Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reviewing the Year

Division - Drum Theatre, Plymouth

Well, it's what people do at this time of year, isn't it?  2012 wasn't a year when Border Crossings was at its most visible - but because of what we've been doing behind the scenes, 2013 is going to be our busiest and most exciting year ever!  The highlight of the year was our month in Shanghai, devising our new show Consumed, which goes into rehearsal early in the new year, and will be on tour till the end of March.  It also looks set to go back to China in September - watch this space.  We've also been working very intensely through the year to develop the next Origins Festival, which is planned for the autumn of 2013, with some amazing new venues and an even more ambitious and inspiring programme than we had in 2011.  I was lucky enough to get to Australia, Canada and New Zealand during the course of 2012, so I've been able to see some amazing work and build the contacts we need to make it all happen here.

The other important aspect of our work in 2012 has been in participation and learning.  Lucy Dunkerley joined us in May, and has spent her first months with the company building our work in this area.  Her project Intercult, which accompanies Consumed, is going to be an amazing opportunity for young people across London.  During 2012, we also worked with young refugees in Plymouth (see photo above) to create a performance called Division, which brought them into a direct dialogue with the city's leaders.  We worked with the Africa Centre and Chickenshed to present educational and participatory programmes around African performance, with the talk by our Patron Peter Sellars proving a particular highlight.  We also concluded our Heritage Project with London's Maori community, launching our website in June.  We've also been continuing our work with the Platform for Intercultural Europe, helping to shape policy in Brussels.  

2012 has, of course, been a great year to be living in London, and the 2012 Festival was full of inspiration for people working in international theatre.  The Globe to Globe Festival included some terrific work, and Peter's Desdemona at the Barbican was a highlight.  But the most exciting productions of the summer for me were both in LIFT - the epic Gatz and the deeply provocative and inspiring Ganesh versus the Third Reich.  The latter is my production of the year - theatre which questions so many assumptions around disability and culture, and which manages to be very funny and deeply moving at the same time.  And beautiful to look at too.

This was an Australian play, and I actually saw it as a showcase in Adelaide.  The trip down under was very rich theatrically - but my other highlight would have to be Hone Kouka's Tu in Wellington.  Hone has been working for a long time to find a distinctive Maori dramatic form, and in this play he triumphantly gets there.  The staging in an urban marae, drawing off traditional movement and employing the natural traverse of the space, was simply stunning.

Closer to home, I much enjoyed Cheek by Jowl's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, with a great central performance from Lydia Wilson, and the National Theatre finally bringing Howard Barker into its fold with Scenes from an Execution.

Having spent a lot of the year travelling, I also read a great many books, mainly on the glorious e-reader.  But the most invigorating novel I read this year was the one you couldn’t get on Kindle: Timothy Mo’s Pure pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of approaching Islamic terrorism in a comic mode, without trivialising or belittling its subject.  Mo ventriloquises a wondrous range of narrators: I especially enjoyed the portrayal of an Oxford don and M16 recruiter, who is just a little less omniscient than he believes.

Natasha Soobramanien’s Genie and Paul is a tightly plotted first novel, shuttling between Mauritius and London so that wave after wave of culture-shock breaks across the reader.  Great for those of us who have Mauritian family connections and work with the culture there to see the Mauritian novel in the hands of such an exciting new talent.

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua explodes the myth that the last thirty years of Chinese history represent a fundamental break with the past.  Yu demonstrates how all the key characteristics of today’s China have deep roots in the era of the Famine and the Cultural Revolution.  Which leads us on to the ideas in Consumed...  Happy New Year, everybody.  

Friday, December 07, 2012


The Japan Foundation is one of those wonderful organisations with a London base that offers an extraordinary wealth of cultural opportunity, if only you know about it.  I happen to be on the mailing list, and have been chewing over the idea of looking at a Japanese project for a while.  I have an idea or two....  Anyway - on Tuesday I went along to a talk by the playwright Hideto Iwai, who is also the director of the company hi-bye.  And it was extraordinary.

For one thing, the work, which was shown in DVD extracts, is clearly wonderful.  Iwai plays with the farce lying latent in serious subjects.  I was especially excited by his recent play A Certain Woman, which deals with serial infidelity in the age of the text message.  Although there was a sort of heightened realism in the piece, Iwai himself played the central (female) role - a sort of nod to the Onnagata tradition, I suppose.

Indeed, Iwai appears in all his own work, as well as directing and writing the plays.  In his first piece,  Hikky Cancun Tornado, the central character is based on himself.  It could all sound totally egomanaiacal - were it not for the fact that he is the shyest, most retiring of people.  In fact, from the ages of 15 to 20, he never left his house, because he was so worried that he would get something 'wrong' in the public space.  In Japan, this condition, which I guess has similarities to agoraphobia or certain forms of anorexia, is known as hikikomori.  It effects young men predominantly, and is very widespread in that most regimented, most conformist of cultures.  

Listening to this witty, perceptive and modest man, I found myself musing about how many people involved in the theatre, which is generally perceived as a space for "showing off", are actually very shy and self-conscious.  But then, perhaps extreme shyness and egomania are not actually opposites.  After all, both involve the feeling that everybody else is looking at you.  Perhaps the reason so many shy people are drawn to theatre is that it provides a safe place for public exposure - a space where the staring and the prurience is actually the point.  And so it becomes a safety valve.  

The other thing I've been meaning to talk about on this blog for a while is the RSC's production of The Orphan of Zhao.  I realise I'm behind the times in media terms, but I also know that the East Asian artists who have been protesting about this piece want to keep the momentum going, with a meeting planned for the Young Vic in February, no less.  I went along to a discussion, which you can watch on YouTube here - and very informative it was too.  The press has been tending to treat the controversy as if it's just about East Asian actors wanting to play the Chinese roles - and that is part of it, but only a small part.  After all, it was fine for the National Theatre of China to perform in the Globe to Globe Festival, and to present Shakespeare with an all-Chinese cast.  But what was different about that Richard III was that it was presented as a play ABOUT China, with Chinese influence in the designs and acting style.  It was not presented as a comment on Britain.  The Orphan of Zhao, on the other hand, is being presented by a British company, with an almost entirely white cast, as a comment on China.  The setting and costumes are "Chinese".  The discourse around the production talks about a "brutal, feudal society".  We're just a few steps from Ming the Merciless.  

So this is Border Crossings' statement of solidarity with the East Asian actors of this country.  We cannot go on making theatre which exoticises and distances people with whom we now share global space, economic space, cultural space, even our own nation space.  We have to enter into real and meaningful dialogues of equals.  That's actually something theatre can do really well - but not when you present other cultures as Other.  

All very useful thoughts as we move towards our next co-production with a company from (yes) China.....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Three Days in Belfast

Two Roads West -  Kabosh
I've been in Belfast for three days, at the Platform for Intercultural Europe's Practice Exchange.  Two years ago, we hosted this event, with guest speakers representing a range of different cultural backgrounds and arts practices within London. To take the same concerns to Northern Ireland drastically shifts the nature of the debate: interculturalism there is not a matter of dialogue between established populations and migrant communities (although there are migrant communities, and they seem to be making a very positive contribution), so much as an element in the incredibly complex process of conflict resolution.  As always with the Platform, these few days have been exciting because of the genuine interaction they've facilitated between cultural practice and policy.  We've been working with the Northern Irish Arts Council, meeting artists and cultural managers; but we've also met Belfast City Councillors and MLAs from a range of persuasions and communities, and visited Stormont Castle itself, on the eve of its 80th anniversary.

Stormont is one of those mythic place-names which echo in the mind of anyone who grew up in these islands during the 1970s and early 80s; the sites of rancour and violence which dominated news coverage and emerging political awareness in the era of the Troubles.  Falls Road, Shankill Road, the Divis Flats.....  On Thursday afternoon, I was able to see the others, thanks to a remarkable tour with Paula McFetridge and Lawrence McKeown of Kabosh - a theatre company which makes work outside conventional spaces, interacting with and intervening in the urban landscape.  They showed us several samples of their work - including a monologue spoken at the Orwellian-named Peace Wall, in the character of a young Catholic girl who dares to venture through the iron gates to see the young Loyalist man with whom she is in love.  But it was Two Roads West that really struck me as extraordinary theatre.  For us, a section of the play was performed on our bus by Vincent Higgins: the full version is performed in a taxi, driven by Vincent, with another actor and an audience of five.  The play is a dialogue around the tourism of terror, as the taxi travels through the Falls and Shankill Roads, encountering the sectarian symbols that still dominate these spaces - the tricolours and the Union Jacks, the murals of Bobby Sands and King Billy on his white horse.  Paula tells us that the audience for this play don't look at the actors at all - they look at the city.

I had not realised how very close to one another these two legendary roads are.  As the driver explains, you turn right out of the Falls, you pass through the gates in the Peace Wall that are still locked every night, you turn right again, and you are in a totally different territory.  Even today, 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the city is edgy and disturbing, unsettled, insecure.

We watch the last piece at the Cultúrlann - an Irish language cultural centre on the Falls - and sit down to discuss what we have seen.  Our hosts tell us a little about themselves: Lawrence joined the IRA at the age of 17, and remained a member for thirty years.  He was a prisoner in the H-blocks, and took part in the hunger strike, when he came very close to death.  It was while he was in prison that he started his creative work, which is sophisticated, deeply intelligent, poetic and humane.  You could not get further away from the trite, conventional view of "a terrorist".  And this is true on the Loyalist side too - I came away with a set of pamphlets published by ACNI around their Troubles Archive, including (to give just one example) an essay on Transcendental Art and the Conflict in Northern Ireland by the convicted UVF paramilitary Billy Hutchinson.  Like Lawrence, he comes across as articulate, sensitive, even gentle. 

Our role as a Platform is to provide some kind of European perspective on what is happening in this place.  It's tricky: the reconciliation of Catholic and Protestant remains such an obsession that work beyond the province, or even with other communities within it, seems irrelevant to many of the artists here.  And yet the experience of stepping outside the space, which Lawrence records vividly through the characters in Two Roads West, is one which can put the conflict in some sort of wider context; and the experiences of others (for example the delegates from former Yugoslavia) can offer points of comparison, however specific the Northern Irish situation may be.  Europe has had a role in moving Northern Ireland to its current position, which is hopefully a lasting truce.  Because both the UK and the Irish Republic are members of the EU, borders are not so monolithic as they once were, and nationhood seems a more outmoded aspiration, or at least a different agenda.  The emerging European models of multi-ethnic, intercultural spaces problematise nationalism and religious exclusivity. 

My own feeling, looking at post-conflict situations across the world, is that the process that is needed in Belfast is one of Truth and Reconciliation on the South African or Rwandan model.  Some of what we heard about seemed to me to be aiming towards Reconciliation without its necessary precursor, Truth.  In order to heal the wound you must first expose the poison. That is very challenging: perhaps impossible at this stage in history.  But until it happens there will not be a lasting peace.  Artists like Kabosh are there to tell the Truth, however disturbing it may be: and that is why they are the healers of the current time.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Calixto's Forests

Calixto Bieito - the bad boy days....  I was there.  Even now, everything written about Calixto's work  still refers back to his ENO work, almost a decade ago: A Masked Ball (that's the one with the toilets) and Don Giovanni (sex and violence more generally).  I was his assistant director on both shows - and I also wrote the dramaturgical pieces for the programmes.  Today, as at the time, I have no idea what all the fuss was about.  I'd already directed my own Don Giovanni - so I knew that for the 21st century this had to be a piece about sex, violence, death and religion.  What else do people think that piece is about?  To my mind, Calixto's main achievement was to recover the comedy.  Masked Ball was a brilliant transmogrification, shifting the questions around radical political change into the era of the Spanish transition.  It wasn't really about toilets.

Anyway - nice to see him back on the British stage, and nice to see Christopher Simpson acting for him (Chris was B in Double Tongue - the play I directed just after working with Calixto on Giovanni).  Forests has elements of the old enfant terrible about it - although these days Calixto is pushing 50, so maybe he's just terrible now.  I felt very aware of his middle age throughout the piece: there's a sense of an artist dealing with mortality, aware that his moral fury is futile, a kind of tiredness buzzing underneath all the characteristic energy.  It speaks to those of us who work in culture and who value humanity at the present moment - it draws off our disillusionment, the existential challenge of carrying on our attempt to live well in a world which so clearly and decisively denies that aspiration.

Much has been made of Calixto's Shakespearean collage of a text - and it's quite fun in a sort of crossword-puzzle way.  But it's not about Shakespeare.  It's not really about the text either - except perhaps the language as music.  Rather the work unfolds through a series of extraordinary images and contrasting energies, unravelling rhythmically like the movements of a symphony.  At times the acting is very generalised - perhaps that's an inevitable side-effect when there are no characters and the text is only an approximation to the mood - and so some of it can seem trite.  Youthful enthusiasm takes up a substantial amount of time at the start...  but the latter sections, dealing with the nightmare world we have made and the fact that somehow we have to come to terms with dying in it - these are extraordinary.   

Monday, October 29, 2012

Things and Thinking

A fascinating and wonderful day with Rosanna Raymond and the Indigeneity Project - this was the first Laboratory workshop for a while, and really served our aim of using the Laboratory to generate ideas for where our work might go.  Rosanna began the day by talking about the Polynesian concept of Va - a form of space which does not separate people and things, but which joins them together.  And the practical work of the day became an expression of that, as one by one we showed things we had brought with us, linked to ideas about identity and migration, and shared their stories.  Very soon we were seeing things not in the museum way of "the object", but in terms of their relationship to the human, their agency in relation to people and movement, their presence in the world.

This became especially exciting when some of us moved out into the streets, taking our things with us, to display what we started to call a 'Musée de l'extérieur'.  We tried different ways in which the things could be shown on the streets of London: beside a statue, held by people sitting on Boris bikes, on a row of bollards, held by people standing on a monument.  The versions with the people who knew the stories of the things was most effective, especially when they were positioned so that they were framed by an existing monument or piece of architecture.  And, of course, this sets up a dialogue with the monument itself - which, given that it's London, is almost always in some way to do with imperialism.  These interventions led to members of the public engaging with the things and their stories - asking us about them or photographing us as we held them.  

It's richly suggestive of something we can really develop for the Festival.  Watch this space! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

London Film Festival

Ship of Theseus
I've hugely enjoyed the London Film Festival over the last few years - so I felt a certain trepidation about the arrival of a new director, Clare Stewart - particularly as her first festival came saddled with the inane strapline "Feel It", and the programme was divided into emotional categories like "Dare", "Thrill" and "Love".  I've always felt a bit uncomfortable about marketing copy which is based around how a work of art will supposedly make me feel, rather than what it actually is - although all the marketing professionals, and our own experience, point to that sort of copy being exactly what brings in audiences.  Now, it seems, an entire festival is being built around sensation.

It's a coincidence, but an instructive one, that this festival has coincided with the publication of David Thomson's new book on the history of cinema, The Big Screen.  A key moment in cinema history, for Thomson, was Jaws - the moment when the capacity of the medium to thrill and seduce was permitted, indeed encouraged, to eclipse its capacity to generate meaning.  "The commotion", says Thomson, "meant nothing.  The sensation eclipsed sensibility."  And this, of course, is disastrous.  If our culture comes to purvey emotion without thought, then it becomes a fascist culture - a space of rabble rousing and misdirected desires.

Which said, the films I saw in this year's festival belied both Thomson's gloom about the decline of the art form, and the event's literally sensationalised packaging.  It was great, with a view to next year's Origins, to see some very perceptive new documentaries around indigenous peoples: I particularly liked Sarah Gavron's Village at the End of the World, which followed the lives of some very winning Inuit personalities against the background of the melting icecap and encroaching globalisation. The Ethnographer, which concentrated on British anthropologist John Palmer's absorption into the society of the Wichi people of Argentina was refreshingly frank about just how much of our way of living, particularly our ethical code, is a cultural construct, to which there are perfectly viable and consistent alternatives.  

Among the features, the one which I found most immediately stimulating in terms of my current creative journey was Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love (categorised with the crassest of literalism under - you've guessed it - "Love").  The film, set in Japan, is essentially a three-hander between Akiko, a young girl who is working as a prostitute to put herself through college, her obsessively jealous boyfriend, and the elderly Professor who hires her for a night.  The early sequences, with Akiko agonising over the fact that she can't meet her grandmother on a short visit to Tokyo, form a very compelling portrait of urban alienation, which I found very useful for some of the ideas forming for Consumed (not in a "oh I'll do that too" way - but in terms of atmosphere).  But the film didn't resolve why the Professor had hired her in the first place.  He was clearly not interested in, or even expecting sex, and there were hints about her resembling his dead wife and daughter...  but nothing solid enough to make sense.

Caesar Must Die is a fascinating film about a production of Julius Caesar in an Italian prison. It's based on true events, and the actors in the film are the prisoners - but it isn't a documentary.  The revelations about parallels between the play and the lives of the criminals did not happen exactly as portrayed, or necessarily to the people shown.  So it's fictionalised - which is just fine, but begs the question why professional actors weren't used - as the quality of the performances is what lets the piece down.  But it's a very humane work about the redemptive power of art.  Gloriously uncynical.

My favourite film, though, was Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus.  Three stories, thematically linked through the idea of organ transplant, turn out to be physically linked as well - in a way that reminded me of the transcendent ending of Jesus of Montreal.  The fact that the middle story centred on philosophical debates around the ethics of such transplants, while the first one investigated their psychology and the last their political implications in the unequal world so highlighted in India, made the kaleidoscopic structure very powerful.  I loved the understated acting and the intellectual depth of it.  And the fact that it was totally un-sensational.

Maybe the packaging is something distinct from the substance.  

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Author's Voice / Gaze

Our old friend Mahesh Dattani (pictured) is in London.  My work with him in India was what led to Border Crossings being established in the first place, and his play Bravely Fought the Queen was one of our first productions.  More recently, he was involved as a dramaturg on Re-Orientations.  So it's always a good thing to meet up with him.  Oddly enough, he was speaking yesterday at a conference for Kings College, and the other person on the panel was the South African writer Craig Higginson.  Craig's play Dream of the Dog was one of the pieces I discussed with Janet Suzman the other day - he's a really important voice in modern SA.

What was wonderful about their conversation was the way they overturned the conventional wisdom doled out to writers (and other artists, actually) to "write from experience", to "write what you know".  Writing about yourself, Craig argued, is narcissistic.  Making work about people who are somehow foreign to you, people who are different, is what stretches the writer, and so will stretch the audience.  It requires imagination and empathy.  It moves us out of the comfort zone.

Mahesh agreed completely.  To his way of thinking, there's been far too much concentration on something called a "voice" in the critical discussion of artists.  If we concentrate on finding a "voice", we become limited.  Both of these writers try to do something different, and to sound different, every time they make a new play.  What Mahesh felt was more important than the writer's voice was the writer's gaze - how a writer sees and hears the world.  Much of writing, much of creativity, is actually not to do with making things at all.  It's to do with absorbing things and responding to them.  That's why neither Mahesh nor Craig is didactic in political terms.  As Mahesh said: "It's not my politics that shape my writing - it's my writing that's shaped my politics."


The other topic I've been wanting to blog about is not really related to this - but I want to say it anyway.    What has got into opera managements?  I went to see Julius Caesar at the ENO the other night. It's not great.  As so often recently, this was an opera directed by somebody who doesn't direct operas.  In this case, it's a choreographer (a very good one, I may add - but not someone who knows this form).  There have also been film directors, documentary makers, actors, conductors and administrators.  Having directed an opera before seems to be an actual disadvantage in this area.  If Madonna wanted to direct an opera, she could - it would be a press story, right?

What's so odd, and so insulting about this, is that nobody would ever dream of hiring such people to conduct the opera, or to sing it, or play the violin.  Somehow the art of the director is still regarded as the preserve of the imaginative amateur.  Nobody seems to have noticed that it helps to know what you're doing.

I once heard one of these amateurs comment that she could direct opera because she'd been going to see operas for many years.  Well, I've been on a lot of planes.  That doesn't make me a pilot.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Janet Suzman

Last night saw the last of our talks on African theatre, which, like the first one back in May, was co-presented with Chickenshed, alongside their production of The Rain that Washes.  Janet Suzman is a "Founding Patron" of Chickenshed, so it was a great chance for me to interview her for 45 minutes.

If only it had been longer.  While Janet is incredibly famous in the UK as a classical actor, and has had the odd brush with Hollywood as well, very few people know about her work in South Africa.  But that is actually the most exciting bit.  As she said in our chat, there is something about the country of her birth that has kept pulling her back throughout her life; and there is something about countries in crisis, countries which have been invaded, and countries very much in the process of becoming that makes their theatre vital and immediate.

We talked about her early years, her growing awareness of injustice, and her family's involvement in the struggle - Helen Suzman was her aunt.  We talked about her breaking of Equity's cultural boycott to direct John Kani in Othello at the Market Theatre - she got permission from the ANC in exile, who agreed that Shakespeare was a protest playwright - and in any case, she suggested, the boycott played right into the hands of the regime as it meant there were no dissenting voices in the public arena.  We talked about her adaptation of The Cherry Orchard as The Free State - an extraordinary celebration of the end of apartheid.

Today, The Free State perhaps feels unduly optimistic.  But, as Janet said, it encapsulated the spirit of a moment, the euphoria that greeted Mandela's election.  Almost twenty years later, laws from the apartheid era are being used by a black President to justify the shooting of striking miners.  This isn't the Rainbow Nation which the play eagerly expected.  And so we talked about what a revival today could mean - how the cold wind of the future might blow through the falling trees.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I went to see Timon of Athens at the National on Friday.  I doubt many other people there had seen the play at all - I have the dubious privilege of remembering two previous productions.  Jonathan Pryce played Timon for the BBC a very long time ago - and David Suchet did it at the Young Vic, with Trevor Nunn directing.  The Nunn-Suchet one was the production that made me think this really could be a very exciting play for the present money-obsessed age - and to keep suggesting it as a show I'd like to direct to American Shakespeare companies.  Needless to say, nobody ever rose to the bait.  Shame.

The timing for the current revival could hardly be better.  Financial crisis - and Greece getting the worst of it (I liked the irony of the production in the Globe to Globe Festival being by a company from Germany).  But Nick Hytner hasn't gone anywhere near Greece - his Athens is unequivocally London, with various iconic landmarks making appearances in the set, and hints at current movements, politics and even individuals (Tracy Emin is definitely the model for the Painter!).  The reviews have been glowing, and I expected this to be another moment like his Henry V at the time of Iraq, when Nick brings a bit of Shakespeare right into the present moment.  In the first half, he does.  Lots of it is quite jokey, but the jokes work - and when Simon Russell Beale is left alone on stage before the interval for the first blast of misanthropy, it is truly electrifying.  But the play, which becomes one long rant after the interval, doesn't allow this to be sustained. It's hard to see where any of it is going.

I've always felt that the most challenging element of the text is Alcibiades - and it's not a bad idea to equate his dissent with Occupy.  Really to pull it off would need much more textual doctoring, I think  - and more ensemble work.  The crowd acting is very "blocked" - you don't feel the mass movement.  When Nick ends the piece by having Alcibiades and his main cronies absorbed into the suited world of the bankers, it should be a cynical staging triumph - but somehow it isn't, because we don't really sense that there is anything to betray.

Alaknanda, who went with us, told me that Mike Alfreds (great and now overlooked director) is feeling very unhappy about the theatre in the UK at the moment.  Actors, he says, are just playing manufactured caricatures of themselves.  It was an interesting thought to carry into Kristine Landon-Smith's workshop on intracultural approaches to Greek drama, which she invited me to visit this morning.  Kristine was working with young actors from a very wide range of diverse backgrounds - lots of South Asians, with all the variety of that community today, and also people from (for example) West Country vicarages.  What was fascinating was the way she hardly bothered about "the character" or "the text" at all.  What interests her is the actor, the actor's imagination, the actor's voice.  Her way in to Greek tragedy was to place each actor in a situation they could relate to and perform in their own voice - and the situations were not necessarily even related to that in the text.  But, in the instances where the performers responded well, it was astonishingly freeing.  As in our own work, the key to interculturalism is for people to work from who they are - not to attempt to fit into some preconceived idea of what mainstream performance should be. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

An answer to Maureen Lipman

It's taken me a week to get round to doing this - I'm responding to something Maureen Lipman said on last week's Review Show - so you may not be able to see it on i-player any more - but here's the link anyway.

She was talking about a show called Wonderland by Vanishing Point - a devised piece about internet pornography (pictured).  It's a brave and important subject, but I haven't seen the show and I can't really comment on it.  What I can comment on is Maureen's discussion of the devising process.  She talked about devised theatre "getting endless rehearsal time....  while the rest of us have to do with three weeks", and stated that "you get great performances, but you never get a play".

Let's talk about the second point first, because in a way it's more important.  Devised theatre, as it's currently understood in the UK, is quite a new thing.  That's not to say that the form is new, of course - commedia dell'arte, African and Asian forms have depended on improvisation for a very long time - that's why some of the most important devised work to impact on our theatre emanated from Africa (I'm thinking of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Island  and Woza Albert! in particular - plays which were possible because of the improvisational skills of African actors - and which I would have thought, as canonical pieces, more than fit the description "a play").  Mike Leigh, who Maureen herself mentioned, was an early pioneer in Britain - though his methods are quite idiosyncratic - and he makes very carefully crafted, wonderfully constructed pieces.

She might have had a point if she'd been talking ten years ago.  Back then, we were making our first devised pieces, like Mappa Mundi.   It was almost an act of faith that we should make the play entirely by improvisation and discussion - I suppose I regarded it as a political statement about equality in intercultural performance. As a result there were Lipmanesque performances and great visuals - but the overall structure seemed lacking.  We weren't the only ones - lots of companies were working in this way, and the results were very much in the world Maureen described.

But not any more.  These days, lots of devising companies collaborate with writers.  We did on Re-Orientations: Mahesh Dattani, Paul Sirett and Brian Woolland were very much part of the process.  It doesn't mean that spontaneous improvisation and multiple voices aren't very much part of the process - in some ways, more so, actually - but we are also stepping back from the improvisations to think about structure, theme, character development and good old story.  The last few days, I've been revisiting improvised material from our spring workshop of Consumed in Shanghai, and comparing it with notes from research, discussions, interviews and feedback.  It's leading to some whole new ideas for the play's development, and also to a serious consolidation of what was achieved.  None of this turns me into a conventional playwright, or invalidates the workshop.  Quite the opposite - the play is made possible by the workshop.  It will be rehearsed (and re-written again - by everybody) early in the New Year.  Watch this space.

This may be what Maureen meant by "they have months of rehearsal time" - though I doubt it.  In fact, our workshop was three weeks long.  The rehearsals won't be much more - we aren't funded to the level where we can work for months, much as we would like to.  I suspect that our devising process is actually cheaper and faster than commissioning a writer and then rehearsing their script.  Not that something being cheap is a measure of anything in the arts, I should add!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Great White Director

Yesterday afternoon, I went along to Chickenshed to see an open dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet.  This is a co-production by Bilimankhwe Arts, who share our office, and Nanzikambe Arts in Malawi.  There's a terrific cast of Malawian actors, speaking mainly Chichewa but also some English, and the piece is directed by Amy Bonsall.  It's performing tonight in Stratford, and then goes back to Malawi, where it will tour open-air venues, largely with the aim of making sense of the play to Malawian youth, who have the honour of studying it for their exams.  My sense is that it will blow their brains.

The play is radically cut (running about 90 minutes) and is delivered in a very direct, storytelling style.  The costumes are traditional African, and so is the music.  There are virtually no props and no set at all - the show will work fantastically in open-air village spaces, school halls, and in Nanzikambe's own open-air theatre.  It's rough, immediate, unpretentious and exciting.  

There were about ten of us invited guests at the rehearsal, one of whom was Emer O'Toole, who works with Helen at Royal Holloway, and who Amy had invited on the back of a piece she wrote for the Guardian on the Globe to Globe Festival.  After the rehearsal (which she clearly enjoyed), Emer asked Amy, and Bilimankhwe's Artsitic Director Kate Stafford, about the "political paradigm" of the company being composed of black actors, but the director being white.  It led to a pretty lively debate, into which I got drawn - and so did the actors.

Emer's case (and I'll try to represent this accurately - but feel free to comment if you're reading this, Emer) was that the position of power in the majority of 'intercultural' productions tends to be held by 'the white person with the money'.  This, she felt, perpetuated a colonial relationship between Europe and its former colonies.  It's an issue I have faced before - though always from white middle-class intellectuals, and usually in relation to my directing 'black work' in the UK.  From the point of view of Border Crossings, my answer is always that we don't do 'black work', but that we create theatre which deals with the fact that different cultures now inhabit the same spaces, globally and at more local levels, and that somehow we need to negotiate ways of living together.  We won't achieve that by separatism.  Even when I have directed an all-black cast, in The Dilemma of a Ghost, it was in a production exploring the relationship between African culture and the westernised cultures of the diaspora - and the cast included English actors as well as Ghanaian ones, precisely so the culture clash could be real.  I deliberately decided not to produce Ama Ata Aidoo's other play, Anowa, which is actually the finer piece of writing in purely literary terms, precisely because in that play Africa speaks to Africa, and I felt that I had no voice in that particular dialogue, and neither did the UK audience.  

We talked about the RSC's Julius Caesar (pictured), which has an all-black cast, but is directed by white director Greg Doran.  Emer asked why, given that the company had assembled this cast, they could not also find a black director.  My response was that the decision to set the production in Africa surely was the direction - and that to hire a black director after that decision had been made would have been tokenistic in the extreme.  The issue here is surely not that the cast is black and the director is white, but that the production has been made by a group of English people (yes, the black actors are English), talking about Africa as a useful shorthand for a violent, unstable and superstitious world.  That seems to me to be much more problematic than skin colour  - in the same way that Rustom Bharucha has shown Brook's Mahabharata to be an appropriation of Indian culture for Western ends.  That's where the real neo-colonialism is to be found.

But the strongest point in the argument was made by the actors, particularly by Aaron Ngalonde Nhlane, who is also a director with Nanzikambe.  He clearly has some knowledge of arrogant western directors who impose their will on African casts - he did a very funny impression of the process.  But Amy's work has not been like that, he explained.  Her direction has been about facilitating a collaboration, in which she brought her understanding of Shakespearean English, and the actors brought their own language, their knowledge of Malawian culture, and their sense of the characters.  And this is surely what an intercultural production has to be - not a 'power relationship', but a democratic space, in which everybody has an equal voice.

I acknowledge that this does not always happen.  But it had happened in this production, and it is also what we do at Border Crossings.  There is, of course, some sort of power inherent in being 'the director': but, as every true artist and every true democrat knows, the only way to deal with power is to give it up to a wider constituency.  That seems to me to be a lot more important than skin-colour.

I respect Emer's point, I really do.  But we have to get beyond it.  It's crazy, in a globalised world, to say that only black people can talk about Africa or Chinese people talk about China.  We have to have dialogues - and to discriminate as to who can take part in them on the basis of colour will prevent artists of integrity (like Amy, and like Aaron) from working together.  And that is dangerous.  Because the world needs what they can make in collaboration - something much bigger than they could make alone.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Global Savages

The last couple of days at the Festival have been packed with discussions - not all of them with people actually appearing here, although everyone is associated with the ideas behind Planet IndigenUs in some way.  The British Council in Canada, who sponsored my flight here, are full of ideas to support future collaborations with this country - which is pleasing, as it looks like there will be some!

The most important meeting - by which I mean the longest and the deepest - was with Ron Berti from Debajehmujig (which means Storytellers).  I'd been aware of this extraordinary company for a while, and the ever-helpful Bruce Sinclair from the Canada Council (who memorably dance the Métis jig at the Origins opening last year) suggested I should get in touch with them and see if we could meet while I was here.  Long-term followers of this blog will know that I once tried to drive from Toronto to Manitoulin Island, where they are based, and failed to make it, crashing a hire car on the way.  So I was deeply impressed that Ron not only responded warmly to my email, but also got in his car and drove for seven hours to meet me.  We talked for three hours - about a great many things - and then he got back in the car and drove straight back again.  Which was a pretty long day for him.  

Most theatre-makers dealing with the indigenous experience, whether in Canada, Australia, the US, New Zealand or elsewhere, are to some degree people living and operating in an urban space.  Their work is often about the complex identities which result from combining a sense of living in a tradition with the demands of the contemporary environment.  Often that tension results in brilliant drama - the work of Marie Clements, who I saw on Sunday, being a very good case in point.  Debajehmujig are different.  They live and work on a reservation - indeed, the island is actually unceded territory - and they operate within indigenous social and cultural structures and protocols.  Joe, their Artistic Director, is a storyteller because he was chosen to be one at the age of 11.  He is finding new ways to discharge his cultural obligations in dialogue with the contemporary world.  The emphasis in this company's work is not on the hybrid identity of the modern aboriginal experience, however, but on 18,000 years of continuous history and culture.  It's a long time.  As Ron says, looked at this way, the colonial experience is rather new.  If Native American history was compressed into a month, Columbus arrived yesterday afternoon.

Our three hours are rich and fruitful, and we leave with a sense that this is an important first encounter, that will lead on to more prolonged and profound collaboration.  There's a great deal of work to do first, of course - but we're already talking about work which we can include in Origins 2015, and show in Canada as well.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Recitation of the Great Law

This image is an artwork derived from a wampum belt.  Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, wampum is not "Indian money" but a form of treaty, written in image.  On this famous wampum, the two lines represent the Iroquois and the European colonisers - two cultures operating in parallel, and heading in the same direction.

This was just one of many things I learnt yesterday at the Six Nations Reserve, where the Woodland Cultural Centre operates as the Harbourfront's partner in presenting Planet IndigenUs.  The "Rez" is large, though nowhere near the size it should be according to the original treaties.  There are no visible borders - but it's clear when you are on it, as the housing pattern shifts.  Instead of the grids beloved of white North America, the houses on the Six Nations sit at a distance from one another, each in its own piece of land.  Sometimes the land is cultivated, sometimes not.  But is is always there.

My day was packed.  I saw the museum and the art exhibitions at Woodland. The centre's main building is converted from an old Residential School - Canada's equivalent of the Stolen Generation.  Just recently, on an upper floor, a stash of toys has been discovered under the floorboards: marbles, sticks, little hand-made dolls.  They were hidden there because the children in the Residential Schools were not allowed to play.  

I saw a game of lacrosse ("the oldest team sport in the world", I was proudly told - and there was an ancient picture to prove it).  I visited the home of the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson, who lived in the late 19th / early 20th century.   She visited London, where she was paraded as exotic - although the house was incredibly European in style.  Her father, who knew all the languages of the region as well as English, was an interpreter, and was clearly obsessed with Napoleon.  His daughter was named after the Emperor's sister, Pauline Bonaparte.  Most importantly of all, I visited the Six Nations Polytechnic, and the Indigenous Knowledge Centre, where indigenous ideas are being kept alive, indeed revitalised and validated for the contemporary world.  They've had recent symposia around seeds and cultivation, food science, healing, nursing, language....  it was all very inspiring.

Back at the centre, I was able to sit in on rehearsals for a new play called Salt Baby, which deals with the issue of marrying outside the community.  A really important piece to tour around the reservations.  Rather wonderfully, as I walked into the room, I realised that the director was Yvette Nolan, and one of the actors was Derek Garza - both of whom came to Origins 2009 with Almighty Voice and His Wife

Thinking hard about the day, I headed back to the main site in Toronto for the Festival's evening around Truth and Reconciliation, with the indigenous judge who heads Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Sinclair.  The commission is focused largely on the Residential Schools, although the history of Canada's black population was also brought into the picture, and was a powerful part of the evening.  The judge was very clear that, without truth, there could be no reconciliation: "History is the account we present to ourselves of our collective journey".

The title of this post?  On the Six Nations, there is currently a process of Reciting the Great Law of the Iroquois.  It takes about ten days, including explanations and discussions.  The process is supposed to happen about every five years, but it has in fact been twenty since it was last done, because of internal tensions in the community.  The fact that it is happening now is another re-assertion of indigenous identity, and another part of a healing process.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Planet IndigenUs

Hugely excited to be back in Toronto for the Planet IndigenUs Festival.  Like Origins, this is a festival of indigenous cultures from across the planet - though there are important differences too.  For one thing, this festival happens in a country which has a First Nations population, and so the connections which are made here are to do with those people welcoming their counterparts from overseas, and demonstrating a solidarity with them.  In London, the position is different - we are inviting people from around the world precisely because they have approaches to art and living which are very different from our own.

On a more mundane, but important note, Planet IndigenUs manages to be free, expect for a few ticketed performances.  One of these was Hone Kouka's play I, George Nepia - which pulls off the remarkable feat of being a gentle show about rugby.  Wonderful to see Hone and his company again after the wonderful Tu in Wellington earlier this year.  Wonderful also to reconnect with Pacific Curls, and with Marie and Rita from The Edward Curtis ProjectAnd I've only been here three days....

I got chance to share some of these ideas with Marc Merilainen, the Festival's Artistic Director, in a panel discussion about curating yesterday.  The third person on the panel was Dione Joseph, who is currently working with Big hArt in Australia - so it was another time of rich connections.  Marc had some fascinating questions about what makes an indigenous festival distinctive, how it relates to community and to activism, and what the future of such festivals might be.  All things which exercise my mind on a regular basis.

Still to come is a visit to the Harbourfront's partner venue on the Six Nations Reserve, and Kaha:wi Dance Theatre's collaboration with indigenous performers from Japan (yes - they come from the islands!) - called Susuriwka - Willow Bridge.  That's the show in the picture above.  Looks amazing. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Jack Mapanje and the Olympic powhiri

I had a great time last night interviewing Jack Mapanje, the Malawian poet, before the performance of Kate Stafford's play and Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, which is based on Jack's book of the same name.  The book is a memoir of his time as a political prisoner under Dr. Hastings Banda, Malawi's dictator in the 80s and beyond.  He's been described as "the most important African poet writing in English today", and he's certainly a big draw for African people in London, who came in their droves to hear the talk.  And he's a great talker.  It was very different from the talk with Peter the other week - when I just had to ask one question and off he went for an hour.  Jack, with a combination of erudition and African modesty, answers the questions in a gentle, contemplative rhythm.  At times, I found myself starting another question before he'd quite finished the answer - I had to learn to wait for the last thought to land.  He doesn't hurry his audience: he wants the idea to be full and properly formulated.  Well, he's a poet.

We talked about the experience of prison, and the experience of writing about it, the way in which this can provide some sort of catharsis, and allow you to move beyond the horror.  Jack has not only written about his own imprisonment, he has also edited an anthology of African prison writing, called Gathering Seaweed, after one of the pointless tasks undertaken by prisoners on Robben Island.  The roll-call of the anthologised reads like a Who's Who of African literature and culture over the last century - Mandela, Ngugi, Nkrumah, Biko, Saro-wiwa, Soyinka....  It's very sad that so many countries in Africa should regard self-expression as a crime - and truly it was the only crime committed by Jack and so many others.  Even now, twenty-one years after his release, and with a genuinely democratic and enlightened President of Malawi, Jack feels it would be too dangerous for him to go back.

Today, I got to be part of Olympic fever, and to pay a long-overdue visit to Hinemihi - the beautiful Maori meeting-house in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey.  This place, which was a focus in our recent work on Maori heritage, has become the home of the UK Maori, and today was the site for an indigenous welcome, given to the New Zealand Olympic team.  It well and truly got me in the mood for the next stop - Planet IndigenUs....  

Monday, August 06, 2012

A weekend with Africa

Yes, I know there were one or two other things which made this a great weekend, but in between cheering the various gold medals, we managed to squeeze in a couple of amazing events at the Africa Centre, as part of the Africa Salon season which we are curating with them.  On Saturday afternoon, we had a fabulous time with Eugene Skeef (pictured), the great South Africa musician and cultural activist.  The format for this session, called Music and Politics, was similar to the one we created for the opening of last year's Origins: a conversation around a political, cultural or spiritual topic, followed by a piece of music which gives the audience an emotional space to think about what has just been said.  Eugene has led such a rich life, and is such a wonderful raconteur, that the time flew by.  The main focus for much of the conversation was his close involvement with Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s - there remains much in Steve's analysis of what was wrong with the apartheid system that applies to our globalised world order....  After 32 years in London, Eugene is planning to return to South Africa soon, precisely because he feels the country now needs its artists, and in particular artists who create a healing space, more than ever.

The role of music in conflict resolution was an important topic in our discussion.  Eugene had brought with him an udu, which is a Nigerian women's instrument, used specifically for the purpose of creating a healing space.  Rather wonderfully, his particular instrument was made in the traditional form by a Zulu cousin of his, and decorated with Zulu designs.  So it is in itself an intercultural artefact.  Eugene's music is wonderful in its interculturality.  It's like listening to the world: you can hear the different cultures, blending together but absolutely retaining their own integrity.

On Sunday afternoon, we joined forces with our old friends at Sandblast Arts to present the UK premiere screening of Tebraa: a film from the Western Sahara, which looks at the lives of ten different Saharawi women, in the occupied territories, the refugee camps, and in exile.  Very excitingly, we were joined by two Saharawi men living in London, one of whom, Sidi, is the UK representative for the Polisario Front, fighting for freedom in this last, totally unknown, Africa colony.  There's more about this conflict here.  Much of the discussion with Sidi after the film was about why this human rights catastrophe is so unknown in the West.  Campaigning organisations, it seems, do not regard it as a priority precisely because it isn't on the news agenda.  The US doesn't take any interest because it depends on a relationship with Morocco, the colonial power, to obtain the precious phosphates which it lacks, and which are under the sands of the Western Sahara.  The academics who advise the US government are often funded by Morocco...  and so it goes on.  As so often, it seems that the only way forward is to empower people on the ground - to follow a grass-roots approach.  It was the Western Sahara that started the Arab Spring - so there is precedent.

One more event to go on Tuesday at 7 - I'll be in conversation with Malawian poet Jack Mapanje.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Africa Salon

Last night Sheelah and I (and Lady Antonia Fraser, plus other luminaries) were at the Press Night of Bilimankhwe Arts' new production at the Africa Centre: And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night.  Bilimakhwe share our Wood Green office, and Kate Stafford produced Dilemma of a Ghost for us, so we know quite a lot about this show!  Kate, who lived in Malawi for a time, set up the co-producing organisation, Nanzikambe Arts.  She's brought over no fewer than nine of their performers to tell this story from their own recent history.  No wonder the whole thing has been six years in the planning.  What's more, the book on which it's based, the prison memoir of Jack Mapanje (pictured above) took a full 20 years to write.  So this is a real labour of love - and a story that needs to be told.  Antonia Fraser was there because she and Harold Pinter were among the British writers who campaigned through PEN for Jack's release.  In many ways, this was the story that put Malawi into international consciousness - and so all the more reason for it to be re-visited.

The show is part of the Africa Salon, which we are curating with the Africa Centre over the next couple of weeks.  The season kicked off a couple of weeks back with Peter's inspiring talk.  Next up on Saturday afternoon is an event called Music and Politics with Eugene Skeef - pictured above with Peter and Leeto Thale at the talk.  Eugene  is a South African percussionist, composer, poet, educationalist and animator.  During the apartheid era he was an activist in the Black Consciousness movement with Steve Biko, and co-led a nation-wide literacy campaign teaching in schools, colleges and communities across South Africa. He moved to London in 1980. 
Click here to book.

On Sunday afternoon, we'll be teaming up with Sandblast Arts to present the UK premiere screening of  Tebraa, a new film about women from the Western Sahara.  Tebraa refers to poetry specifically associated with Saharawi women that reflect intimate themes relating to love and sorrow. The documentary shows the work of fourteen Andalusian filmmakers who portray eleven Saharawi women and young girls. They are stories of women who have been denied their fundamental right to a homeland. Whether based in the Sahrawi refugee camps, in exile in Spain or living under Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara, they all express a wish to come back some day to the country that was taken from them in 1975.  Followed by a discussion with Saharawi people, now living in exile in London.
Click here to book.  

As if all that wasn't enough, I'll be doing a pre-show conversation with Jack Mapanje on Tuesday night, 7th August, at 7pm, prior to the performance of Crocodiles.  Never mind the Olympics with all those empty seats and match-fixing scandals....  this is the place to be!

Monday, July 30, 2012

A week in Berlin

Just got back from a fascinating week in Berlin, courtesy of the EU's Grundtvig Programme, who funded me to do what they call "In-Service Training" with an organisation called the Comparative Research Network, looking at interculturalism and cross-community dialogue.  CRN is an academic set-up, largely run by geographers, but the workshop was very practical, indeed very theatrical, in its approach, and pointed some really useful ways of making use of theoretical ideas around cultural exchange.  Just the sort of thing we've been looking to develop in the community engagement side of the company.

Take the image above.  The feet belong to a Turkish woman, a first-generation migrant to Berlin, who lives in the Kreuzberg area of the city.  This is a hugely diverse part of the city, far from the conventional tourist trail, and it seemed strange to be led around in a tour group.  But the viewpoint and ideas of a local guide from a particular community enabled us to see the area very differently.  There is history everywhere you look...  even in Berlin's equivalent of Tottenham.  The little bronze plaques at her feet are miniature memorials to Jewish people taken to the concentration camps by the Nazis.  There are many of them along Karl-Marx-strasse.  She showed us her mosque, which is a converted Christian Free Church, a school where 90% of the pupils are from immigrant backgrounds, shop windows with clothes for Turkish weddings and circumcisions.  The city from inside.  A beautiful cultural reversal.

On the last day of the workshop, after presenting what we do to the rest of a very cross-disciplinary group, I found myself talking animatedly about how exciting it had been to take part in a workshop so specifically rooted in the city.  One year ago, I said, only a few yards from the Wood Green office, my own city had been in flames.  We have to address this disjuncture between living somewhere and regarding it as home.  We have to find ways for people to validate their London neighbourhoods as cultural spaces in which they are at home.  I still have to process the ideas from the workshop fully - but my sense is that they may point some exciting ways forward.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Peter Sellars on Africa

A fantastic evening at the Africa Centre last week, with our Patron, Peter Sellars, talking on the theme Dialogue with Africa.  It's the first time we've been able to include Peter directly in our work (apart from his inimitable programme notes and Foreword to the Trilogy book), and so a really exciting event for us.  We're in the thick of a whole series of Africa-related projects: Sunshine on a Rainy Day was great a few weeks back, and now we're doing a whole series of events with the Africa Centre for the Africa Salon - watch this space!  Alongside that, we're developing an arts and cultural strategy for Botswana, and a number of potential new theatre projects in a number of countries.  And there's written material about Shakespeare in Africa on its way.....

All of this coincided with Peter bringing his production Desdemona to the Barbican, where it performs next week.  I saw (or perhaps I should say heard) the piece last year in Berkeley, and thought it was fantastic.  Toni Morrison has re-imagined Othello in terms of Desdemona's after-life, and her dialogues with other dead, including Barbary, her mother's maid.  The name, in Shakespeare's time, meant "Africa" - and so Toni and Peter's idea is that Desdemona was brought up by a black woman.  This role, played by the great Malian musician Rokia Traoré, brings an authentic African voice into the production.  As Peter says, Shakespeare's Africa was exotic and imagined - today our engagement with Africa has to be real and human.  It's a very strong case for the kind of work we do: creative collaborations between artists from wildly differing cultures.  Peter explains that these are not simple things to engineer, but that is the "harsh reality of shared space".

I'm not going to blog about this at length, because the talk was videoed by the National Theatre archive for their new black theatre site, and we'll be putting it on our site too.  Suffice to say that a packed room hung on his every word: he really is the personification of passion when it comes to intercultural theatre. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Dare to be Different

It's been an amazing few weeks here, with our Participation and Learning programmes going into overdrive as the educational year heads towards its close.  Joel and Gabrielle have been working very closely with the London Māori community to complete the Oral Histories component of our Heritage Project - and the website has now been launched!  Click here.  Once you're on the site, you need to register if you want to access the fascinating archive of interviews, which are there in both written and audio form, dealing with migration, Polynesian life in London, ceremony, lifestyle and change.  There's also a great video about the project, which shows people from the community discussing why this work matters to them, and young people from Malorees School who have been working with the London Māori.  And, the process, they all got their arts awards!

Meanwhile, down in Plymouth, I've been working with a group of young refugees and asylum seekers, known as Dare to be Different, who came to the city as a dispersal centre, and who come from places as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, Angola, Russia, Congo, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe - and probably a few more besides.  Two months of workshops have explored their creativity, and have drawn off their experiences, their hopes and their dreams.  It's been a fascinating and inspiring journey - and it's culminated in a performance called Division which they've presented at the Drum Theatre.

What's very salutary about this group is the complex and fluid nature of the identities they are exploring.  In some ways, they are defined by their past and by their refugee status: they have fled from persecution, and many of them have lived through far more in their early years than most people do in a lifetime.  We had one very powerful session based around the participants sharing personal stories about how their lives had changed - and many of them were astounded by what others had lived through.  And so was I.  On the other hand, they feel an intense need to move beyond that restricted identity, and to create a new way of living in the new space they have come to.  They are young people, with much to give and much to expect; so they cannot and must not be defined solely by a past over which they had no control.  Division was a terrific piece of theatre, because it was able to include a sense of what had been left behind, or perhaps absorbed - but also a sense of the lightness, the comedy present in young lives, and the aspirations and challenges of living in a new space.  

What's more, they were wonderfully eloquent about all this when we had a post-show discussion, and that discussion involved not only theatre people and friends, but also public figures like the police, the racial equality council and other public agencies.  In fact, this work became a study in how theatre can become an attribute of participatory democracy.  Something we are sorely lacking in our society right now. 

Monday, July 02, 2012

Ganesh, the Swastika, and the question of disability

Back in February, I wrote a post about Back to Back's production Ganesh versus the Third Reich, which had been showcased at APAM.  I said then how important I thought it was - and I'd only seen half an hour's worth of the material.  Now I've seen the whole thing, and it is truly extraordinary.

There are two plays at work in this performance.  One of them is the story of Ganesh making a journey to Germany in an attempt to recover the swastika.  This story alone is complex enough, with beautiful stage imagery, multiple languages (there's a surprising amount of German), Hitler and Mengele, and a growing bond between the Hindu god and a fleeing Jew with "mental retardation".  The other half of the piece deals with the making of this piece, and shows the debates between the core actors in the company, who are perceived to have learning disabilities, and their (non-disabled) guest collaborator.  The bravery of the company in sharing this material is remarkable - particularly when it comes to demonstrating in a very visceral way the eruption of frustration which can occur in the intensity of collaborative work and the privacy of the rehearsal room.  The games with the language of theatre create a sense that these scenes are a fiction derived from fact ("When we perform, there will be an audience in these seats" / "There is an audience").  When that fiction topples over into violence, and the non-disabled actor walks out on his colleagues, the dividing lines feel horribly narrow, and the attitudes of the audience are implicated.  What's more, because the backstage scenes constantly elide into the Nazi scenes, you are left with a sense that the deep prejudices of fascism are dangerously close to the assumptions made in our own society.  

It's incredibly upsetting.  It is also very funny.  And it is work of incredible intellectual insight and sophistication.  By people who are usually regarded as having very little ability in that area.  How wrong we always are when we seek to label.