Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Great Experiment begins!

For the last four weeks, we’ve been locked in Exchange Theatre’s rehearsal space at London Bridge, developing our next devised production.  THE GREAT EXPERIMENT will reach the stage next year, and is already looking like one of the most exciting pieces we’ve ever done.  It’s part of our SEASON OF MIGRATIONS, and is rooted in the history of indentured labour – the huge movement of Indian workers through the British Empire in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.  One of the best aspects of the month has been having no less than three expert historians visit us for several days each to help us get a stronger, more nuanced sense of the history.  Working together on the Research project “Becoming Coolies”, Crispin Bates is an expert on Indian history, Andrea Major on imperial history, and Marina Carter on the indentured labourers themselves, particularly in relation to the island of Mauritius, where the whole process really began.  Having them in the room took us way beyond the usual process of reading a few books and watching YouTube videos: they took us right to the archival sources – to the real words of people who had made the perilous journey across what they called the Kala Pani – the Black Water.

The creative team encountering this material included several of our regular collaborators, which also helped to make the process so rich – there wasn’t any need for introductions to ways of working or for overcoming trust issues.   Tony Guilfoyle (who was in both DIS-ORIENTATIONS and RE-ORIENTATIONS, as well as helping us devise CONSUMED) was back, as was Rosanna Lowe (Assistant Director on DOUBLE TONGUE), Nisha Dassyne (our Mauritian performer in MAPPA MUNDI and the translator of TOUFANN), David Furlong (another Mauritian performer and director at Exchange, who has been part of our recent training workshops).  They were joined by Mauritian visual artist Shiraz Bayjoo; and by the wonderful Rwandan actor Ery Nzaramba, who I first saw in Peter Brook’s extraordinary piece BATTLEFIELD.  The key was that all these performers work as writers, directors and visual artists as well as actors – something key to the whole process.

Amazingly, by the Friday of the fourth week there was enough material readily shaped to be shown to a small invited audience.  The response was astonishing.  This isn’t just a show about the history – it’s a show about how we relate to the history, how it reflects our contemporary realities, how it has made us who we are.  These aren’t easy subjects, but the company has been very brave in the level of personal encounter.  The resulting piece is going to be very delicate, very fragile, and, as a result, profoundly moving.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gauri Lankesh

Some twenty years ago - in what now seems a more innocent, humane, compassionate time - I spent several months in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore, directing THE TEMPEST for Mahesh Dattani's Playpen company.  It was a life-changing experience for me, leading to the creation of Border Crossings as a company committed to intercultural work; and I believe it was also an important production for the cultural environment in which it took place.  One of the great pleasures of that time was to be surrounded by an extraordinary group of creative, committed and questioning young Indians - actors, writers, artists, film-makers and journalists. Young people who cared about what was happening in the world, who understood the historical forces that had shaped and were shaping their country, who longed for justice and who believed they could make a difference.  For a short time, I felt as if I was one of them - and that sense of hope has remained with me ever since.  From time to time I have seen or exchanged emails with many of them.  I still do. We have all retained some sense of the young people we once were and have clung to the dreams we once dreamed.

Central to that inspiring group of people was the journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered last week.  The three men who shot her as she arrived home from work have not been traced, and there is no definite proof of who they may have been - but those who knew her well are convinced that her death must have been related to her fierce and honest journalism; and to her activist stance against the power of Hindu nationalism, against the racist ideology of the BJP and its vigilante offshoots, in support of equal rights for the Dalits and the Muslims.  Mari Marcel Thekaekara's Guardian piece deals with the politics very well.  The Hindu right has been given free rein to enact its own idea of justice, and Narendra Modi preserves an ominous, acquiescent silence.  In what claims to be the world's largest democracy, mob rule is permitted.  Have we any idea of just how dangerous our world is becoming?  We stand on the edge of an abyss.

I remember Gauri as a young woman - energetic, attractive, full of wicked humour.  She liked to be in the thick of controversy: the piece she wrote about me in the magazine SUNDAY responded to the way that THE TEMPEST had divided opinion so deeply, with some people embracing its Indian setting and the post-colonial resonances, while others steadfastly refused the connections.  It wasn't a pre-publicity piece: Gauri sought me out after she had seen the piece, precisely because she wanted to engage with the anger it had provoked from conservative voices.  I don't think any of us realised that this cultural controversy was symptomatic of something so much more dangerous, so much more vindictive, something that would become so bloody and so tragic.

Gauri was killed because she dared to speak the truth, and her death makes it all the more incumbent on the survivors to continue that moral quest.  The voice of justice must not be silenced.  It must not.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Festivals and Healing

Remembering Pocahontas
It was very sad that we had to cancel PASIFIKA.  It would have been the second ORIGINS event to be held at Emslie Horniman's Pleasance, after the amazing Voladores da Papantla and Grupo Sotz'il in 2015.  Those performances and ceremonies had created a real bond between the Festival and the very vibrant communities of North Kensington - a bond that we were building on in this year's celebration of Pacific cultures.  But then Grenfell Tower happened - and the Council, I suppose rightly, felt that they couldn't do anything "fun" in the area.  It might look like fiddling as Rome burned.

At the same time, the Festival's presence might have helped build some bridges and heal some wounds.  It may, of course, be too soon - we should probably be content to wait for 2019 before we return to the area, at which time we can work with the community to do something affirmative.  There were many who felt the Ariana Grande commemorative concert in Manchester came too soon after the event - and that was in a place where the community had been united by the tragedy.  In North Kensington, there is great anger.

For all that - there is a genuine role for Festivals in healing wounds and building bridges.  On Monday, Marcia Langton talked about this aspect of indigenous festivals in Australia as part of her ORIGINS Lecture - and last week we saw it in action at our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House.  The visit of Pocahontas to the London home of the Percy family was a full 400 years ago, of course, and was a diplomatic mission, not a catastrophic inferno.  But the arrival of three Native American women to commemorate a Native American woman was still a highly significant moment, precisely because they have been so shut out from history. As Graham Harvey said at our AFTERNOON OF TALKS, the Pocahontas 400 events so far have concentrated not on where she lived but where she died, not on her indigenous but her Christian identity.  A ceremony of smudge, drum and dance felt like a redressing of the balance, an invitation to bring previously excluded voices to the centre.

I hope we will be able to go back to North Kensington soon, and to offer a contribution to that community's healing.

Sierra Tasi Baker, Gabe Hughes, Stephanie Pratt

Monday, June 05, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 4: Indigenous Women

Sierra Tasi Baker
Since ORIGINS was first established a decade ago, it's been really striking how many of the most important indigenous artists and thinkers we have featured have been women - and this year's Festival is no exception.  There has always been an energy and a power in indigenous women: and the challenges of the contemporary world are focussing that energy into creative and artistic responses, political activism, and a particular kind of feminist thought.
Prof. Marcia Langton
As with all indigenous ideas, indigenous feminism stands outside the mainstream, and offers balances and correctives to more "established" approaches.  This year's ORIGINS LECTURE is being given by Prof. Marcia Langton, the newly appointed Vice-Provost of Melbourne University, and probably the world's most distinguished indigenous academic.  A few years ago, Marcia famously took on the white Australian feminist icon Germaine Greer, in a widely publicised spat over Greer's essay Whitefella Jump Up.  So don't expect Greer-style feminism from her.  As well as her lecture, Marcia will be taking part in the TALKS programme over the first weekend, including a panel on INDIGENOUS WOMEN TODAY.
The 7 Stages of Grieving
Also from Australia comes the "Indigenous Everywoman" play THE SEVEN STAGES OF GRIEVING, in a powerhouse performance from Chenoa Deemal.  Here's an interview Chenoa did about the production, shortly before performing it at Sydney Opera House last month.  We're also delighted to be welcoming visual artist JULIE GOUGH, whose powerful re-readings of Australian colonial history have recently been acclaimed at the National Gallery of Australia's remarkable exhibition Defying Empire: the Legacy of 1967, which marks the 50th anniversary of the referendum making indigenous Australians citizens in their own country.
Tanya Tagaq
From the opposite side of the globe, but sharing many of the same colonial experiences, Inuk throat singer TANYA TAGAQ is our last-night star at ORIGINS.  Her music often deals with directly feminist themes, including all forms of rape — of women, of the land — while demanding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as Indigenous peoples who’ve had their land and rights removed over centuries of abuse.  Her approach to feminism embraces the indigenous movement and its allies across the world.  "The act of feminism, it's not a female thing, it's a human thing," she says.  Tanya's feminism and activism are complemented by her friend Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of ANGRY INUK - an activist film par excellence, dealing with the seal hunt controversy, in which Tanya has been a very vocal participant.  When Alethea was nominated as Samara's Everyday Political Citizen, Juror Margaret Atwood said: "I nominate Alethea Arnaquq-Baril for bravely opening the door to a conversation that needs to happen."
White Lies
New Zealand and Pacific women aren't neglected either, with the UK premiere of WHITE LIES - a Māori film built around three very different women, and featuring a great performance from Whirimako Black.  The screening is followed by a Q&A with Dr. Ian Conrich, an expert in New Zealand film.
The New World
Behind it all lurks the elusive, semi-mythic figure of Pocahontas, who visited London a full 400 years ago.  ORIGINS marks the anniversary with a screening of Terrence Malick's visionary film about her life, THE NEW WORLD at Picturehouse Central.  The screening is followed by a Q&A with Stephanie Pratt, an art historian whose Dakota Sioux name approximates to Pocahontas, and whose life in some ways reflects her Powhatan predecessor's.  Stephanie will also be present at Syon House, the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland, where Pocahontas lived for a time, for our special commemoration REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS.  In the grounds where she once walked, three Native American women will commemorate and celebrate her.  Accompanying Stephanie will be Sierra Tasi Baker, of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, and our Indigenous Associate, Wampanoag scholar Gabe Hughes.

How wonderful to meet such an extraordinary group of modern indigenous women!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Environment

Are We Stronger Than Winston?
"Where is the Environment?" asked Caroline Lucas yesterday.  She's quite right to challenge the major parties - neither of whom have said anything about this most crucial of issues during the current election campaign.  Across the Atlantic, it now seems that Donald Trump aims to withdraw from the Paris deal on climate change.  It's a scary moment, and no mistake.

This is the time when, more than ever, we need to be listening to the voices of indigenous people, who experience climate change at the front line on a daily basis.  Not only do they feel its effects particularly acutely - they also have long cultural traditions of living in close harmony with nature.  In indigenous cultures, you do not own the land but care for it - passing it on as a healthy inheritance to the future.  Now, more than ever, we need to be engaging with indigenous people as we try to find a way forward in our relationship with a damaged planet.
Reports from Standing Rock
ORIGINS 2017 has a range of inspiring and provocative events about indigenous ideas on the environment, beginning with REPORTS FROM STANDING ROCK on June 11 - a series of short films that show the realities of the protest and explore the depth of the Native American activists' passion to save their land and waters.  Trump's refusal to engage with indigenous protestors may yet prove to be his political undoing - his failure to engage with environmental issues is certainly very dangerous for us all.
Are We Stronger than Winston?
Just how dangerous is shown in ARE WE STRONGER THAN WINSTON? by VOU Dance Company from Fiji, performing at The Place on June 23 and 24.  Winston was the cyclone that hit Fiji in February 2016: the worst recorded tropical storm in the history of the South Pacific, killing 42 people and causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. In the words of the choreographer, Navitalai Waqavotuwale: "Soon the house that once sheltered us, now threatened our very lives as it collapsed in shreds around us. Soon the ocean that once fed us came pounding at our doors demanding our breath. Soon the wind that once rippled through our children's hair and carried their voices homeward, snatched them from our very arms and hauled them beyond the horizon where their voices were heard no more. And soon, mothers were burying their children, and children were burying their mothers."
Melissa Veszi as Poluknalai
A lighter but equally important take on climate change in the Pacific is offered in  Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new musical for family audiences, BABA THE BAD BABOON.  In this version of a Polynesian folk tale, Baba is an experienced leader who assures the goddess Poluknalai, the supreme protector of animals and nature, that all will be well under his watch - leading to a dire loss of animals and ecology.
Angry Inuk
It's in the Arctic that the effects of climate change are probably most glaringly obvious, as the ice melts at astonishing speed.  Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's remarkable film ANGRY INUK, which has been winning audience awards at film festivals across the planet, is powered by fury at the world's failure to engage with the people who actually live in the Arctic - the Inuit themselves.  Their environmentally sustainable approach to seal hunting - using every part of a non-endangered species for food and clothing, and to give them traction in the global marketplace - is set in sharp contrast with the insanely wasteful approach of western interests in the Artic region.
Tanya Tagaq
So it seems only fitting that the last voice you will hear at ORIGINS this year is an Inuk voice - TANYA TAGAQ.  More than a traditional throat singer, Tanya seems to embody and to vocalise the Arctic landscape itself.  Her extraordinary improvised soundtrack to the silent "documentary" NANOOK OF THE NORTH is a staggering evocation of the beautiful and bare lands that sustain the planet - and that we are all too close to destroying.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Youth

Three Wise Cousins
Everyone knows the importance of Elders in indigenous cultures - but related to this is the huge emphasis placed on young people, and the passing on of culture to future generations.  ORIGINS 2017 has a whole string of stories to tell about young people growing to maturity in First Nations cultures, and what they learn along the way.  THREE WISE COUSINS is a coming of age comedy, about a young Samoan man living in New Zealand, who hears his potential love interest say that she wants a "Real Island Guy".  Cue the cultural education trip to Samoa...  

Johogoi Aiyy
Other films that treat the same sort of process in less comic way are SPEAR, which follows a young man's attempts to reconcile Aboriginal traditions with a contemporary urban world; and the extraordinary JOHOGOI AIYY (Johogoi God) from the Yakut people of Sakha in the Russian Arctic.  In this remarkable film, like no other, a young man travels to the annual midsummer festival — the Tuymada Ysekh - and we travel with him, learning as he learns about his culture, his spirituality and his destiny.
Youth is also central to our theatre programme, with Cliff Cardinal's HUFF casting an unflinching eye on some of the more horrific aspects of young lives on Native Reservations, where solvent abuse if rife and where the suicide rate is five times that in the rest of Canada.  Oddly enough, it manages to be very funny in the process.  There's light relief to follow with Joshua Warrior's Aboriginal stand-up ABORIGINAL GIGOLO, or hip-hop with the fabulous MAU POWER at the ORIGINS CONCERT.
Island Poké
Younger youth also have lots to look forward to - not least because of our Education programme, which will be taking over two primary schools through the festival, immersing over a thousand children in indigenous culture.  Some of them will be performing at PASIFIKA in Kensington, and that's going to be a great Family Day out on every level, with song and dance from a whole range of Pacific cultures, Maori martial arts, and Hawaiian food from our fabulous partners Island Poké.
Man of the Andes
On Sunday 25 June, there are two shows at Rich Mix aimed especially at young audiences.  MAN OF THE ANDES is José Navarro's puppet extravaganza, introducing children to Andean animals, Quechua music and the Scissor Dance, all without any language to get in the way!  BABA THE BAD BABOON is Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new family musical, drawn from Samoan mythology, and taking in a few thoughts on climate change.

ORIGINS is a great place to be young....

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pathways through the Festival 1: History and Representation

The New World
As ORIGINS 2017 approaches, and people are getting keen to book their tickets, we thought it might be useful to outline a few possible Pathways Through the Festival - giving you the chance to work out what events sit together well by theme or "feel".  Our First Pathway is about History and Representation.

At the heart of these ideas sits the contested figure of Pocahontas.  2017 is the 400th anniversary of her time in England and untimely death at Gravesend, aged only 21.  Celebrations can be complex: and this anniversary hasn't been without its controversy. Writing in Indian Country Today, Lisa J. Ellwood attacks the way in which the commemorations have seemed to appropriate Pocahontas (or Matoaka, as she was properly known) as a "Great and Powerful English Feminist".  Ellwood cites the alternative oral traditions of the Powhatan, which we also explored in our HIDDEN HISTORIES film.  According to this tradition, Pocahontas was abducted, raped and eventually murdered: a very different tale.   [You can see HIDDEN HISTORIES as part of our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House on June 15, or in a pre-festival screening at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham on May 27]  Our friend Graham Harvey (part of our TALKS programme) wrote a blog piece on the commemoration at Gravesend, which also problematises it in the light of colonial histories and post-colonial tensions.  As a Festival celebrating indigenous culture, ORIGINS can't enter this territory without an overt awareness of its being contested space.  So our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS night will be a Native American ritual, not a Christian one, at a site where she lived, not where she died.  It will involve contemporary Native American women who have travelled to England locating their own stories in relation to hers - or what hers might have been.  And the film we are screening about her, THE NEW WORLD, is an attempt to move beyond contested histories and into the realm of the mythological - the imaginative space where the real potential for healing can be found.

Observance by Julie Gough 
You might want to compare THE NEW WORLD with Julie Gough's THE LOST WORLD.  Julie's art constantly questions the way in which Aboriginal lands and artefacts are owned or represented by the dominant culture.  Like many of the voices in ORIGINS, hers is raised to debate the continuing dispossession of indigenous peoples, not only from their lands but also from their histories.  The same issues are tackled in very different ways in the theatre piece THE 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, in which Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman trace the indigenous Australian experience from first contact to the present day.  It's a great example of theatre and performance re-claiming history for the people on the receiving end of its more malign forces, superbly performed by the young Thitharr Warra woman Chenoa Deemal.  It's director, Jason Klarwein writes: "The language you hear in our version of this play is Chenoa’s language. The design elements of the show are based on the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where Chenoa grew up, the artworks of the people there, and the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland. We have taken the structure of this marvellously robust work and given it our experience. Our childhood and our pain. As well as the pain of generations of displaced First Peoples."
Tanya Tagaq
The question of History - who owns it, who controls it, who has the right to claim it - is perhaps most powerfully addressed by working with Museums.  ORIGINS first worked with the British Museum in 2015, and this year we're returning there, complementing their exhibition WHERE THE THUNDERBIRD LIVES with a screening of the extraordinary 1914 archive film IN THE LAND OF THE HEADHUNTERS, which opens the Festival on June 10.  A second archive film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, marks our Closing Night at the National Maritime Museum on June 25 - but this time the film is gloriously re-appropriated by the culture on which it casts its colonial gaze.  The great Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq improvises a live soundtrack to the film - embodying its representation
of the Arctic landscape and undercutting its construction of the Inuit as primitive "Others".  In many ways, this performance is an answer to the colonial writings of history that have continually dogged indigenous peoples - an issue also presented at our other NMM screening, PASSAGE, which sees the slandering of the Inuit by Victorian moralists like Charles Dickens, and the beginnings of reconciliation in the present day.  That whole history of mis-representation, leading to self-representation on film is traced in the wonderful (and very funny) documentary REEL INJUN, and countered by the re-invention of indigenous language itself in Christian Thompson's video installation BERCEUSE.
Spirit of the Ancestors
Talking about Museums and indigenous peoples often leads to the discussion of re-patriation.  It's a complex issue, but one which has to be dealt with.  TE KUHANE O TE TUPUNA (The Spirit of the Ancestors), which screens at Arthouse Crouch End on June 14, does just that.  It's a film from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, about the search for the the lost Moai Hoa Haka Nanaia, a statue of significant cultural importance.  That statue currently sits in pride of place in the British Museum.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Brexit the Stage

Intercultural Laboratory - participants from UK, Romania and Greece
Last time we ran our Intercultural Play-Making Laboratory, I had the impossible task of welcoming visitors from Europe on the day of the referendum result.  This time there wasn't quite such an element of shock - but Brexit inevitably hung over the week's work, as we dialogued with participants from Greece, Romania, Estonia, Portugal, Germany and the UK.  We actually started by inviting everybody to the V&A's symposium Brexit the Stage: if there's an elephant in the room, it's best to take notice.

The symposium was characterised by a tone of resignation.  Even David Lan, whose speech struck a more powerful moral tone than most, didn't dare to suggest that Brexit could possibly be resisted.  What seemed to me most striking and most disturbing about the day was the sense that Britain really was different from the rest of Europe, and that the difference consisted of a more mercenary approach, even to culture.  Mark Ball talked about British participants in the international theatre circuit being more transactional in their approach than Europeans (or anybody else, except Americans).  Christopher Balme, who has always had a global view of such things, looked at the UK's gradual policy shift away from an integral to an instrumental view of the value of culture; and suggested that the corresponding move in European cultural policy, from Culture 2000's belief in the inherent worth of intercultural dialogue to Creative Europe's emphasis on culture as a means to economic and social regeneration, was a reflection of British influence.  So at least we managed to mess Europe up before leaving it....

I retain a few little strands of hope as to what may happen in the negotiating process.  If, as seems virtually certain, Theresa May is re-elected with an enhanced majority, she will take that same transactional, indeed confrontational approach to the negotiation.  Her recent run-in with Jean-Claude Juncker shows just how alien this is to the European approach to policy: on the continent there is far less adversarial politics, far more consensus and coalition building.  The thought that the Brexit talks might be about "the best deal we can get" is itself anathema to the Commission.  The British government cares not a jot for culture or education - the most recent instructions from the DCMS to the Arts Council suggest that the latter should be transformed into a business development agency, a bit like UKTI.  But culture and education do still matter to the European Union, and they value the contributions that British educators, researchers and (yes) artists can make to their projects. It may just be that the EU manages to salvage our involvement in the programmes as a trade-off for some concession on tariffs or the like.  I'm inclined to direct the lobbying efforts towards Brussels rather than Westminster.

Turbulent times produce good art, though - and, fully aware of the irony, I can report that this Laboratory was the best we have done.  At our Evaluation session, and since, participants spoke about the freedom they had found in our approach, the way the workshop had enabled them to follow their creativity and emotional paths, to overcome fear, to re-frame their own roles as artists or educators.  One young man from Romania, who may or may not have known that he was arguing the case for Europe, said:  "It made me feel how travelling and communicating can help you grow...  If you put people together, it's better for everyone".

Simple really, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pocahontas 400

The real Pocahontas 
It's rare for me to blog twice in one day - but we can't let March 21st 2017 pass without commemorating Pocahontas.  It's 400 years ago today that she died, at Gravesend, where she was subsequently buried.  The grave itself was lost when the church burned down in the 18th century - but there's a statue in the churchyard, and today there's a service being held.

After all, the adult Pocahontas was a Christian.  She and John Rolfe had the first recorded intercultural marriage in North America, and she had to convert in order for that to happen, particularly as Rolfe was one of "the godly", or Puritans.  Whether, like other indigenous people, she thought of Christ as another deity to add to an existing pantheon, we do not know.  In fact, we know very little of what she thought at all.  The thoughts of indigenous people and women from the 17th century are rarely recorded, and Pocahontas happened to be both.

What we do know is that she had great symbolic value as a cultural ambassador.  Received by James I and Anne of Denmark as visiting royalty, she represented a PR coup for the Virginia Company and its tobacco trade.  Her manners and her religion served to demonstrate that the English Empire could "civilise" the "savage".  Or so it suited them to say.  It may well have been as a result of this convenient narrative and celebrity status that Captain John Smith decided to invent the famous story of the child Pocahontas saving his life - it certainly seems unlikely to have happened in quite the way he described it, and we know she was decidedly cold towards him when they met on her visit to London.  Although Pocahontas died here, her Powhatan companions made the journey home, and seem to have been among the leaders of the Powhatan rising against the colonists in 1622.  The visit may have been a PR success with the British public, but it wasn't one with the indigenous people.

On Saturday, we showed our film HIDDEN HISTORIES at the British Library, as part of their Pocahontas celebrations - and in June's ORIGINS Festival there will be a number of events to mark the anniversary.  We'll be holding a special evening at Syon House, where she stayed for a time, and screening the great, if slightly fictionalised, film about her life, Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD - a film characterised by the spiritual energy of indigenous cultures.  Perhaps that is where we should be looking for her real legacy.

The Roman Tragedies - The Illusion of Participation

The Roman Tragedies
This photo is unusual for a theatre blog - I took it myself.  In Ivo van Hove's production of The Roman Tragedies, many of the rules about theatre and spectatorship seem to be thrown out of the window.  You can take photos.  You can tweet about the show as it unfolds through its six-hour span, and the tweets are flashed across the stage during set changes.  You can move between seats, and onto the stage, where you sit in close proximity to the actors.  You watch the performance both live (at various distances) and on live filmed relays, both on the large screen above the stage and on the many TV monitors around the space (including, if you like, in the foyers).  Given that the Shakespeare text is spoken in a contemporary, prosaic Dutch, an eye on the screen is essential as that's also where the subtitles are.  In one of the most thrilling scenes, Hans Kesting  as Mark Antony delivered his eulogy to Caesar very close to me, and once or twice locked eyes with me (the spectator as crowd member) - but I also had to keep looking away from him to the broadcast version, so as to check what he was actually saying (the spectator as receiver of the mediated).  You can buy food and drink on stage, and eat it during the show.  You can check out the make-up area, where the performers are prepared to go on camera.  There's an info desk about the company's work, from where the set changes are announced, complete with musak.

The Roman Tragedies - the onstage make-up area.
It could all be incredibly gimmicky, I suppose - and it is certainly fun - but it seems to me that this is much more than an experiment with audience participation.  And that the participation is not actually participatory at all.  I saw the production when it first came to the Barbican in 2009, and then I wrote that "there's an element of real democracy about the whole thing. It raises endless questions about theatre and politics - not least whether politics might be turning into nothing but performance."   Reading that blog today, it feels like a memory of a more innocent time, as well as recognising the production as prophetic.  In its current manifestation, the production opens with the Trump inauguration being broadcast on TV, while Volumnia and Virgilia discuss the absent Martius, their private conversation also being broadcast.  There seems to be no boundary between the public and the private.
The Roman Tragedies - spectators and TVs
On one level, this reflects our current "politics as show-biz" - the desire to feel intimate with public figures, to be aware of their private lives, to have them live out those lives as a public display (Antony and Cleopatra is particularly strong in this way).  On another level, it suggests the privatisation of public space - the way in which reckless magnates like Trump, Farage and (the most immediate example) George Osborne have come to treat politics as just another part of their self-aggrandising, self-enriching projects.  And this is crucial to the way the performance works - or, at least, it felt so in the charged atmosphere of 2017, far more so than it had in 2009.  Because the apparent agency this production gives to the audience is not agency at all: we remain as passive recipients of the play.  If, as I said in 2009, the production is "democratic" (and at heart I believe theatre to be a fundamentally democratic form), then it is through the exposure of what is so profoundly undemocratic in the current moment.  We have ceased to be participants, and become mere consumers.

Van Hove cuts all the scenes where Shakespeare has the common people speak.  The actors address the audience as "Friends, Romans, countrymen" - partly live but more tellingly through the medium of broadcast.  We feel as if we could be part of the story, as if our role contains the potential for action - but in fact we spectate.  The performance provides us with basic needs - we can work out when to take a loo break and the food is pretty good.  But we retain our role as spectators even as we are offered the illusion of participation.  For the last section of the performance, we are ordered back to our original seats, facing the conventional proscenium stage in a conventional hierarchical relationship - and of course, we unquestioningly obey.  Even the final ovation, leaping to our feet as one, is somehow disturbing in this most uneasy of performances.

In June 2016, the people of Britain responded to a marketing campaign based on lies, misinformation and the manipulation of prejudice, conveyed through broadcast and social media.  This led to the shocking referendum result, which has since been exploited as an expression of "the will of the people" to chilling effect - the Brexit process is being rushed through without consultation or democratic process.  Trump's antics are only an Americanised manifestation of the same basic thing.  Last week I was grateful to the Dutch for an election that stemmed the tide of populism, and for a piece of theatre that clarified just what is going on.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

NATIVe at the Berlinale

Angry Inuk
Thanks to a grant from the lovely Film London, I've been at the Berlinale.  This huge, and very impressive film festival includes a strand called NATIVe, which showcases indigenous film every year.  With ORIGINS only a few months away (block out June 13-25 in your diary now!), the opportunity to see so many indigenous films in a few days, and to meet the people who made them, was too good to miss.

This year, the NATIVe programme focussed on the Arctic - which was another bonus for me.  In previous festivals, we've included lots of Australian, American and New Zealand films, plus a new strand of Latin American work in 2015 - but rather fewer from the cold North.  We did screen the Inuit films Uvanga in 2015 and Before Tomorrow in 2011, as well as the Sámi film Biekka Fabmu in 2013: but I've always wanted to apply a more sustained focus to the region, particularly in the light of climate change.  Canada's 150th birthday this year looks like providing us with the ideal opportunity to do this - even if the films themselves are subversive of that celebration.
The "star" of the Berlinale's Arctic programme was undoubtedly Zacharias Kunuk's Maligutit (Searchers), which was packed to bursting on Saturday night in the biggest cinema I have ever seen.  The screen was so enormous that you had to sit many rows back just to take the whole thing in.  Provided the seat was suitable, this was a terrific way to watch the film, as the vastness of the Arctic location was central to the piece.  Kunuk is famous as the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner - an Inuit epic which has been voted the best Canadian film of all time.  Maligutit is similarly set amongst the Inuit, in their own landscape, with no sign of other cultures, apart from (this being the 19th century) the presence of kettles and a gun.  It's not a post-colonial film as such: the conflicts between Inuit groups that it portrays are not affected by the outside world.  But, in a way, that is in itself a post-colonial statement.  Kunuk is a filmmaker who reclaims the narrative and the viewpoint for his own people.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril
In Angry Inuk, documentary filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril also reclaims the narrative - and, in this case, the moral high ground.  Her film is an extraordinary, painstaking and powerful engagement from the Inuit perspective with the question of the seal hunt.  Alethea takes on Greenpeace, PETA, the Humane Society and the European Parliament.  Her argument is that seal-hunting is the means whereby her people acquire affordable food and (through the sale of sealskin products) make a living.  The seal is not an endangered species, and the numbers involved are small.  This is an entirely sustainable activity with a respectful approach to the animal, every part of which is used after the hunt.  The EU trade embargo may have had an exception for Inuit "subsistence" hunting, but that actually makes things less sustainable, as they cannot sell the fur.  The cultural effects are huge: not being able to live according to culture is one reason for the grotesquely high rate of suicide amongst young Inuit.  What is needed now is a direct engagement for the film and its maker with the anti-hunt lobbyists, so that a proper debate can be had.  And that is what we will try to achieve in our Festival.
Johogoi Aiyy
Both of these were films I already knew about and had been anxious to see.  Johogoi Aiyy (God Johogoi), on the other hand, was a complete discovery.  This astonishing film, from the Russian Republic of Yakutia, known to its indigenous inhabitants as Sakha, is set at the summer festival of Ysyakh.  A young horse herder called Johogoi goes there in the belief that he will meet the beautiful woman who appears in his dreams.  It sounds fanciful, of course - but what is incredible, and deeply indigenous, in this film is the way the spiritual narrative is totally embedded in the lived experience of the 21st century.  This even applies to the film's methodology: it was shot over two days at the real festival, with only two "actors" - everybody else in the film just happened to be at the festival, and interacted with the main character as if he were "real".  The result is one of the most moving cinematic experiences I have ever had.  If you're looking for one wild card at our festival in June: this will be it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017


When Nobody Returns - Andrew French as Odysseus with Bayan Shbib as Calypso
Well - that was quite a year.  And I don't mean because lots of celebrities died.  Actually, I suspect that from now on, lots of celebrities will die every year - popular culture in its current form dates from the 60s and 70s, so, as the Americans say, do the math.  But perhaps that does make this a suitable moment to question the huge amounts of emotional energy that are now devoted to such people - famous for looks, quirky soundbites and private lives led all too publicly.  As George Monbiot argued recently, the Trump election is the logical outcome of this.  And it's making 2017 look daunting to say the least.

2016 was also, of course, the year of the referendum.  It was NOT the year of Brexit - the actual leaving of the EU - which may still be some way off...  Here's hoping.  Even so, it's already proving impossible to attract European partners to work with UK-based organisations on intercultural projects, either in the arts or in education.  This is going to make the future challenging for us at Border Crossings, where international collaboration is central to our mission, and where the structures of the EU have been hugely beneficial.  For the time being, we are continuing to run our intercultural theatre courses, which have to date had a European emphasis - but in future we'll be looking to engage more participants from the UK and the wider world.  This summer's course actually started on June 24th - the very day the referendum result was announced.  It felt difficult, to say the least, to welcome our European guests to London.

One of the key strands of our work during the year has been to address the European question of the refugee crisis.  Lucy has been working very directly with a number of refugee groups throughout the year, particularly unaccompanied minors and women - while I've been speaking about the role of culture in addressing the crisis at events in Karlsrühe, Stockholm and Brussels, including a significant contribution to the EU's Voices of Culture report on the question.  People often accuse the EU of being undemocratic - but I've never encountered genuine consultation and dialogue like this at a national level.  So we also have to re-think how Border Crossings can continue to have an active political voice in the aftermath of Brexit - it's really crucial that we maintain this in some way, as the interplay between theatre and policy is surely key to what we are about.  Sabine Frank, the former Secretary-General of the Platform for Intercultural Europe, says as much in our 21st birthday publication, 21 FACES OF BORDER CROSSINGS.

While we were working with refugees and talking about the relationship between culture and refugees, we were also making theatre that explored the contemporary Middle East and the aftermath of war.  Brian Woolland's new play WHEN NOBODY RETURNS was a sequel to THIS FLESH IS MINE, and we presented them together as a season with our Palestinian co-producer ASHTAR and our old friends at CSSD.  The plays were accompanied by Palestinian food, a series of talks on related themes, a Middle Eastern poetry event, and a reading of a new play by Tariq Jordan.  The whole programme has a coherence, and, as the lady from the Arts Council said to me on the phone just before Christmas - "This is exactly the sort of work we need after the year we've just had".

2016 was also the year we made our first documentary film:  HIDDEN HISTORIES: DISCOVERING INDIGENOUS LONDON had several acclaimed screenings, particularly one at the Houses of Parliament.  We were, of course, thrilled when the narrator, Mark Rylance, was knighted in the New Year's Honours List!  And if all that wasn't enough - we also rebranded the organisation to mark its 21st birthday, with a lovely new design by Kind Studio and a beautiful new website from Future Design.  We also launched the 21 Club for our major donors - please do consider becoming a part of this: with the cuts to arts funding and the loss of European sources, we are going to be ever more reliant on our donors to support this crucial work.

At the end of the year, I usually write a bit about other cultural productions and events that have particularly excited me.  It's very striking that almost all the great theatre I've seen has been in some sense intercultural or from overseas: we SO need to keep our links with the world if we are going to be a dynamic and energised society...   2016 was the year of Peter Brook's Battlefield and Robert Lepage's renewed Needles and Opium, of Lola Arias' Minefield and Lies Pauwels' extraordinary The Hamilton Complex- all of them international productions in London.  It was also the year of the Young Vic's Yerma - adapted and directed by Australian Simon Stone - and the remarkable Thebes Land from our friends CASA at the Arcola - a play from Uruguay.  Even the finest homegrown work - Simon McBurney's The Encounter and Katie Mitchell's stunning version of Sarah Kane's Cleansed - were international in outlook and European in style and sensibility: these are two British directors who work across the continent.  And it shows.

I'm writing this on the day our Ambassador to the EU tendered his resignation.  There's a rocky ride ahead - but Happy New Year, everybody.