Papal elections - but there is actually still a profound and important theologically capable and intellectually credible element in Christianity, of which the current Archbishop of Canterbury is a part. It's the faith in which I grew up, and to which I remain attracted, even loyal. So to see it explored in a film which doesn't reduce morality to simple binaries is a great pleasure.

What's more, Malick's film brings a spiritual awareness to contemporary living in surprising, unsettling ways. The central character, looking back from a middle-aged perspective on his childhood, does not overcome the past through time and contemplation, but rather becomes all the more acutely aware of its immediacy, the weight it places upon him, as he contrasts his own insignificance with the scale of the cosmos and the workings of history. Context on the grandest scale meets psychological realism. It's very easy for us to avoid the spiritual in our contemporary lives, but if we do so in art then we are actually denying what validates it. That's why I like to work with non-western traditions, where the spiritual is still explicit in performance, and with music, which simply wouldn't exist without the spiritual dimension. And bravo to Terrence Malick for attempting such a challenge in the most westernised and realism-bound medium of them all.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Two days in Germany

Last Friday and Saturday saw me in Saarbr├╝cken. I was last there in 2004 (I think) at a conference organised by Prof. Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn, about the Indian diaspora. I spoke then about Toufann - and she'd asked me back to talk some more about this play, its relationship to The Tempest, and its political and cultural context in Mauritius.

It was quite an intense time - talking for nearly three hours on Friday afternoon, then screening a video interview I did with Dev Virahsawmy in the evening (with Q&A), and a long seminar on the Saturday. Still - it was a lot of fun and great to be surrounded by people who really want to know all about this work. There was an unexpected bonus in that I turned out to be a double-act with Farrukh Dhondy - a very interesting writer. Farrukh had been working with the MA students on possible creative, post-colonial responses to The Tempest - and he also talked very entertainingly about CLR James (who lived in his house for four years) and VS Naipaul. What they said about one another is not printable....

I get home to discover Farrukh has emailed me a play. Oddly, it's about the myth of Karna - a subject we had wondered about before. It's already been very well received in India....

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Back to Toufann

I've been re-visiting Toufann - the Mauritian play we did as long ago as 1999 - because I've been asked to talk about it and lead a workshop in Saarbr├╝cken on Friday. It's been strange but refreshing to go back all that time and look at the way we were working then - and at the politics we were engaged in. It's still about interculturalism and post-colonialism: but the ground has definitely shifted.

Very interesting to stumble across some work by Francoise Lionnet, the Mauritian scholar now working at UCLA, to whom Toufann is dedicated (along with Shakespeare). In her book Minor Transnationalism, she looks at the play, and indeed at our production. I find it a bit odd that she analyses the effects of that production, and the meaning generated by presenting the play in a London context, seeing as she wasn't actually there..... I also think it's a bit disingenuous of her to say that I'm wrong to regard the use of the Hindi word "toufann" to convey "storm" as harking back to an Indian past, on the grounds that Dev is from the Tamil community, not the Hindu, and that he's interested in present and future, not past. It wasn't Dev I was talking about - it was his central character Prospero, who quite clearly names his tempest "toufann", even though it's not a common Creole word (or wasn't in 1991 when the play was written), and who obviously IS interested in the past. The play critiques Prospero and his standpoint, and that's where Dev's radicalism comes out.

Where she does say something very interesting, however, is in relation to the Creole phrase "tou fann", which I had not heard being linked to the title before, but clearly is. "Tou" means "all", and "fann" means "wilts" or "decays". So the title might mean not only "tempest" but also "Things Fall Apart" - evoking Yeats and Achebe to engage in a post-colonial battle alongside Shakespeare. And (though this is not in Lionnet) the Labour Party of Iran, which is also known as "toufan".

Things fall apart. There is a storm.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Talking Circle

Origins closed on Saturday. It was a beautiful event, led by Bruce Sinclair, from Canada - who has been present throughout the Festival and clearly enjoying himself! We began with a smudging ceremony - burning sage and bathing in its smoke - which we had to do out in the car park because of the smoke alarms. Probably the first ever smudging ceremony to happen in a car park in Bethnal Green, I would think. As Bruce took the smoke around the circle, Robert Greygrass sang a song - and there were responses in Maori and Aboriginal prayers too.

Then there was the talking circle. It's an incredibly simple idea, which is followed in the tribal councils of North America, and which has a lot to teach us about real democracy. You all sit in a circle, and pass around the talking stick - or eagle feather. Whoever is holding the stick speaks. You can say as much or as little as you want - or just pass it on - and whoever is speaking is not interrupted but is listened to with respect. It's definitely the best approach to "Evaluation" I've ever experienced. It's totally equal, it's very open, and it lets the emotional into the public space.

I won't tell you what was said. Just that it was very moving, and that this Festival has clearly touched people far more deeply than I ever dared to imagine.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Responses to Robert


I thought I should post some of the audience responses to Walking on Turtle Island, because they have been so positive, and it really is a very important piece of work. So - here we go:

"Turtle Island was wonderful. Simple, deft, finely-tuned storytelling, told by a storyteller with a twinkle in one eye and a tear in the other. Please extend my congratulations and gratitude to Robert Greygrass and thanks to the Border Crossings team for making it happen."

"Easily the best one-man show I have ever seen. The subtlety and deftness of the performance is mesmerising and moving."

"Thought it was really fantastic -really thoughtful, interesting and made me think about things not much discussed here. Also brilliantly performed."

"Excellent - amazing - enjoyable and I learned a lot."

One more performance tonight.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Origins Special Offers

Origins Special Offers

The Great Robert Greygrass

Last night, Robert Greygrass's production Walking on Turtle Island opened as part of our Origins Festival at the Rich Mix. It's an incredible piece of work: Variety wasn't wrong to call it "a tour de force" of acting. In less than two hours, Robert embodies no fewer than 21 characters, suggesting the distinctions in subtle ways, but absolutely making you believe in an aging Native woman, a little girl, a drunk mixed-race man in a cell, a young boy whose dog dies, his grandfather... and binding them all together a spirit figure, who seems in many ways to be remarkably similar to Robert himself. Why? Well, both are shape-changers. The spirit, like Robert, passes into the bodies of all these people through several centuries. It's a beautiful metaphor to link the acting to its meaning, and to suggest the cultural resonance which underlies the entire performance.

This is theatre which gives an alternative history - the native view of what has happened on Turtle Island (North America) from the European invasion to the present day. There are scenes which deal with the first contact, scenes around transplantation, scenes about the reservations, scenes set around contemporary alcohol abuse and custody. So yes, it's a human rights show. But it's so far from being "worthy" - because the whole performance is suffused with Robert's characteristic native wit and humour. In spite of the subject matter, his energy and sheer talent makes it feel light and buoyant - the audience is constantly surprised, excited and thrilled by the virtuosity and human generosity of the whole thing.

Two more performances tonight and tomorrow. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Festival and Politics


An amazing thing happened at Music in the Yard on Monday. The Lani Singers, our West Papuan performers, were playing on the open air stage at the Guildhall Yard in the City of London. On the other side of the Yard, separated from us by crash barriers, a man was putting out a red carpet. Then the limos swept in, and out got hoards of black-tied bankers and women in cocktail dresses. It was clearly a very posh banquet indeed. Meanwhile, Benny Wenda was speaking and singing about the illegal occupation of his country, and the way in which the Indonesian colonisation is upheld by US foreign policy, as a result of their commercial interests. And then the guest of honour showed up - Condoleeza Rice herself, fresh from unveiling a statue of Reagan.

You couldn't have scripted it better.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The First Week


I'd meant to blog daily through the Origins Festival. Fat chance. It's been the craziest, most exciting week for a very long time. Perhaps the craziest week in the company's entire history. No - that was Mexico in 2001... but we're close.

Noel Tovey's Little Black Bastard was the first week's theatre show, and it's got great reviews and responses across the web. Noel flies back to Australia this evening - hopefully with a sense of the job being really well done! He's shared his extraordinary life story with people hanging on every word.

The film festival kicked off on Saturday with a great screening of Our Generation, followed by discussions with Julian Burger and John Packer from the Human Rights Centre at Essex University. Tonight we move on to Inuit films, having taken in the Sahara along the way!

The main theme of the weekend has been music, with the Origins Concert on Saturday night and the Family Day on Hampstead Heath yesterday. The Heath event began with a Maori powhiri, or welcoming ceremony, led by Ngati Ranana, to welcome the First Nations people to London in an appropriate way. It was wonderful to do this in the very week that Sydney acknowledged the colonisation of Australia to have been an invasion. Somehow it felt as if we were a part of a real spirit of truth and reconciliation - and the amazing atmosphere at both events seemed to confirm that.

We've also been able to bring young people into the festival spirit in other ways - our education project had a really big moment on Friday when we had hundreds of schoolchildren parading through the City with model wakas, and dancing the haka on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. Wild.