Friday, November 22, 2019

Jatinder Verma


Back in 1990, I took my parents to see Tartuffe at the National Theatre. It was a long way from the powdered periwigs and camp capering they had expected. This was Jatinder Verma’s production - the first by any non-white director at the National - and he had, characteristically, set it in 17th century India, and employed an acting style to match the transmogrification. Mudras and accented English offered a perfect parallel to the manners of Moliere’s France, the body language as coded as traditional Asian theatre, the rhyming couplets as sing-song as the “Binglish” delivery that Jatinder drew from his performers.

Jatinder’s presence on a National stage was not simply a progressive gesture by Richard Eyre, embracing the changing ethnic and cultural make-up of 20th century Britain.  It was a statement of intent, from both directors, as to what cultural diversity ought to mean. Jatinder didn’t direct a play from India, or one dealing with Asian people in Britain (although he certainly can do both, and frequently has with Tara Arts). On the National stage, he laid claim to a European classic - and he has many times applied his resolutely distinct Asian style of performance in that genre, including Shakespeare as well as Moliere. He has always been incredibly bold: he states his right to address “our” classic texts, and to do them in his own way. His productions are absolutely about cross-cultural dialogues and interactions - but they emphatically refuse assimilation.

It’s a stance we really need at the moment. Thirty years on from that memorable Tartuffe, the National, and the arts in general, are apparently far more “diverse”, with black and Asian people engaged, and often leading, right across the sector. It’s undoubtedly positive that the arts and culture are more representative of the society from which they emerge. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of this apparent “diversity” is - literally - skin deep, and that people of colour are performing, both on and off stage, in exactly the same way as their white counterparts. I recognise that second and third generation migrants may well feel themselves to be as fully British as white people - but that doesn’t stop me questioning whether it is really “cultural diversity” if the cultural product itself remains essentially unchanged, and therefore the cultural and social assumptions remain intact. It’s very rare nowadays that we see anything as bold, as challenging, as Jatinder’s confrontations with the classics.

Over the years, he has become a friend and an ally. We’ve co-produced CONSUMED with his company Tara Arts, and will be presenting THE GREAT EXPERIMENT in their beautiful new theatre in February. Jatinder and I have had many conversations about the arts landscape, about theatre in Britain, India and Africa, about the politics of the aesthetic. I was genuinely shocked when he emailed on Tuesday morning to say he would be stepping down from Tara at the end of the year.  It feels like the ravens leaving the Tower of London - the company he has run since 1976 feels totally synonymous with him.  I hope we’ll still be able to see his work and to hear his voice: he stands against the blandness and sameness, the complacency that can so easily creep into our art form.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Diverting from Diversity - The Doctor

Joy Richardson and Juliet Stevenson in THE DOCTOR
After the ORIGINS Festival in June, I did an interview for the Westway Trust’s new website, responding to the Festival as a whole, and particularly to brian solomon/ELECTRIC MOOSE’s beautiful community performance, WESTWAY SOLSTICE.  The interview raised the vexed and current question of who can / should / gets to tell particular stories in particular spaces at particular times.  It’s a question that has been worrying me for a while…. 

The current orthodoxy is that theatre about (say) Nigeria should be made by Nigerian people, theatre about China by Chinese people, and so on. In many ways, I’m in total sympathy with this. In 2013, when the RSC was being hauled over the coals for presenting the Chinese classic THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO with only three Asian performers in the cast (variously playing a Maid and two thirds of a dog), Border Crossings was held up as an example of a more positive approach, making CONSUMED with Chinese performers not only playing but creating the Chinese characters, including dialogue in their own language. It was our third co-production with a Chinese company, and representative of our intercultural, collaborative approach. Both in our own productions, and in the visiting performances which we bring to ORIGINS, integrity and authenticity are central to what we do.  

However, there have been occasions when I have been challenged about my own role in making this work. I have been asked whether it is up to me (“as a white male”) to curate Indigenous work for London audiences, to direct and shape the performances of Chinese actor-devisers, to bring a Ghanaian text to the English stage. My response has always been that Border Crossings’ work does not appropriate anyone else’s culture: rather its engages with other cultures in a positive and dialogic way, recognising that we are all part of a globalised world, in which we need a dynamic and democratic interaction between cultures and artists in order to imagine how we can jointly inhabit that global space. I happen to come from one of the the countries that was responsible for the colonial processes that brought globalisation about - but that should not exclude me from the current discussions. If we are to recognise how our histories brought us here, then we had better not exclude anybody. If we want our theatre to make a real difference, even on the most basic “diversity agenda”, then it needs to speak to white audiences as well as black ones; to advocate for inclusivity by demonstrating it - not by ghettoising.

It worries me that British theatre seems currently to be stuck in an unhealthy position, uncomfortably close to racial essentialism. The orthodoxy is becoming that ONLY Chinese people can talk about China, ONLY Rwandan people can talk about Rwanda, ONLY gay or queer people can talk about sexuality….  and so on. While I absolutely do not deny the centrality of viewpoint, it is not healthy or progressive in a multicultural space to set up barriers to participation and engagement.  To exclude white males from the debate simply reverses the status quo: it does not lead us towards the equal space that we should surely crave.  

Robert Icke’s superb production of THE DOCTOR (which I saw recently at the Almeida, and which transfers to the West End in the New Year) suggested a radical re-think in the way theatre responds to “diversity”. It had a very diverse cast - in many different ways, not just racially. However, with the exception of Juliet Stevenson in the central role, and an important scene which was actually about the theorising of viewpoint, the casting was emphatically not done on the basis of race, gender, or other “identity” characteristics.  Indeed, there was a deliberate distancing of the performers from the roles they were playing, with the effect that the audience became actively engaged in a creative and political dialogue with the production. For example, the character FATHER was played by the Irish actor Paul Higgins.  FATHER is a Catholic priest, who Stevenson’s Doctor RUTH prevents from seeing, and giving the Last Rites to a dying girl.  The natural assumption, as the audience hears the actor’s accent, is that the priest is Irish.  So it comes as a shock, a disruption, when we discover through the dialogue that he (the character, not the actor) is black.  Does this change how we think about the situation, we find ourselves asking.  Should it?  Why should the priest’s race make a difference?  If the production had been cast by race and gender, by essentialism, then it would not have been able to raise these important questions about race and gender in such a powerful and disturbing way.  In this instance, it seems to me that the approach to diversity that aims at equality through literal representation is shown to be potentially quite conservative - allowing the audience a complacency around their own liberal assumptions.  

At the heart of Icke’s production was Joy Richardson, who played OLIVIA in our 1999 production of TWELFTH NIGHT, which toured Zimbabwe for the British Council. Joy is a very distinctive figure: a woman of African descent who was born in Guyana. During the play, it slowly emerged that she was playing CHARLIE, RUTH’s lover who died some time before. What was extraordinary was that, even in the closing scenes where this character came to the fore, there was never any indication as to whether CHARLIE was black, white or Asian; female or male (or other). This did not reduce in any way the emotional power of the relationship between RUTH and CHARLIE, or the sorrow of the loss. Indeed, it gave a strange purity to the emotion, precisely because it seemed to move beyond the bounds of “identity”. I’m not suggesting that the play somehow took the audience towards “the universal”, which remains a Western myth, used to subsume other cultures into a Judaeo-Christian world view; but it did suggest that in the most fundamental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives, in love and death, there is a common humanity that goes beyond the politics of identity and separation. Love reaches beyond the self - that it the whole point. And death is the one thing we have to agree really is universal.  So perhaps the body, which has come to be read as the signifier of difference through identity, might also be the means by which we come to the next stage of our cultural and political journey.  
Adjoa Andoh as RICHARD II
Theatre is not a literal space: it does not attempt to reproduce reality, or to signify reality through the precise representational approach of film. Rather it constructs a metaphorical space through which we can confront what is strange, constructed and unreal in our own lives.  This is why Brecht deliberately set his plays in metaphorical, distant worlds, revealing the constructed and performed nature of our societies through the medium of theatrical un-reality. That is why, although THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN is apparently set in China, Jane Horrocks could play Shen-Te and Shui-Ta with impunity - just as Adjoa Andoh was such strong casting as RICHARD II at the Globe.  The freedom to diverge from a literal and essentialised “reality” has to be central to a political theatre that de-constructs the fictions of established structures. 

The delight of this approach to diverse casting is that it avoids the pretence that an audience can simply ignore the physical characteristics of the bodies on stage before them, often called “colour-blind” or “gender-blind” casting. That is just a lie. When somebody stands in front of us, the first things we notice are the physical carriers of identity. As August Wilson put it in his famous 1996 talk “The Ground on Which I Stand”:

“Colourblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection….  For a Black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigour and spirit of his heart.”  

This is every bit as true of European, including British, culture. A theatre that is alive to the complexities of the current moment will acknowledge the histories that Wilson cites, and will cast performers not to assimilate them all into a tradition of theatre that remains just as it always was, and not merely as literal representations of “real”, “other” identities. The intercultural theatre required by the 21st century will cast people because of who they are, because of what they can bring to a role - but not in the naive way that pretends the performer actually is the person they are representing. It will recognise that the playful nature of the stage offers us the opportunity to read a character through the eyes of a performer - setting up multiple viewpoints on the action and its significance. We need a theatre that opens up our minds and our emotions - not one that reduces our cultural politics to racialised essentialism.  



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Don't Let Them Tell You Stories

The Calais Jungle.  Photo: Jamie Wiseman
DON'T LET THEM TELL YOU STORIES is a new play by Brian Woolland, who wrote THE PLAYS OF LOVE AND WAR.  During 2017-19, Brian took part in our project THE PROMISED LAND, looking at the situation of refugees across Europe and Turkey.

The play, written in response, is being given a rehearsed reading at Rich Mix on October 11th at 6.30pm.  The cast is Rachid Sabitri, Olivia Darnley, Ross Hatt, Peyvand Sadeghian and David Furlong, directed by Michael Walling.

Click here for full details - it's free!

Brian Woolland writes:

Whilst participating in THE PROMISED LAND project, I was privileged to have many remarkable conversations with young people recently arrived in Europe from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Mali; conversations which were illuminating, inspirational and deeply challenging to many of my own preconceived notions about 'refugees'.
This play is a response to the project and to those conversations. As the project developed it became increasingly evident that all talk about migration and immigration in simplistic numerical terms is a denial of humanity – of theirs (whoever they might be) and of our own. The play also aims to address the assumption that by creating borders and building walls we can pretend that what’s on the other side is not our concern, not part of our world.
The play is not a documentary drama, and certainly not verbatim theatre, but it does draw heavily on conversations with participants in the project, including those refugees we met in Adana, Bologna, London, Oldenburg and Toulouse. 
I would like to thank all who participated in every way in THE PROMISED LAND project. I am particularly grateful to Micaela Casalboni and Nicola Bonazzi of Teatro dell’ Argine (Bologna) for their richly insightful conversations and inspirational theatre company. And above all to Michael Walling of Border Crossings, for asking me to take part in the project, for our continuing conversations and for organising this rehearsed reading. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

ORIGINS at the Globe - Guest Post by Mei Ann Teo

Madeline Sayet performs WHERE WE BELONG at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Monday night was an historic occasion, when Mohegan theatre-maker Madeline Sayet performed her solo piece WHERE WE BELONG at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to a standing ovation.  The play, which deals with Shakespeare, colonialism, personal stories and shifting identities, sat wonderfully in this iconic space, which gave the event a very particular meaning.

Director Mei Ann Teo writes:

June 17, 2019. London.

The last day of our run at Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival (visionary artistic Director Michael Walling) happens at Shakespeare's Globe. Every time I hear this story, another rich layer emerges, and this time, in this space, I am beside myself.

Maddy's story did something to that space last night. She was not only speaking to the people in the room, but all those who have passed through it, and are buried around and beneath. She was speaking to the walls, embedding them with new DNA. She was also speaking towards the future; speaking to enable us with the tools to have a future, speaking us into understanding, existence, survival, and into thriving/flying.

It wasn't a solo show, no. She was not alone. With her were the people she met in England, the family she came from, many others but most sweetly, the Mohegan chief Mahomet Weyonomon who has a rock memorial in the green grass at Southwark Cathedral.

With her were all of us, witnessing, being transformed through the passion of her struggling with the question "where do we belong" and while there are never any easy answers and endings, I'm finding the courage to decide to make mine, "everywhere".

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Belonging

NO WOMAN'S LAND
The themes of ORIGINS come together in the idea of Belonging. Madeline Sayet’s WHERE WE BELONG (Rich Mix 14-16 June, Shakespeare’s Globe 17 June) offers an Indigenous perspective on Brexit Britain, exploring both the causes and the consequences of the 2016 referendum through the eyes of someone whose culture was colonised by ours.

A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION (Rich Mix 14-16 June) probes ideas around identity, culture and cultural ownership to offer new ways in which diverse & minority communities might stake a claim to belonging. Similar themes appear in the photographic self-portraits of Meryl McMaster, who is both First Nations and Scottish.  Meryl’s work is part of SUBSTRATA (Baldwin Gallery 4-18 June).  In NO WOMAN’S LAND (The Place 14-15 June), Naulaq LeDrew and Avâtara Ayuso confront the challenge of belonging to an Arctic that is being destroyed by people who seem to think the planet “belongs” to them, and not the other way round.

At the climax of the Festival, WESTWAY SOLSTICE (Maxilla Gardens 21-23 June) will engage with one of London’s most diverse communities, working with Anishinaabe choreographer-in-residence Brian Solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE to respond to the ground we stand on, the people who live on it, and the lives that live with us.  Belonging, at the deepest level.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Participation

A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION
For our 10th anniversary Festival, we have expanded the remit of ORIGINS beyond performance and dialogue, into fully participatory events.  From early May, contemporary First Nations choreographer brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE has been working with the community in North Kensington to create a site-specific dance performance called WESTWAY SOLSTICE (Maxilla Gardens 21-23 June).  Using a large and very diverse cast of local people, Brian’s work draws off his Anishanaabe cultural heritage to generate an intense relationship to land, environment and the body.

At the start of the Festival, Indigenous Australian artist Marree Clarke will be leading a KOPI WORKSHOP (Rich Mix 11-12 June), where you can experience the traditional mourning practices of her people. It’s an extraordinary privilege to work with an Indigenous artist on such an intimate and intense aspect of her culture.  Marree will guide participants through an emotional and spiritual journey, focusing their emotions into the creation of their personal clay cap of mourning.

Moe Clark (no relation!) is a Métis artist from Québec, whose practice ranges from the traditional drum to contemporary electronic music.  As well as performing at THE ORIGINS CONCERT (Rich Mix 13 June), Moe will be the host of KIYOKEWIN (Rich Mix 15 June).  Drawing off the traditional gathering and storytelling events practiced by her Elders (and hidden under the kitchen table because they were banned), KIYOKEWIN uses contemporary technology to bring Elders into a living exchange with Festival-goers in a calm and open space.

Through these participatory experiences, we hope that people might start to think differently about their relationships to culture and locality.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Pathways Through the Festival. 1: Migrations

INO MOXO
From 2017 to 2020, Border Crossings is focussing on the issue of migration, both in our theatre work, our community and education programmes, and in ORIGINS!  From an Indigenous perspective, migration FROM (not to) Britain is the source of current tensions.  Every event in the Festival in some way responds to the history of colonisation, and its ongoing impact on Indigenous people, their cultures, lands and environments.

NO WOMAN'S LAND (The Place – 14-15 June) brings together two migration stories, as Inuk Elder Naulaq LeDrew and Spanish dancer Avâtara Ayuso bring together their hugely different experiences of life in transit.  Naulaq’s migration from the Arctic of her childhood to the Toronto of today has strengthened her desire to preserve her cultural traditions, the Inuktitut language, the music, dance and costumes of the Inuit and the games they play.  It’s also turned her into a climate activist!  As well as appearing in the show, Naluaq will be talking about her culture at the National Maritime Museum and Rich Mix.

Another encounter between two women from different cultural backgrounds is at the heart of A CASUAL RECONSTRUCTION (Rich Mix 14-16 June): in this case Canadian Métis visual artist Nadia Myre and non-Indigenous theatre-maker Johanna Nutter.  Bravely and playfully facing up to challenging issues like cultural appropriation and the politics of race, the performance responds to the complex cultural and ethnic mixing that is the legacy of imperialism.

SONNY ASSU’s extraordinary visual art (Canada House 21 June – 5 September) and brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE’s probing and insightful dance piece THE NDN WAY (Playground Theatre 17 June) are further examples of work that confronts the cultural politics of colonisation. By presenting this work, ORIGINS will broaden debates around migration and diversity to include the ongoing impact of colonial histories, raising questions around cultural ownership, appropriation & the need for dialogue.

There are also, of course, histories of migration in the other direction too: many Indigenous people have visited London across the years.  HIDDEN HISTORIES (National Maritime Museum 19 June) tells some of their stories and relates them to the present day, while Madeline Sayet’s WHERE WE BELONG (Rich Mix 14-16 June, Shakespeare’s Globe 17 June) evokes the memory of her Mohegan ancestors to make sense of her own contemporary experience of London.

The experience of watching INO MOXO (Southbank Centre 15-16 June) is a journey in its own right, as the audience is led up the Amazon in search of the great Ayahuasca shaman Ino Moxo.  Here the migration is internal as well as literal: the Ayahuasca experience inspires a visionary new theatre form that helps us see the world through different eyes.