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.