Saturday, May 18, 2013


Hannah Baird, Will Leach & Laura Jane Watling in  Hayavadana.  Photo: Natasha K. Stone
For the last few weeks, I've been working at East 15 Acting School (not in East 15 these days, but Southend, of all places).  They have a fantastic BA course in World Performance, which moves away from the Stanislavski-based conventions of drama schools, to take in a much broader range of forms and styles, with a particular emphasis on Asian theatre.  In previous years, Kristine Landon-Smith, David Tse and Janet Steele have been among the directors asked to direct the final-year shows - so I was very honoured to be approached this time.  As much as anything, it's a wonderful space for me to experiment with texts and styles that interest me for the company.  Girish Karnad's Hayavadana is a play that has fascinated me for some time, so it was wonderful to work on it with such an enthusiastic and appropriately trained group of people.

Here's what I wrote about it for the programme:

Hayavadana: the Hybrid Horse

“Mixture is how newness comes into the world”
(Salman Rushdie)

It’s self-evident that Hayavadana is a play about hybridity: a man has a horse’s head; friends find themselves sharing bodies, heads and a wife; the elephant-headed god presides.  What is perhaps less immediately obvious is that the play is itself a hybrid.  The main plot gives the appearance of being an Indian folk tale, but is in fact a European story, written in 1957 by Thomas Mann, The Transposed Heads.  The sub-plot of Hayavadana himself is Shakespearean: there’s a clear nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the man with an equine head; and Girish Karnad has acknowledged that the idea of a second plot “to tell the same story twice” was directly inspired by Shakespearean models.

The hybridity of the play lies in the fact that these European models are presented through a form derived from the Indian folk theatre, and particularly the Yakshagana of Girish’s native Karnathaka – a form filled with dance, music, narration, ornate costumes and make-up.  The play makes a case for the Indianess of Indian theatre – as Girish put it in a (hitherto unpublished) interview with me: “I felt it had to be held out as an agenda, as a manifesto, to say ‘I’m now going back to folk theatre’ and using folk theatre conventions to show that one could do something sensitive, intelligent, acceptable to an educated, intelligent audience in terms of that form.”  The play touched a nerve when it was first seen in 1971: India was slowly finding her feet after the process of decolonization, and there was a need simultaneously to relate Indian culture to the influences of an ever more internationally connected way of being, and to reassert the value of traditional forms that had been dismissed as primitive or shallow under colonialism.

Hayavadana’s hybridity finds a way of addressing a contemporary Indian audience that straddles the colliding worlds of the post-colonial.  Bringing it to Britain is an experiment in doing the same thing.  For us, this production has been about addressing the hybrid, intercultural nature of our own contemporary condition; embracing the complexity of a society shaped by multiple cultural influences; looking at what the encounter between Europe and Asia can say to our own post-colonial space; exploring how a quest for completeness can reflect our own national conversation.  We have done this against a background of scaremongering about immigration, and electoral gains for the radical right both in Britain and across Europe.  This is theatre that feels very immediate, very pertinent, very necessary.

And so it has been a deep joy for me to work with students from East 15’s World Performance course – because these young actors are capable of making the theatre our society needs.  It is not going to be enough for the actor of tomorrow to deliver naturalistic western text and psychological realism: indeed, I would say that to restrict our theatre to these approaches would be a betrayal of the international audience we now address that amounts to cultural imperialism.  The actor of tomorrow needs to embrace the glories of non-Western forms – Yakshagana, Jingju, Bunraku, Bharatanatyam – and to generate new energies through their collision with our own, more textual traditions.  These young actors are eager to learn from the Other – and in so doing, they show us the potential of tomorrow’s theatre to bring people together and regenerate our divided world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Lucy in China

Shanghai Theatre Academy
Building on the success of Consumed, Lucy has just made a trip to China, to work on joint education and participation initiatives with our partners there.  Huge thanks to the British Council's Connections through Culture programme for supporting this visit!  As with most first visits to China, this was clearly an eye-opener for Lucy, and tremendously exciting!  Here are a few thoughts from her:

"Great first workshops - all female students, and despite being in essay session so very busy/tired- seemed to enjoy working with me. (Du Ping was worried they might not show as under lots of stress but had 14).  I decided to do similar workshops to those done in UK- so I could compare responses.  It was fascinating.  Stories of names were amazing - one person admitted her name is fake as she had to create a 'new' father  they invented to go on her papers so they could  travel to Korea. She uses her fake  name - her mother won't let her take her name as all women in her family have been unlucky (5 generations of single mothers).  One person's name was chosen from an ancient dictionary from the Ming dynasty- using lucky numbers.  One girl had a name meaning 'dawn'- but she kept being sick- so her parents consulted a name expert and changed her name to 'pure flowing water' - and when I asked her if her health  improved - evidently it had.  I had a teacher from the business faculty who joined us out of interest and she advised the girls that even if their parents aren't openly affectionate with them or tell them that they love them - their names chosen are  a reflection of their love!  I was slightly apprehensive they might take time to warm-up but they opened up immediately and it was a very lively session.  They were happy when I moved tables and told them to put notebooks away-  we were here to play!  I got a round of applause at end of workshop- (maybe that’s common here?- still nice though)"

"I was really sad to leave the students today- they too seemed so upset it was the last day. Despite all having major essays due tomorrow they were fantastic.  We were talking about dramatic action, and looking at wants and objectives-what we want now, short term future and end of life and what was stopping us. One girl, talking about the end of life, said she would like to look back and see she had regrets: I asked her if she meant no regrets, she said no, she is always a good girl, a good daughter a good student, always hands homework in etc. - just once she would like not to be, and to do something she could regret!

These students so need drama- they need to discuss their hopes and dreams, think about how human nature works. Many of them wanted to be dancers, musicians, composers but had long since given up their dreams so young - they enjoyed so much playing, talking, creating.  It was very moving.  I feel
very emotional thinking about them.  Both groups all girls - and so pressured.  Funnily going back to names- if fathers chose names they often chose names such as 'quiet beauty', (who quietly and shyly announced she didn't want to be quiet) or 'gentle flower': if mothers chose names they often seemed to go for 'reach for the sky'. One girl said her name had male and female characters and people often wrongly thought it meant her parents wanted a boy: in fact her mother wanted her to have the characteristics from a man that combined with the female character would help her to succeed."

"I had three hour session with Shanghai Theatre Academy this morning - Daniel [Shen Liang] said he'd never seen such a fast paced workshop before!  Students were lovely- they liked doing more than talking, so we mainly stuck to practical stuff.  At least two students are interested in the internet project - so I am meeting them with Daniel tomorrow afternoon.  I have also agreed to meet British student who was working there who is about to undertake her MA….might just squeeze in a morning sight sighting…"