Wednesday, December 31, 2014


This Flesh is Mine.  Photo: Richard Davenport
It's been the year that the blog posts got fewer but longer.  Less to do with simply reporting what we've been doing - I guess Facebook and (even more) Twitter have well and truly usurped that function - more to do with commentary, discussion, and engaging in controversies.  And there have certainly been plenty of those.  I suppose it's to be expected, as we began our period of engagement with the Middle East, producing Brian Woolland's wonderful This Flesh is Mine in collaboration with Ashtar Theatre in Palestine.  It's a production of which we are hugely proud, and marks the first in a series of projects around cultural dialogue with this most inspiring and battle-scarred area of the globe.  As the year ends, we are planning its revival, as well as two new productions related to the region, and continuing our community work with Middle Eastern communities and refugees in the UK.  Our community work has been made possible through ongoing support from the Lloyds Bank Foundation - huge thanks to them for allocating funds below the radar, where they don't get publicity but they really do help to change lives for the better.

As part of this engagement in global debates, we've also seen an exciting new development in the Laboratory, with the first of our public conversations around the key issues around our work.  Rustom Bharucha's evening around Terror and Performance was extraordinary and provocative - with lots of stimulation for ways of moving forward our ideas.  In the new year, there will be announcements of further discussions - I can promise fireworks.

It's also been an important year for our work with indigenous cultures.  Origins being a biennial festival had a year off in 2014, but there had to be a lot of planning for 2015, with some really important new partnerships being negotiated.  I'm not allowed to reveal all the plans just yet - but I can offer the teasers that there will be at least one partner of national standing involved, an even greater diversity of countries and art forms represented, and a charismatic figure of global standing to give the Origins Lecture!  So watch this space....

For the last few years, I've used the last post of the year to survey cultural developments and events that I've found particularly exciting.  This year hasn't been the most exciting - perhaps not surprising, given the immense strain on the sector.  There's been a lot of playing safe - and even some of the more radical work has seemed less exciting in terms of content, more in terms of style and technical prowess.  As so often, artists from overseas are showing us what we should be doing.  In one case, Exhibit B, I even had to go overseas to find out, because the show was closed in London in response to protests.  What do we think we are playing at?  This was the most moving piece of theatre I saw all year.  I also loved John Adams' new opera The Gospel According to the Other Mary, stunningly staged by our fabulous Patron Peter Sellars; David Grieg's The Events; and two LIFT shows - Young Jean Lee's The Shipment and the Chilean production The Year I was Born.

Also heart-wrenching was the Belvoir's extraordinary re-imagining of The Wild Duck at the Barbican - I really never thought I would be calling that play an emotional highlight!  Australia also contributed my best film of the year - Charlie's Country at LFF - and two terrific novels.  Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest is both a touching study of encroaching dementia and a crime thriller - you really don't know what's going to happen next.  Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (not yet published here but on Kindle) confirms her as a rich and poetic, authentically Aboriginal voice.  The novel is at once political, lyrical, futuristic and rooted in deep, dreaming time.

Another Australian novel won the Booker - but only just.  I loved Ali Smith's How to be Both, which was pipped at the post.  I read Eyes before Camera, and it felt satisfying that way round, with the emotional climax of the end also making sense of the opening.  I'd love to know what it’s like to unravel it the opposite way...  but of course, I'll never get the chance.  You don't quite get to be both.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Performed in Paris

Macbeth: Nirupama Nityanandan and Serge Nicolaï
I've been in Paris for a couple of days, thanks to Vincent Mangado and Dominique Jambert, two actors from the Théâtre du Soleil who I met on a panel in Cambridge a couple of months ago.  Panels seem to be rather good networking spots - we also owed our time with Zoukak in Beirut to a panel.  I guess you actually get to talk about your artistic ideas if you meet in a public forum...  it cuts the need for small talk!

The current Soleil production is Macbeth.  It's clear to see why Ariane Mnouchkine wanted to tell this particular story at this moment in French history.  It's a very contemporary reading, with TV crews and automated weaponry.  In the English scene, the London Eye rotates in the background, having clearly displaced Big Ben as a symbol of the City.  The Macbeths are a "power couple", surrounded by luxury, clearly wealthy beyond belief, and yet somehow still ambitious for more, to the point of self-destruction.  It's the world of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni - politics as glamour.  Lady Macbeth is first seen supervising the gardeners on their estate.  The intense exchanges after the murder of Duncan take place in a stable, with (very realistic) horses tossing their tails and snorting at every exclamation and every knock.  The murder is discovered as the court prepares for breakfast around a banquet table, complete with self-service bars for the cooked items.

What this achieves really well is an atmosphere of sick opulence coupled with universal suspicion.  The Lady Macduff scene is particularly strong: an entire household of servants assembles to hear the Messenger's warning, and set about burning important papers, dressing the children and packing cases before the murderers arrive.  It's actually very realistic for a Mnouchkine production, continuing a trajectory that she's been on since Le Dernier Caravasérail, which at times it resembles, especially in its regimented scene-changes.  The action is accompanied by an almost constant live musical score - but if anything, this actually serves to make the production feel even more in the mode we tend to accept as realistic, since it brings it closer to the language of film.

There's something unsatisfying in this.  This political world, presented so realistically, sits uneasily with the military background of the play.  The opening war, with the political figures on the battlefield, seems untrue to the contemporary setting.  In the later scenes of the thanes rebelling against Macbeth, there are buried cachés of rifles, torches and bicycles - recalling Ariane's longstanding desire to create a piece about the French Resistance.  Again, it seems to belong to a different world from the contemporary political aggression.  Nor do the supernatural elements of the play fit well with the contemporary realism.  It was difficult to understand who or what the witches were supposed to be, the nature of ghosts and visions in a world that screamed of "rationality".  Only the sleepwalking scene, superbly performed by Nirupama Nityanandan, seemed able to cross the barrier between the suburban and the supernatural.

As ever, it was wonderful to be at the Cartoucherie.  The ritual of eating before the show - cheaply and very well at communal tables - and the extraordinary warmth of the open spaces make attending a performance there a special, holy, public event in a way from which we all should learn.

Exhibit B
I also - at last - got to see Brett Bailey's Exhibit B.  I had thought, after it was closed due to protests in London, that I had missed the chance.  For a time it seemed as if I might miss it again - there were more protests in Paris, and an attempt to close the show through the legal system.  As we approached the performance space, there were gendarmes with guns and crash barriers, checking names every few yards.  This was every bit as intense as the situation had been in London, except that the French authorities had upheld the tradition of Liberté, and supported the performances.  This meant that the debate could be informed by people actually seeing the show, although the protestors refused to do so.  In one particularly striking development, Lilian Thuram, a black footballer from the triumphant 1998 French World Cup team, announced that he would be going a second time, and taking his children.

And this points towards something that, in the midst of the racism row, is very surprising.  Exhibit B is a very tender, compassionate, and deeply moving piece of work.  It is an act of mourning and commemoration.  It serves to educate and to warn, but not to accuse.  It is, I would dare to say, an act of healing.  

The performance begins with the spectators seated, waiting for their individual number to be called, which allows them to enter the exhibition space.  The process has the effect of separating you from friends and companions.  It also feels very tense (something added to by the police presence outside).  This is how asylum seekers must feel at ports: cut off and dehumanised.  Reduced to a number.

You walk past a series of tableaux, each of which features one or two black performers, who are motionless apart from their eyes, with which they deliberately return your gaze.  Each tableau has a caption that contextualises it - and these constantly underline that "onlookers" are part of the exhibit.  You are a part of this.  There are tableaux drawn from the history of "human zoos", evoking the practice of displaying "savage" people from Africa as curiosities, including the display of body parts after their deaths (in some cases until very recently).  There are others that confront the way in which colonialism in Africa assaulted the body - the cutting off of the hands of rubber workers judged to be lax in the Belgian Congo; African women in a concentration camp in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) boiling and scraping their compatriots' skulls clean to send to Germany for pseudoscientific examination.  There is a "coloured" woman from apartheid South Africa, who because of her racial designation could not even sit in a park with her "white" mother.  There are refugees from Somalia and Congo, recently arrived, their lives summarised in a bald list of facts beside them.  There is a a contemporary Somali man strapped in a row of airline seats, his mouth taped shut: in front of him are listed 14 asylum seekers who have died during their forced returns from Europe since the 90s.

It sounds rather simple, rather factual, rather documentary.  But the presence of the living performers makes this drama, theatre.  As Dominique says, they incarnate the people who are remembered here, bringing them into your consciousness as you become aware that you are also in theirs.  This does not have the effect of making you feel accused - but rather allows you to commune directly with the performers, and to sense through them the tragedy of history.  They enable this through their extraordinary stillness and deep, calm concentration: Brett tells me afterwards that the only rehearsal he undertakes with them is a training in meditation.  As you pass by each person, and share time with them, you do honour to those they embody.  It becomes very difficult to move on: you only do so when you are ready, usually with some small physical signal of farewell and of homage.

All this is embraced by beautiful vocal music, emanating from the final tableau, in which four singing heads emerge from plinths, harmonising.  Above them are three photographs: the severed heads of three Namibians.  One of them is a child.

You emerge devastated, but also purged.  There is time to sit quietly, to talk if you need to.  There are people there from the Ligue des droits d l'homme.  There is a space to write your feelings down, if you wish.  I took time to process.  I am attempting to do it now.  But, of course, the whole point is that this intense exchange between bodies and souls in space is beyond mere words.  

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Gospel According to the Other Mary

As people who've been reading this blog for a while will know, I should declare a bit of an interest in the operas of John Adams.  I first got to know Peter Sellars by assisting him on Nixon in China at the ENO.  That led to me reviving that piece, both there and in Athens, and to Peter becoming the Patron of Border Crossings.  His presence in London has given us chance to catch up a bit about the company's activities, and I've been able to pick his teeming brain.  So, if I sound almost insanely enthusiastic about the new opera that Peter has created with John, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am biased.  But somehow, I think it's more than that.  I think this is a very, very important work.

At the Millennium, Peter and John created a piece about the birth of Christ - El Nino - the radical idea being to look at what it was actually the 2000th anniversary of....   That piece combined the Biblical narrative with contemporary texts, mainly from women writers in Latin America.  The Gospel According to the Other Mary has many similarities: this time the women's voices are more from the US itself (apart from Rosario Castellanos), and this time the narrative is the Passion.  Given that Peter has recently staged both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions - he knows the story.  But it's one thing to explore classic works that draw off a Christianity that was shared by the society from which they sprang: it is quite another to create a new piece of sacred music theatre for a globalised age in which religious belief is at best marginalised, at worst viewed with scorn and derision by the "rational" intellectual establishment, headed by Richard Dawkins.  But it is the logical development of all that Peter and John have been doing for years.  Even Nixon, which appeared on the surface satirical and driven by the news agenda, slowly melted into a profound and complex meditation on death, the transience of human life, and the constant potential for renewal contained in both spiritual and political processes - indeed, it made a powerful case for the regeneration of the political through the spiritual.  The Death of Klinghoffer, their piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was similarly informed, and in some ways resembled a Bach Passion in its structure.  It comes as no surprise to learn that Alice Goodman, the librettist of these earlier pieces, is now a Church of England priest.

If I have one criticism of the new work, it is that I miss Alice's voice.  The libretto, assembled by Peter as a collage of texts, is certainly rich and resonant, but perhaps lacks the sense of a narrative drive and cohesion that both the music and the production have in spades.  It's something we address all the time in our own work - how do you balance unity and diversity, the power of authorship with the acknowledgment of the multiple voice?

Which said, Alice's absence from the project allows it to admit the voices of some other truly extraordinary women, and in particular the indigenous voice, which has long echoed in Peter's work, and of course is crucial to our own through the Origins Festival.  The libretto includes texts from Rosario Castellanos, who spent much of her life working with the indigenous people of Chiapas in Mexico - the same indigenous people who have gone on to lead the Zapatista rebellion.  It also includes the poetry of Louise Erdrich, whose Native American voice is at once brutally honest and deeply engaged with the natural world.  For indigenous culture, concepts like resurrection, which westerners find laughable, are built into the workings of the world.  And so the resurrection sequence of this Gospel begins with the fact that the spring regenerates the world.  In Louise's words:

"The tiny frogs pull their strange new bodies out of suckholes."

The indigenous voice, and other voices of the marginalised, serve to locate this Gospel alongside social activism in the contemporary world.  There are allusions to drug rehabilitation, to the bonded labour of Hispanic migrant workers in the US of today, to César Chávez and the United Farm Workers' 100-mile march.  There is the presence of African-American street dance - an art form of urban protest if ever there was one.  The Mary of the title is an amalgam of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany - but what matters about her is not so much that she is Mary as that she is Other.  It is at the edges of society - where people have lost everything, where there are no daily comforts to sustain the illusions through which life is endured in late capitalism - it is there, this opera asserts, that the miracle can occur.

And the miraculous, in this opera, is not merely metaphysical or disembodied.  There is a constant erotic charge in the piece - related both to Mary's self-destructive aspects (Louise Erdrich again:

"I will drive boys
to smash empty bottles on their brows.
I will pull them right out of their skins.
It is the old way that girls
get even with their father -
by wrecking their bodies on other men." )

and to the intimations of redemption offered by Jesus.  I had worried when I heard that Jesus was never seen as a character - this could very easily go into Ben-Hur style "Let us not approach the sacred" - but in fact the production constantly plays with the whole idea of incarnation as expressed in performance, with the singers shifting in and out of "character", each being doubled by a dancer, and frequently taking the words or presence of Jesus into other bodies.  This means that you get a very strong sense of his living, embodied presence - in fact more so than you would if he were played by a single performer.    The sexual charge generated between Mary and the various manifestations of this living and dying body are incredibly forceful in both the music and the staging - especially in the colossally talented New York street dancer Banks.  What is evoked in this energising of the space between bodies is the presence of logos - not in the Authorised Version's sense of "word", but as Erasmus more accurately translated it - "the conversation".  "In the beginning was the conversation....  the conversation was made flesh and dwelt among us".

In this production, music, the body, set and light are all in constant motion.  As in life, nothing every stops.  It evolves.  And so we receive an incredibly powerful sense of a grace that does not dwell in a received and immutable doctrine, but in the vibrant interchanges between distinct and diverse beings, alive in thought and word and breath and body.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

London Film Festival

Charlie's Country - David Gulpilil
London Film Festival is a fantastic research tool.  Yes, it has Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley on the red carpet.  It also has hundreds of films from all across the world, almost all of them in UK premieres, many of them never to be seen here again.  When it comes to keeping your pulse on the cultural currents flowing around the world - it's a good place to be.

A film I'd been eager to see for some time was Charlie's Country - the third in a series of films made by Rolf de Heer with the great indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil.  The first two, The Tracker and Ten Canoes, were quite extraordinary, breaking new ground in terms of indigenous film-making, with a full and genuine engagement between the film-maker and the indigenous culture, following the protocols and letting the culture speak in its own terms and its own rhythms.  In Charlie's Country, the process is brought powerfully into the present day, with Gulpilil providing not only a mesmerising central performance, but also the truthful underpinning of the story, much of which is painfully close to autobiographical.  In the first Origins Festival, back in 2009, we screened a British-made film about Aboriginal Australians, called This is Our Country Too.  Gulpilil appeared in the film, not as an actor but as a subject of documentary - clearly adrift from stability, poverty-stricken, awash with alcohol.  I have to confess that I didn't believe it - I did not want to believe it.  Seeing Charlie's Country, and hearing some of Rolf de Heer's very moving talk after the screening, confirms what was in Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr's film: but it also moves beyond it, as Charlie's Country gives this great actor a way back to himself, understanding himself and his cultural context through the process of performance, making sense of the conflicts in which he lives through the media of cultural expression.  It is a fantastic achievement, fully worthy of his Best Actor award at Cannes.  

At the end of the film, there is a sense of the way in which culture can offer the route to self-reclamation for indigenous communities, as the young of Charlie's tribe learn the traditional dances and songs.  I have long believed this to be the salvation of the dispossessed - an idea first clearly articulated for me by Yves Sioui Durand in that same landmark first festival, when he explained his ideas around the Theatre of Healing - a process that reconnects young indigenous people to their ancestors and their inherited cultural practice.  I also believe that these healing processes underway in indigenous communities are an example to the rest of the world - spaces where identity and community are reclaimed, and a sense of spiritual worth restored.  

There's a terrific blog by my friend Ian Henderson, which explores in more detail the "art activism" of indigenous Australia as seen in this film.  

The Dead Lands
The complexity and power of Charlie's Country was all the more marked by the contrast with the other indigenous film I saw - a film called The Dead Lands, which is actually in the Maori language.  Given that the only other feature ever to be made in Te Reo Maori is a rather conventional version of The Merchant of Venice, this was both a terrific opportunity and a great responsibility for the film-makers.  It turned out, listening to their Q&A, that the script had in fact been written in English, and was translated into Maori for performance.  So the subtitle "translation" was in fact the original script - a fact which is important given the very different epistemologies of Maori and western cultures.  What masqueraded as "authentic" was in fact a western construction of the Maori world - and the use of conventional Hollywood structures and tropes underlined this.  The film, ostensibly set in pre-contact Aotearoa, pandered to all the worst assumptions of the imperialist mind about the noble savagery of indigenous people.  There were conversations with a dead grandmother surrounded by green fairy lights, and long sequences of Jackie Chan-style violence, without the compensating humour.  I wouldn't be worried about this, were it not that the film's status in terms of language means that it will give off signals to the world, and they are not the signals that indigenous cultures want to be relaying.  It's not the first example of this exoticisation and regression to colonial structures that I've seen recently - the Canadian film about Inuit and Innu, Maina, was possibly even worse.  So I'm thinking that we need to have some active discussion of this in the next festival...  watch this space.  

The other film I much admired was by Chinese director Peter Ho-sun Chan, and was called Dearest.  Closely based on a true story of child abduction (I never cease to be amazed what the Chinese authorities will and will not allow drama to talk about...), the film has a surprising and rather wonderful two-part structure.  The first half of the film focuses on the parents of an abducted boy, and in some ways is quite a conventional quest narrative. The second half is about the woman whose husband was the abductor.  He had died since his crime, leaving her with her "son" (whom he said he'd had with another woman because his wife was barren) and her "daughter" (whom he said he found on a building site).  As Peter Ho-sun Chan said after the film, it is no accident that the abducted child was a boy (greatly valued in Chinese culture), while the abandoned child was a girl.  In other words, it may well be that the dead husband's second story was true.   What's fascinating about this is that the abductor's wife and "daughter" themselves become victims of the crime, as they are separated from one another and from the little boy, whose natural father himself comes to say that the "second abduction" (from the family he had grown up in) did more psychological harm to his son than the first.  The mother deprived of her children is also played by the biggest star in the film, Zhao Wei - so Chinese audiences who came to see their equivalent of Julia Roberts spent the first hour of the film wondering if they were in the wrong cinema....  It's a great lesson in what we need our political and social dramas to do.  

Switch the viewpoint.  Start to see things from the point of view of somebody you thought was the enemy.  Open up that conversation.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Reviving Xerxes

A few musings on my recent experience, reviving Xerxes at the ENO.

Xerxes -  Rhian Lois and Andrew Watts
To revive means to give new life.  As revival director for the ENO’s classic production of Handel’s Xerxes, my job was to give new life to a piece of theatre originally made in 1985.  Judging from a show of hands on the first day of rehearsals, that’s before about a third of the people working on it were even born. 

In the case of Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes, the task of reviving the production is made all the more complex by the specific significance it had 29 years ago.  At that time, Handel was still thought of primarily as a religious composer, known mainly for his oratorios, The Messiah in particular.  He also tended to be seen as a German composer, even though he spent most of his working life in London and ended his days an Englishman.  The rediscovery of Handel as an operatic composer in the 1980s, and his appropriation into the canon of English opera, was largely a result of this iconic production, which elides Handel’s music with an English translation in the style of Restoration comedy (brilliantly done by Nick Hytner himself, often sounding close to Congreve); locates the story in a version of Handel’s own London, with the exotic world of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens inspiring the setting; and so places Handel – quite literally, in the form of his statue from Vauxhall – at the centre of the English national operatic stage.   1985 also marked Handel’s 300th birthday: the whole undertaking was characterised by a sense of his admission to the canon and commemoration as a national musical hero.  And the production is so very “English”, with its tea and cakes, its bowls and topiary, its redcoat soldiers and prim morality.

The England of 1985 was in a self-assertive mood, led by Margaret Thatcher, whose Falklands campaign had recently marked a resurgence of imperialist jingoism.  During the 80s there was a distinct nostalgia for Empire: as Salman Rushdie noted, in the aftermath of the Falklands we suddenly saw a rush of novels and TV series about British India: Jewel in the Crown, The Raj Quartet, David Lean’s film of A Passage to India.   At the V&A, the English galleries were re-vitalised, with a central place being given to the statue of Handel from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. 

Viewed from 2014, things look rather different.  British imperialism, and English assertiveness are no longer on the agenda.  A few days after we opened, the last vestige of the Georgian Empire teetered on the edge of disappearance, as Scotland voted on independence (Xerxes, it’s intriguing to note, was written just seven years before the 1745 Scots rebellion against the Hanoverians).  Thatcher said that she would never talk to the IRA: this year, the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness.  Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National Theatre has reflected a nation in doubt about its internal identity and its place in the world: his first production as the National’s director was a blistering Henry V, our national epic deconstructed and questioned against the background of the neo-imperialist invasion of Iraq.  At the current moment, I could not simply re-stage Nick’s Xerxes exactly as it was in 1985.  It had to be a darker, more disturbing piece; centring on a young King whose acquisitiveness towards Empire, objects and women is both his drive and his downfall. 

The politics of gender have also shifted dramatically in the last 30 years. Xerxes remains a gender-bending opera – but Boy George and Marilyn are no longer the key icons of the queer movement.  In the age of Eddie Izzard, Grayson Perry and Conchita, the “man who sings like a woman” could not simply be a self-pitying character, but becomes assertive and powerful.  Elviro’s disguise offered new possibilities around queer ambiguities, and some freshly minted jokes. 

None of these shifts in perspective and tone undermined the production – it was still very emphatically the classic piece of work that sits at the centre of the ENO repertoire.  The hedge-clipper still popped up, the busts were smashed.  Rather, my work in rehearsals was about allowing the performers to live within that powerful framework, and in order for them to live – for the performance to be “live” – they have to be fully present in the current moment.  Without that immediate presence, that awareness of the current context, a performance is dead. 

That’s the same word ENO technical staff use when a show is taken out of the repertoire: “It’s dead.”   Nobody would want that to happen to Xerxes.  After all, it’s only 29 years old.  That’s far too young to die.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Exhibit B: a response to the closure

An Image from Exhibit B
It's a tense and troubled time for those of us involved in intercultural performance.  On Monday, I was invited to attend a public meeting at Stratford Circus to discuss the controversy over Brett Bailey's piece Exhibit B, opening the next night at the Vaults.  I replied by saying that I was more than willing to join the debate, but I'd rather do so after seeing the production for myself, which was due to happen tonight.  Now that the protests have brought about the production's closure, it seems I won't get the opportunity.  This means that anything I say about this work is based on conjecture and surmise rather than on experience and critical engagement.  That much at least I have in common with the protestors who shut down the work: most of them have not seen it either.

I do, however, have some knowledge of Brett Bailey as an artist, and of the company he leads - Third World Bunfight.  I saw their production of Big Dada (dealing, comically and disturbingly, with Idi Amin), and the truly astonishing celebration of spirituality and anarchy that was iMumbo Jumbo.  I have read the other plays and commentaries in Bailey's book, The Plays of Miracle and Wonder.  Only last week, I saw his stunning re-imagining of Verdi's Macbeth at the Barbican - a production which uses two icons of European culture (Shakespeare and opera) to address the ongoing neo-colonial incursions into Africa, and to represent the horrific conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the direct result of imperial history and current Western rapacity.  In this Macbeth, the witches are the forces of international capital, offering material rewards to the nascent dictator in return for purchase on the natural wealth of the land - above all the coltan used in phones and computers.  I have spent valuable and productive time in the company of Brett Bailey, and that of Abey Xakwe (a frequent leading performer with Bunfight), discussing these productions in relation to the wider cultural and political discourse.  We've talked about my own work too.  We've swapped the occasional email.  We don't know each other well - but I recognise a fellow traveller on the rocky road of a politically and spiritually engaged intercultural theatre when I see one.  So, whatever else might be said about Exhibit B (and, as I say, I haven't seen it) - it will have been a considered and serious piece of work.  It will most certainly not have been the sensationalist and self-promoting circus that its detractors have portrayed.

Exhibit B
We have to acknowledge that the anger is real.  Its main focus seems to be on the fact that the production draws off the history of the 19th century "human zoos", where black African people were shown to Europeans as sub-human curiosities.  As I understand it, the piece develops that idea into the present day, with figures like asylum seekers being similarly framed.  It sounds to me like a powerful and striking way to undercut the prevailing media discourse around such people, and around the gaze of the dominant culture.  "Look", it would seem to say: "the human zoo still exists.  This is how Africa is treated in our own time."  If that is its meaning, then it would seem to be the very opposite of racist.

But the detractors suggest that the presentation of such images, even in an artistic context, is inherently racist.  Their argument seems to be that representing the human zoo is equivalent to being the human zoo.  And that is deeply problematic.  Because if we are to equate the artistic representation of something with its actuality, then we are not able to deal with anything in art beyond flowers and teddy bears.  I don't honestly think that the people who oppose Exhibit B believe this.  The controversy has tended to couple their reaction to the "human zoo" with the fact that Brett Bailey is a white South African - and I suspect that this may be the more important strand.  Who represents?  Who has the right to represent?  Who is being addressed in that representation?  These seem to me to be the underlying issues.  Perhaps what is genuinely discomforting about Exhibit B is that the perceived hierarchy of white director and black performers could be seen to perpetuate racial hierarchies and divisions - particularly if the audience is also predominantly white (and, at Macbeth last week, it was).  After all, Twelve Years a Slave was very graphic in its representation of slavery and racial violence, but nobody called for the film to be banned.  But this was the work of a black director.  There's a good (and by no means uncritical) essay about this aspect of Bailey's exhibits by Nathanael M. Vlachos - click here.  A key point that Vlachos makes is that the black performers look out of the tableaux at the audience with great intensity, deliberately inverting and subverting the conventional gaze.  It is the white spectator who is "on view" and made the object of scrutiny in this work.

I acknowledge the problem of "the white director".  Indeed, I live with it on a daily basis.  I accept that the horrors of colonial history and the neo-colonial present will have a different emotional impact on those people whose ancestors were slaves from those whose ancestors were slave-owners.  But that does not mean that only black people can talk about this.  Indeed, I would argue that it makes it essential that everybody talks about it, and that the conversation is had between races and cultures, so as to find a way of dealing with this divisive history and jointly exploring a way to move forward.  To bar any one group of artists from engaging with such subjects on the grounds of their ethnic origin seems to me far more problematic than anything they might or might not say.

While I, and the rest of the London audience, have been denied the opportunity to see this work and engage with it directly, I do know a number of people who saw it in Edinburgh.  Lyn Gardner's response is worth a look...  So is Amy Bonsall's.  Dione Joseph, who critiques performance from a non-white perspective, was disturbed by the piece, and particularly by the element of silence.  She did not like the fact that nobody spoke - either performers or audience.  Not having experienced it, I'm unsure: the silence might perhaps give a sense of black performers and critical audiences being silenced - it might equally create a powerful metaphor of oppression and a space for deep personal contemplation, even for mourning.  What I can say with certainty is this: that on this occasion, the voices that shout loudest have been allowed to triumph, and have silenced both artistic expression and critical response.  It suggests that, in a world dominated by the media clamour, there is no space for that silence that is far more profound than noise.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Présence Autochtone

El Regreso
I've been in Montréal for a few days, at the Festival Présence Autochtone, or First People's Festival, run by my Innu friend André Dudemaine.  I've known André by email for some time - he wrote the piece on Alanis Obomsawin for the very first Origins programme book - and met him properly at Planet IndigenUs in Toronto in 2012.   He's very kindly invited me to his Festival both last year and this.  It's always incredibly helpful to see how other indigenous festivals operate - how they make their meaning felt in public space.

Public space seems to have been the big issue for André this year.  Although this is the 24th annual festival, it has been a struggle to get it properly funded - Canada, like so much of the world, is cutting back its public sector and shifting towards a "market" model, which of course is pretty hopeless for a festival designed to highlight the presence of a minority in the face of an over-arching cultural diet of blandness and mass-produced monotony.  As André put it in his email inviting me over: "It was like a western but with a happy ending: the Indians won  :)."  Aside of funding, public space is also a thematic preoccupation of the festival, which after all proclaims "présence" in its very title.  In Canada, it's all too easy to forget that the indigenous people are even there - particularly as the "rez" system remains so significant here (and the festival combines its Montréal presence with programming on the Mohawk reservation of Kahnawake).  The festival takes over the central Place des Festivals with an installation, concerts, traditional dance, a parade, information tents, food stalls, and a fun piece of street theatre based on a traditional story of the sun being put out and restored, with a clear lineage from the Bread and Puppet Theatre.  

Street theatre - the sun

This is the "fun" side of the festival - and it's very effective, particularly in bringing a younger generation of First Nations musicians into the public arena.  On Saturday night, when I arrived, Beatrice Deer was playing in the Place des Festivals.  She looked out at the audience and commented that there were more people there than lived in her home village in Nunavik - population 370.  The audiences in general seem much larger than they were last year - apparently as a result of a big social media campaign.  The mainstream press in Montréal has given the festival very limited coverage for 24 years - but now the new media are allowing different channels of communication to open up, and young Canadians seem genuinely to be embracing the indigenous stories of the country.

The other key focus of this festival is indigenous film - and the scope here is global rather than simply Canadian.  André has strong links all over the world, particularly in the Americas - but his programme also ranged as far as Tibet, with a fascinating documentary film about spiritual practice, A Gesar Bard's Tale.  A personal highlight was a feature from Venezuela, called El Regreso, in which a young indigenous girl becomes separated from her tribe as a result of a paramilitary attack, and somehow survives in the city.  There are echoes of Rabbit-Proof Fence, not least in the amazing central performance by a child - but this is also a very gritty urban drama.  Insurgentes from Bolivia is essentially a dramatised chronicle of the nation's history in costume-drama style - apart from a few moments of pure magical realism, when the world's first indigenous President, Evo Morales, himself appears in the film - at one point sitting in a cable car above La Paz, passing the heroes of historical struggles as they go the other way.  

Some of the Canadian films I saw were quite troubling, especially in the light of André's difficulties in getting the festival supported this year.  Maïna is a film about Innu and Inuit before the colonial period - and lays claim to authenticity because it uses indigenous actors and languages, even though the main narrative is a voice-over by the central character in the main language of the audience (which last night was French).  The effect, of course, is to distance the indigenous people, not to make them closer, and to compound the exoticism which is already present in the story and the style of filming, with all the familiar Hollywood tropes (wise Elders who die early in the film, children lost to their tribe, wise women uttering obliquely, love "across cultures", Inuit rubbing noses, fighting off polar bears....).  It's clearly made with an eye to the mainstream, and it compromises the indigenous cultures very drastically in the process.  The Healing Winds is a much more sincere piece of work - a portrayal of the traumas resulting from the Residential Schools - but again I felt a bit uneasy, particularly as the film concentrates so much on psychotherapy, seemingly passing the responsibility for dealing with the trauma onto the survivors, without really engaging with the larger political context, which is where true responsibility lies.  As with the Truth commissions, you can't help feeling that there is a failure to engage the bigger picture.  

The best Canadian films I saw were shorts - an evening commemorating the tenth anniversary of the wonderful Wapikoni initiative, which facilitates film-making by young people from indigenous communities.  One young man who spoke at the event explained that he had been "doing nothing", and had never been off the rez, until the programme enabled him to make his first film, which has done well at international festivals, and has led to him getting a university place and making more films.  The great thing about this is that it isn't simply a social development programme - the films themselves are very good.  One or two, for example Kevin Papatie's We Are, are quite superb.  My one niggling concern is why Kevin is still making films via this programme, when he should be seen as a major talent in artistic / activist video: we screened his powerful short The Amendment in the very first Origins, as long ago as 2009. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Terror and Performance

On Friday night, Border Crossings Laboratory hosted Terror and Performance: An evening with Rustom Bharucha, in response to Rustom's new book with the same title.  Rustom has been important to the company for some time as a sounding board for a lot of dramaturgical ideas, and a powerful critical voice - we've corresponded during the gestation of most of our projects since about 2004.  But this was only the second time we'd been able to involve Rustom overtly and actively in our work - the first being his chapter in our book on Theatre and Slavery (sadly out of print at the moment). 

The great thing about Rustom is that, as well as being a brilliant academic and critical thinker, he is also an active theatre-maker, a director and dramaturg, who understands the huge political themes with which he engages as they relate to the creation and reception of performance.  So, as well as outlining the themes of his book, we were able to discuss them in relation to what we've been doing as an organisation, and how we and other theatre-makers can respond to the atmosphere of terror that so pervades our lives today.  We related his opening chapter (on the way 9/11 changed perceptions of a production) to our own recent experiences in Palestine and their relationship to the current horror in Gaza.  His second chapter, on literal border crossings, became the start point for discussion of the company name, and the political issues around border controls that we have recently encountered.  The third chapter, on Truth and Reconciliation processes, related fascinatingly to much of what we did in the last Origins Festival, particularly in relation to indigenous processes of reconciliation, and the emphasis on the need for reparation of some kind. 

That all took two hours - with some fantastic audience interaction thrown in - so we didn't get round to the final chapter of the book, which deals with Gandhi and non-violence.  It's a shame, because I had hoped to ask Rustom about the move into religious language here.  He not only quotes Gandhi and uses him as a theoretical frame to engage with issues around how non-violence can be performed in the context of terror - he also makes use of Aurobindo and Krishnamurti.  It's as if he finds the cold, logical language of performance theory impossible for the moral engagement - which is ultimately an emotional engagement - that is required.  I'm reminded of the emotional overspill that seems to be happening in journalism in response to Gaza - for example Jon Snow, or the thrilling column Giles Fraser wrote in Saturday's Guardian.  The language of theory needs to be expanded in order to embrace the spiritual heart that demands justice and common humanity.  Otherwise you end up with the unbelievable coldness that greeted Rustom last week at an academic conference, where a theorist actually asked him why he got so bothered about the killing of children.  I mean, please....

The last chapter of Rustom's book also touches on the Breivik incident, which we had also addressed in Origins through the wonderful film Biekka Fabmu.  On Thursday, I had been at the Young Vic to see The Events - also a response to Breivik, and to my mind the best theatrical response I've so far seen to terror in its multifarious contemporary forms. 

The Events
The central character, Claire, is a priest (a lesbian priest leading a diverse urban congregation - so the embodiment of the liberal multicultural modernity loathed by the radical right) whose choir were the victims of a crazed attack.  The choir is onstage throughout, brilliantly represented by a real amateur choir, who are clearly not entirely familiar with the play and are so, quite literally, caught up in "events", and are rightly bemused as things unfold around them.  The gunman ("The Boy") also plays all the other roles, including a right-wing politician, a therapist, and Claire's partner.  On one level, this gives a powerful sense of how Claire finds it impossible to move beyond the shooting - quite literally seeing the gunman everywhere.  On another level, it suggests how her constant questioning of the gunman, herself and of humanity, asking why he did it - mistakes the real issue.  The warped mind of one individual is not really what matters in the contemporary climate of terror.  What finally matters is the wider social and political context within which such events occur, and through which responses are made.  As playwright David Greig put it in a Telegraph interview:  “you have to find a way to go beyond understanding. You have to go, ‘I need something else. I need acceptance, or something'....  it’s about communities, people, religion – about transcendent things, which drama is very good at.”

This is also the register of language that Rustom is moving towards at the end of his wonderful book. 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

LIFT 2014

The Year I Was Born
For years, I've loved LIFT.  As much as anything, it's a great research opportunity for our work.  Not in a "Oh that's clever, we could do that" way - or even in terms of finding potential collaborators, though there have certainly been elements of the latter....  but mainly as a way of seeing what sort of performances are being made at the cutting edge, globally - what people are talking about through the medium of theatre, how and why.

Two years ago was a vintage year - two productions from that Festival, Gatz and Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, remain engraved on the memory as truly extraordinary pieces of theatre.  It was inspiring that this year's Festival offered the chance to meet Back to Back, the creators of the latter, as they undertook a residency at the V&A.  This aspect of LIFT, allowing artists to explore and develop future work in the context of the Festival, is very adventurous and could be really productive.  The other company that had a residency this year was Zoukak, with whom we developed This Flesh is Mine in Beirut during 2013.  I can bask in a tiny bit of reflected glory....  as it was me who introduced them to Mark Ball.  They showed their new piece as work in progress at the end of the residency - and I had the chance to view a run-through the day before.  It's going to be a fascinating exploration of the contemporary Middle East in relation to Terror and the West.  At the end, I fished Rustom's book out of my bag as a recommendation: it turned out Omar had bought it the day before.  Great minds...  Just wish they were around for the 1st August!

Among this year's performances, the one that excited me most was The Year I Was Born, a piece from Chile which dealt with how one generation's response to the experience of dictatorship affects the next. The performers were all born under Pinochet - some were children of activists who resisted him, some of more compliant people, some of supporters.  None could simply "be themselves" - identity was marked by the parents from the start.  One woman had even lost her relationship with her mother because of the performance.  It was very resonant with a lot of our ongoing exploration of "Truth and Reconciliation".  There's a fascinating discussion you can listen to here.

Other terrific work included Young Jean Lee's The Shipment - with an all-black American cast dissecting race in astonishing ways - and another company that has interested me for some time, but which I've not been able to see before, chelfitsch from Japan, with a very funny and disturbing confrontation with consumerism - Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich.  Great title.

Where the Festival didn't seem quite so powerful this time was in the larger scale pieces that were programmed for longer runs.  Watching these, I felt much as I did at APAM in February - that I was looking at something globalised and mediatised, at work which could be from anywhere, work aimed at an "international market", and therefore lacking the specifics that are needed to make theatre truly resonant.  This even applied to some pieces that were apparently "about" the specific culture they came from, but which in fact packaged and sold something uncomfortably close to a touristy caricature of that culture.  There was a clue in some of the programme notes - Mark recalled that he saw a Russian company in New York, chelfitsch and The Shipment in Brussels.  Of course, I am far from averse to international touring - we do it ourselves - but I am increasingly wary of work that is specifically addressed to that "market".  Somehow our intercultural dialogues have to allow the "inter" without losing the "cultural" specifics.  That's why we always try to work closely with overseas partners on the ground, and to make the differences between us central to what we do.

I was thinking this through as the Arts Council's NPO announcements came out.  It was a deeply conservative result, which essentially preserved the status quo.  "International markets" were a stated priority for ACE, but not international collaboration.  It's all about the international as a way of selling British art, of making money. The worst kind of cultural imperialism.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Write Theatre

This Flesh is Mine: Andrew French and David Broughton Davies

Border Crossings Laboratory has been partnering with WRITE THEATRE to run a series of intensive courses for emerging theatre writers.  The course leaders are Brian Woolland (who wrote our recent hit This Flesh is Mine, as well as the earlier production Double Tongue, and has worked as a dramaturg on devised projects), together with Rib Davis.  Rib has written plays for BBC radio, television and stage. No Further Cause for Concern, later made into a television play, won a Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival.

Like all writers, playwrights have to spend time alone on the hard graft of developing a playscript. But writing for theatre is essentially different from writing novels, short stories or poetry in that collaborations are at the heart of theatre; and that is reflected in the way that WRITE THEATRE courses are organised – with collaborative workshops, open discussions and practical exercises as well as one-on-one tutorials.  What makes the course unique is that on the second of each pair of weekends we are joined by experienced professional actors; and the writers get the chance to work with these actors in groups and individually.  All day Saturday and Sunday morning are spent exploring and workshopping extracts from scripts written by those attending the course – with script-in-hand performances of these extracts on the Sunday afternoon. 

The most recent course was held over two weekends in June.  The three actors joining us for the second weekend were Hannah Watkins, Andrew French and David Broughton-Davies.  Andrew and David were both in This Flesh is Mine – as Achilles and Agamemnon. Here’s what some of the participants had to say:

“WRITE THEATRE might not be cheap – but it’s excellent value for money.  I loved your teaching style. You created a learning environment that offered a safe place to share, explore and take chances. You gave us guidance and support, insight and generosity of knowledge and spirit, encouraging us in a constructive, helpful way.  You provided a solid, professional framework for the course and a series of exercises that proved perfect for expedient learning by doing. I feel like I’ve achieved 6 months’ worth of information and experience in just 4 days.  The opportunity to have our work read, workshopped and performed by such quality actors was an absolute thrill. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve done ever and they were so wonderful to work and experiment with. Thank you for an incredibly enriching, absorbing, challenging, intense and wonderful experience.” 
 Lara Cetinich Cory

“Absolutely thrilling to see my work performed for the first time by professional actors.  Hard work; great fun; transformational; how magic happens.  This is the writing community I’ve been searching for.”           
 Lindsey Armstrong

“I found the whole course immensely rewarding. Having  professional actors work on one of my scenes moved me to tears. Brian Woolland and Rib Davis are great teachers and highly regarded playwrights.  Great value for money and a really great course!”                                                                       
Richard Barrett

Rib and Brian … are simply so generous with their experiences, yet so playful about the art of writing…. Two of the most inspiring weekends of work and play I could possibly have wished for…. To see real actors play a scene of my writing was a mind blasting experience...  Hugely inspiring. The climate was very warm and very intelligent.
Camilla Josephson

“That was truly inspirational. Wow!  What a difference you guys made.  I arrived trapped in a plot driven hole that I had dug myself and left released not really knowing where the characters in this new play are going, but thanks to you they are alive and going somewhere.”                                               
David Howgego

The next WRITE THEATRE course will be held at The Cockpit, London over the two weekends of October 25th – 26th and November 8th – 9th.  There is a strict upper limit of 10 participants.  We do not ask for qualifications as a pre-requisite for acceptance on the course, nor do we ask participants to have had previous experience of writing plays, but it is essential to have a strong interest in theatre.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

This Flesh is Mine: a playwright's response

This Flesh is Mine: Iman Aoun as Hecuba.  Photo: Richard Davenport

This is a guest blog, written by Tim Grana, who contacted us after seeing This Flesh is Mine.  Tim is a playwright residing in St. Albans and currently working on a Shandean play based on the life of Laurence Sterne.

I did not ‘see’ This Flesh is Mine: rather, I was utterly immersed in a thoroughly gripping and visceral experience of what theatre—and only theatre—can, at its very best, do in illuminating and enriching our understanding of humanity.  It was a magnificent production of a brilliant play, one that not only captures the senses and emotions during performance but continues to resonate in the mind thereafter, confronting us as it does with those unquiet questions that will not be stilled by facile answers.   

Among the play’s many remarkable achievements is the seeming effortlessness with which it immediately conducts a modern audience into a genuinely ‘Homeric’ world. But not in the sense of an ‘adaptation’: it is a full-bodied re-creation of what it must have been for an ancient audience hearing a minstrel singing the Iliad: thrilling stuff, bursting with vitality, energy— with drama-- nothing like the often stilted or literary translations that we know.  This Flesh is Mine follows the Iliad in tapping down into the deepest strata of raw humanity, in precise and economical verse pitch-perfect to each character, and thereby unearths the fundamental drama inherent from the conflicting drives of our human nature.

The play takes us into a timeless realm of human universals, our modern world and the world of antiquity bleeding into one another by degrees, for human emotion is both timeless and universal, whether in actions of heroism or folly, or capacity for insight or self-delusion.  There really isn’t any ‘partisanship’ in Homer, in that the Trojans can be as heroic (and as foolish) as the Greeks, everyone can offer ‘good’ reasons for foolish actions, and there is something in the human condition that ever pulls us into tragedy if we are not wary—and often enough, even when we do perceive that risk but cannot find the saving graces of compassion, and forgiveness.  And that, I think, is how this play, which draws so deeply from the ancient wisdom of Homer’s drama, can speak so eloquently to our modern times.  There is no simple mapping of the players of the Trojan War onto the current parties of the Middle East, but there is a compelling illumination of human folly, intransigence, machismo—but also the faint but precious flickers of real courage, insight, and humility without which we must all perish.  It’s remarkable that there really aren’t any villains in Homer, just human folly, and an acknowledgement of the inevitability of that folly:  we can at once celebrate Achilles’ courage, strength and valour while witnessing the horror and devastation such ‘virtues’ unleash.  The play brought to mind a favourite quote from the American Civil War leader, Robert E. Lee: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”  

Andrew French as Achilles.  Photo: Richard Davenport
The characterisations of Achilles and of Hecuba were particular highlights for me, compelling and complex characters, with different facets of their inner selves coming into view as the play progressed.   Achilles remained attractive and sympathetic to us even in his most deluded and petulant moments—even, indeed, when desecrating the corpse of Hector.  And the depths of strength, sorrow, and suppressed rage that would bubble up from within Hecuba were among some of the strongest moments for me.

Many other delights in the play could be highlighted:  the skilled portrayal of the complex relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, or the playful suggestion that the hunt for Helen would be as futile as that for the phantom WMDs of Saddam—and by extension, that to search for ‘cause’ in conflicts that may have been raging even before our own births may do nothing to resolve them. 

 In one brief moment only did I feel the play lose a little focus, in the scene in which Patroclus seeks to borrow the unmistakable armour of Achilles, for he “cannot stand by”, as Achilles in his wrath can, while their fellow Achaeans are perishing in the face of the Trojan counterattack.  Achilles agrees to Patroclus’ request—too easily, I felt—and helps him don it for battle.  But on reflection I think this was not a fault in either the script or the performance, but for once simply in the distance between Homer’s world and our own.  As consuming as his wrath toward Agamemnon may be, Achilles’ love for Patroclus is greater—and through that love he acknowledges Patroclus’ need to fight for the sake of his own sense of honour.  If this is not too trivial an analogy, I suppose this must be something like the love that compels us, despite our fear, to loan the car keys to the teenaged son who has freshly won his driving licence. 

My one significant crit would be:  this play needs a longer run and a much wider audience. Even more specifically, I think Messers Bush, Blair, and Netanyahu should be compelled to attend a performance—and in an ideal world, that performance in a prison in which those gentlemen were detained without possibility of parole.  Well, like Achilles, I say, “A man can dream…”

Tim Grana

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The matter of Visas

Edward Muallem and Razan Alazzeh recording a scene for This Flesh is Mine
Now that a week has passed since the last performance of This Flesh is Mine (last for now, I should probably say), I feel I can finally talk a bit in public about the fact that two of our Palestinian colleagues, Razan Alazzeh and Emile André, didn't make it to London.  If you came to the show and got a programme, you will have seen that their roles were taken, at the last minute, by two very proficient Arabic actors based in London, Jumaan Short and Tariq Jordan.  Somehow we managed to find them within 24 hours of our return to London from Ramallah - so they had a week to work on the play before it went in front of a London audience.  That happened also to be the week when we were doing technical and dress rehearsals - but it is actually possible for an actor to step in to a production at that stage, because the production itself is already very formed, so they can work everything out much more quickly from all that is going on around them.  I was lucky that the two actors hardly every coincided on stage - so they could respond to other performers who had already worked for a month. All of which meant that Razan and Emile continued, in a way, to be very present in the piece.  Jumaan and Tariq did not give the same performances - far from it - but the ghosts of those performances, and the experience that those Palestinian actors brought to the roles, informed every moment of the play.

What had happened was that their visa applications had been rejected - we found out the morning after our wonderful preview performances in Ramallah, the day before we were due to fly home.  It wasn't a case of direct political interference to prevent Palestinian performers coming to London - though that wouldn't have surprised me in a climate where the ENO was unable to bring Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, and the Lebanese authorities have recently confiscated the passport of Lucien Bourjeily to stop him participating in LIFT.  Nevertheless, it was political, in way that is more subtle and so all the more insidious.

Put simply, the forms weren't filled in correctly.  The Ashtar administrators sent a supporting letter from us, inviting the performers to appear in the play, and ticked the box saying "tourist visa".  They should, of course, have ticked "business".  Why didn't they?  Well - Ashtar previously came to London in 2012, to present Richard II as part of the Globe to Globe Festival; and the events of the Cultural Olympiad were given a special dispensation - a tourist visa and a letter of invitation were considered enough, even for Palestinians.  It's not surprising that, having done this once, the company thought it would be a simple matter to do the same again.

My question is this: why was 2012 a special case?  During the Olympics, we wanted to show that London was an international cultural capital, that it welcomed artists, that it welcomed the world.  But that is clearly not the default position.  In fact, it's just a lie.  For a few weeks, when it suited the PR campaign, the doors were open.  The default position, to which we immediately returned, is one of suspicion and xenophobia.  If there is any excuse not to grant a visa, it will not be granted.

Something similar happened to us in 2007, when a group of Ghanian performers were denied visas because one of them, having been born in a rural area, did not know her date of birth.  On that occasion, the British Council in Accra made the case to the Consulate, and the decision was at once overturned.  This time, even though the British Council was actively (and financially) involved in the project, they could do nothing.  Because the visa service now has very little to do with the Consular Service.  It has been "out-sourced".  Privatised.

The spin around privatisation is always that it saves red tape and cuts costs.  Our experience indicates quite the opposite.  The privatised visa system is clearly much MORE bureaucratic and impersonal than the public one.  It is also much more of a drain on the public purse: the British Council's investment in flights for these Palestinian actors was largely wasted as a result of the visa decision.  So one arm of government undermines another.  Hardly the way to cut the deficit.

Two more facts - just to underline the absurdity of the whole thing.  Razan lives in Paris, though she retains her Palestinian citizenship.  So, when she didn't get the visa, we thought we could simply buy her a connecting flight from Heathrow to get her home.  No.  Palestinians need a visa even to transit through a UK airport.  So that was a whole new flight that had to be bought.  However, one of our Palestinian actors, Iman, was able to travel to the UK with us.  Why?  Because, by accident of residency in the disputed territory of Jerusalem, she is able to travel under an Israeli passport.  And, of course, Israelis can travel to and do business in the UK without a visa.  They are above suspicion.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Where do you stand?

Iman Aoun as Hecuba.  Photo: Richard Davenport
This Flesh is Mine has been running since Monday, and the response has been overwhelming.  The Guardian has a great piece by Ellie Violet Bramley about the making of the show and its relevance to the conflicts in Palestine, which is the main Editor's Pick today!  It highlights one of the main issues in the production - how it complicates the audience's relationship to the geo-political significance of the Middle East.

What's very exciting, watching the audience in the site-specific space at Testbed 1, is realising how the experience of the production itself leads to specific decisions.  Because there are no assigned seats, and the audience is free to move through the space, sitting or standing as they wish, their view of the events in the play is determined (quite literally) by where they stand.  You can be close to one of the stages, intimately engaged with the scene - or you can take up a perch on a distant sofa; or remain in the first space, seated at a regimented table, deliberately detached from the unfolding action.  You can lean on a pillar, sit on the floor, or move so that your viewpoint changes during the scene.  And all of this is political.

I hadn't planned this.  I had thought that the audience would essentially move in a block between spaces - but what in fact happens is much more interesting.  There is a clear awareness that the dynamics of the space as a whole encourage different types of engagement with the story - and this energy is disturbing and inspiring for the audience.  You become implicated in the piece's Middle Eastern resonance, whether by being detached or by being fully engaged.  The play in any case problematises Achilles' "liberal" stance as the man from the invading force who refuses to fight - and this knocks on into the audience.  It's a really extraordinary thing - and it could only happen in the form of live theatre.

Sunday's show will add to this, when "Two Schmucks, Three Opinions" (blogged here a few months ago) gets presented as a 12 noon show with lunch before the 4pm performance.  It's a fantastic way to approach the debate!