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.....