Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Clown

Raffaele Messina
The Clown is radical.  In a space of violence and despair, the Clown makes the outrageous gesture of spontaneous joy.  In the space of pain, suspicion and mistrust, the Clown offers vulnerability and empathy, the healing contact of the compassionate, unbroken gaze.  
 
In 2002, a group of Clowns, led by Patch Adams, went into Kabul to confront the violence unleashed across Afghanistan by George W. Bush and his allies.  The film of their journey is astonishing: it is also deeply upsetting.  In one sequence, a young child is treated for the most horrifying skin injuries.  Among the doctors, offering presence, openness and care, there is a figure in a red nose, holding a balloon.  
 
Earlier this year, as part of THE PROMISED LAND project, we spent a morning with the remarkable organisation Clowns Without Borders, who have been working regularly amongst the refugees across Europe and the Middle East.  To Sam Holdsworth, who runs the UK branch, the presence of the Clown at the moment of arrival is of huge importance in establishing the potential for welcome and moving forward.  As somebody emerges from the sea, there should not only be food, warmth and medical care: there should also be a very simple, very basic, acknowledgment of common humanity.  Even a joke.  How silly, how apparently insignificant.  How serious, how profound. 

In late November, Lucy, Sinead Emery and I went to Potenza in Southern Italy to work with the wonderful Clown Raffaele Messina as part of the MORE THAN WORDS Erasmus + project.  This project looks at how the arts and cultural sectors can engage communities who have little or no knowledge of the local language.  I had expected the week might concentrate on the Clown as a workshop technique, looking at the training methodology as a means to communication without language.  Instead, Raffaele chose something far more basic – how the Clown can be the face of welcome.  How the Clown can offer a sense of something more important than the labours of language learning or the morass of immigration bureaucracy.  How the Clown can be the bridge between people.
Lucy clowns for the locals
As a result, the week felt almost Grotowski-like in its concentration on the self.  We worked on openness and eye contact, on truly seeing inside the other.  We worked on our animal nature, our instinctiveness, the weight or lightness of our bodies in space.  We worked on emotion, and on how to concentrate that emotion into the tiny mask of the red nose.  I had worked a lot with mask before, and knew its potential to drive one personality from the body and allow another, more elemental being to take possession.  I had observed how the great clowns, like Chaplin, were essentially mask actors.  What I had not been prepared for was the totally transformative power of the red nose – the way in which a tiny piece of leather or plastic can open up a buried self: childlike, hilarious, innocent and raw.  Unleashed in the streets of Materra, the Clowns reached out to locals and to tourists, provoking laughter, tenderness and song.  People responded because they felt no threat.  Only joy.  The radical act of joy. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Bearing Witness

A photo from the Lublin ghetto
In the city of Lublin, in Eastern Poland, in 1992, an avant-garde performance group called NN Theatre was given the use of the city's old Grodzka Gate.  One day an old lady came to see them.  She said she remembered living in the gate as a small child, kept hidden from the outside world.  She had no real knowledge of who she was, and no recollection of her parents.  She did recall that she had been smuggled away, and so she thought that she was probably a Jewish child, who had somehow been protected from the Nazis.

The young Poles who ran the theatre company were astonished and moved.  They had not known about the history of the building they occupied.  It turned out that it had also been known as "the Jewish Gate", and that it led from the old centre of Lublin to what had been the Jewish quarter of the city - an area that the Nazis had completely destroyed.  As a result of this encounter, the theatre company completely changed its course, and set about documenting the Jewish history of their space, so that today it is closer to a museum than a theatre. The Gate still has a performance space, and it is sometimes used - but NN Theatre is now primarily a witness to the horrific history in its locality.  The young man who showed Lucy and myself around the exhibition, and who works with this material every day, was visibly moved by much of what he told us.  To give just one example, there is a series of photographs of a young boy from Lublin during the 1930s - birthdays, holidays and parties - so powerful because they are so ordinary.  The last photograph shows him carefully groomed for his first day at school: it was September 1939.  After that, there is nothing.

The Holocaust hangs like a malignant smog over Poland.  Of the six million Jewish people killed in Europe, three million were Polish. The death camps were almost all in Poland: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno. Lublin's closest camp was Majdanek.  At the start of the war, the city had 120,000 citizens, of whom 43,000 were Jewish.  Almost all of them were killed.

A few days earlier, I had visited the extraordinary Jewish Museum in Warsaw, called POLIN.  In a very different way from the Grodzka Gate, this is also a theatrical experience.  There are actually very few objects in this museum.  Rather, there are spaces to experience, stories to probe, projected imagery and concealed nuggets of text.  There is a reconstructed wooden synagogue of the 18th century, a little cinema screening Yiddish films of the 1920s, a reconstructed Warsaw street.  And, of course, towards the end there is the horrific material on the Holocaust.  In a narrow but high metal tank with rusted walls, there are graphic photos and accounts, on a very intimate scale, of the act of killing.

I found these exhibits almost unbearable - even more than at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.   Much of this emotional power derives from the long and detailed narrative that precedes the Holocaust section.  As POLIN's website explains: "We present 1000 years of Polish-Jewish coexistence, speaking of cooperation, rivalry and conflicts, autonomy, integration and assimilation. While seeking to confront thorny issues, we also bring attention to bright chapters in our common history."  The Jewish presence in Poland has been huge, ever since the early Middle Ages. POLIN makes much of the tolerance initiated by Bolesław III in the early 12th century, and his recognition of the economic advantages that would be brought by Jewish migrations into Poland.  The history is not always one of harmony, but it is one of cultural co-operation - what the EU would call "integration", as opposed to "assimilation".  The Jews remained Jewish and the Christians Christian - but they lived complementary lives.  In the early years of the Second Polish Republic, the centenary of which is being marked this year, the Jewish population was hopeful for a productive intercultural future.  "Fate has joined us with the Polish people for good", wrote Sholem Asch in his 1928 book Haynt (Today), "and our wishes and hopes belong to both nations, to one road, to a common bright future."

Both museums, in very different ways, offer narratives of hope, of peaceful coexistence, of cross-cultural understanding.  Above all, they bear witness to the horror that results from the dehumanising rhetoric of racism.  Why then, I found myself asking, has Poland moved so far to the political right in recent years?  Why has it become so notably intolerant of ethnic and cultural difference?  Why has the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe triggered such consternation there, seeing the rise of a home-grown fascism?

There are no easy answers to this, of course - but I do wonder whether the pressing need to bear witness to the Shoah might not have had an unintended consequence in shifting the narrative.  Emphasising Polish history as an exemplar of tolerance through its Jewish past might serve to suggest a particularly deep relationship between a Polish society largely defined by its Catholicism, and a Jewish society also defined by a religion which shares many of the same scriptural roots.  The profound horror of the Polish experience under Nazi occupation might lead to a very understandable reluctance to criticise the state of Israel, with its foundation myth so rooted in the Shoah.  If modern Poland (and other countries in modern Europe) remains traumatised by the events of the early 1940s, then that may be one reason for the deep suspicion displayed towards Islamic cultures and people.  The Israeli state has a tendency to cast itself as a victim of Islamic aggression, and terror attacks by Islamist groups have helped feed the idea of a Judeo-Christian Euro-American world under assault from this inimical "Other".  A society that defines itself by its Catholic religion and its history of coexistence with Jewish people is very likely to be suspicious of Muslim migrations.

The witness that is borne to the Shoah is essential, of course - and so is the narrative of Polish and Jewish coexistence.  But we need to look for other narratives too.  Perhaps we need to bear witness to the remarkable policies of religious and cultural multiplicity practised under the Ottoman Empire.  Perhaps we need to revisit the dynamic and vibrant culture of Moorish Spain, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars and artists engaged in profound and productive cultural exchange.

Museums, theatres...  we have work to do.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Brexit and Democracy - A Reply to François Matarasso


Dear François

Thank you for taking the trouble to respond to my questions on Twitter in such depth and with such care.  We are, of course, in agreement on most of the key issues.  Like you, I am sure that the referendum was an appalling idea, and that the key to Parliamentary democracy is that complex questions have to be settled through complex processes of legislation - informed, nuanced processes - not reduced to a simple binary.  Like you, I find the persistence of the outmoded "First past the post" system absurd.  Like you, I am inclined to believe that the best chance of survival now is in the People's Vote campaign, although (like you) I do not feel that this second use of the referendum tool stands any chance of healing the wounds opened by the first, even if it does manage to halt the march over the cliff edge.  I would also be deeply concerned that such a Vote would confirm the creeping doctrine that a referendum is the highest form of democracy, trumping Parliamentary statute, rather than being subject to Parliamentary sovereignty.

Last week, my local MP wrote to her constituents about the People's Vote.  Her name is Joan Ryan, and she is a Labour MP, though significantly to the right of the current leader.  She asked us to return a form, in which we were asked to tick one of three boxes:
  • Yes, there should be a public vote on the final Brexit deal, just in case.
  • No, there shouldn't be a public vote and we should just get on with it, whether it's good or bad.
  • It's an interesting idea.  I'd like to know more about it.
"I'd like to know more about it."  Now, there's an argument for Parliamentary sovereignty rather than plebiscite if ever there was one....

Aside of the disingenuous language, this "voter consultation", or market research, is in effect a mini-referendum on a referendum.  It suggests to me that the root of this whole crisis is in the focus-group approach to democracy that was pioneered by Tony Blair: the idea that policy is just another consumer product, and that in order to "sell" it, you must first find out whether it appeals.  Cameron's appeal to "the people" as a ploy to outflank UKIP in the competition for "market share" was a logical continuation of this. But policy is not a consumer product, and representatives are not delegates.  Joan Ryan's attempt to muster some statistics on public opinion to back the People's Vote smacks of desperation - surely the democratic thing would be to argue in Parliament that such a vote is inherently desirable?

You say that the most compelling point I made on Twitter related to the illegal actions of the Leave campaign, but that "electoral law is quite often broken but that rarely leads to results being overturned".  That is true - but it isn't an argument against overturning the result in this case.  Only today, Tom Watson has called for a "Mueller-style investigation" into possible Russian interference in the referendum. Carole Cadwalladr's reporting on the manipulation of data by Leave has made it clear that this was a deeply anti-democratic campaign, indeed a corrupt and criminal campaign, and that it shared its principal actors with the Trump election campaign, which has this last week been proven criminal.  At the very least, this would seem to make a cast-iron case for the suspension of the Article 50 process pending a proper investigation into whether the basis on which Brexit is being conducted has any validity at all.

You referred to something you wrote in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result - and I find myself doing the same.  This dates from July 5th 2016, and I stand by it today.  The key points about democracy are towards the end of the piece.  In particular, I want to emphasise again the importance to democratic processes of considering significant minorities and their needs.  The Northern Irish dimension, which was completely ignored by both sides in the campaign, is now the biggest obstacle to a "deal" (another commercial term contaminating democratic political discourse).  Is it really "democratic" to force the province to lose the integration with the Republic that has brought peace to the island of Ireland, when the citizens of the province decisively voted against such a decision?

I agree with pretty much everything you say, François; but I can't go with you to the conclusion that "As a democrat, I have to accept Brexit, despite misgivings".  For me, as a democrat, I simply cannot accept it.

your friend
Michael

PS  I've matched your Fountains Abbey with Glastonbury.  Both casualties of a previous occasion when England decided to cut off ties from the continent.
"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Multicultural Montréal

Présence Autochtone
I've just spent a week in Montréal, thanks to a grant from the British Council and the Québec Government, who are looking to build artistic and cultural collaborations.  It's a fascinating space for anyone working in intercultural and multicultural performance.  The Francophone Québecois, fiercely proud of their identity, clearly regard themselves as a minority with a drum to bang within the predominantly Anglophone Canada.  The Anglophones in Québec, in turn, are officially classed as a minority.  So that means the two dominant cultural groups are both minorities.  Which doesn't leave all that much room for the minority minorities.

I'd been to the city several times before, particularly to research indigenous work for ORIGINS, and the First People's Festival, Présence Autochtone, is a longstanding ally.  This year the Festival took advantage of my trip, and made me one of two visiting professionals to talk about our work (the other was Jerker Bexelius from the Southern Sámi Cultural Centre in Sweden).  As so often, there was some bemusement, even suspicion, from the indigenous audience as to why a British organisation should want to curate a Festival of indigenous cultures in London - a suspicion that soon disappears when they hear about the healing agenda in what we do, and the positive value constantly placed on the global indigenous movement.

As I spoke about the real need we have in the UK for the positive models that indigenous culture can offer, the Festival Director André Dudemaine remarked that this was like something Jean-Paul Sartre had said during the Algerian War: that the Algerians were not only fighting to free themselves from colonisation - but that they would also liberate the French.  A people cannot be free while it continues to oppress others.  It was a characteristically astute observation, and it also made me realise that, while many First Nations are quite resistant to the Québecois agenda, indigenous Francophones like André inevitably read their position in relation to a French discourse. Until then, I had always thought of the Festival's name as a simple statement of "We're still here" - but I now realise that it relates to a whole tradition of resistance to colonialism.  Présence Africaine, to which I now realise the name alludes, is a pan-African magazine, published in Paris since 1947.  As an exhibition at Montréal's Musée des Beaux Arts reminds me, it was crucial to the development of Négritude, and Picasso provided illustrations, working alongside Aimée Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor.  Sartre and Camus contributed too - even négritude was not separatist, and embraced its allies.

There are allies for the First Nations in Montréal too.  I got to meet Rahul Varma, a playwright and producer who runs Teesri Duniya Theatre (it means "Third World" in Hindi), and who set up the fascinating magazine alt.theatre.  Rahul's company produces a wide range of plays, characterised by a global perspective that links specific communities in Québec with the international.  That has included First Nations, as well as refugees, Palestinians, and people involved in both the Rwandan and Armenian genocides.  I met Johanna Nutter, who is working with First Nations visual artist Nadia Myre as a way to develop artistic practice and cultural reach for both of them.  I met Michael Toppings, whose organisation MAI offers space and support for a whole range of diverse artists.

And yet....   It feels like there's a very long way to go.  When André and Rahul talk about the very low levels of funding and press coverage they are able to access, it doesn't sound like sour grapes - it sounds real.  When the agenda of the provincial government is to promote what it regards as a minority (the Francophones), then it's much less likely to open up to other minorities.  There's no doubt that Montréal is a global, intercultural city - but its arts funding structure and its press don't really reflect that as yet.

I had a wonderful evening with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the founding Artistic Directors of Ondinnok, who came to the very first ORIGINS Festival in 2009 to lead a workshop around their Theatre of Healing work.  Yves cooked salmon and wild mushrooms, and we talked about their astonishing work.  But they were also clearly under a cloud - and it was a cloud cast by two great Francophone theatre-makers who they had regarded as their allies and friends. They are also two theatre-makers whom I admire immensely, and have been privileged to meet and talk with over the years. Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage had decided to work together to create a piece called Kanata, in which the story of Canada's First Nations would be told.  The only thing was - there were no First Nations people involved, either on stage or in consulting roles.  There was, of course, a protest, and the production has now been cancelled.

For Yves and Catherine, it feels very personal.  Yves worked closely with Robert on his previous production about Edmund Kean and First Nations, Alanienouidet.  Yves and Catherine worked twice with Ariane at the Cartoucherie, helping her company in rehearsals, for example on Le Dernier Caravansérail.  I find it difficult to understand how two such creative and aware people, who already know First Nations artists of this calibre, could not have realised that people would be upset by their decisions.  I do not believe in essentialism - in the theatre or anywhere else: it is nonsense to say that only Chinese people can talk about China or African people about Africa.  But globalised, multicultural, post-colonial spaces require globalised, multicultural, post-colonial dialogues and collaborations in order to achieve the complex art that can reflect their kaleidoscopic realities.  It isn't enough for those of us from the former colonial powers and the settler communities who see ourselves as allies of the colonised to represent them and to tell their stories on our stages.  They will still be our stages, and the action of representation so comes to reinforce rather than undermine the imbalances of power.  Our stages, like our cities and our politics, have to be shared.

[Research trip supported by the British Council]

Monday, July 09, 2018

MORE THAN WORDS: Silence, presence and secret languages

Guest blog by Marieke Schippert
MORE THAN WORDS - London workshop
In March, my 9 year old son and I flew to London for a training in an international setting. It was named MORE THAN WORDS and was about finding ways of communicating with people without words, for example with people with whom we don’t share the same language. Some of the tasks were meant to be done in the city: listening to the sound of different districts and neighbourhoods, observing the body language of people there, and determining ways of communication without sharing the same language.

Silence

As a single mom, I had to bring my son to the training in London, and we performed the tasks in the city together. The first tour brought us to Tottenham. First of all, the buildings there spoke to us. They said, that the people there didn't have too much money, and not so much space. Many of them were drying their clothes out of their windows. The shops there said, that many people there were immigrants, who wanted to preserve parts of their lifestyle in their new home: we saw lots of shops that made us feel like being in African or Asian countries.

Soon after arriving in Tottenham, my son purposefully directed me to one of the centres of communication without words: the playground and sports area in the park.  In that park, there were different public sports facilities: a football field, a basketball court and some fitness devices. Two young adults were playing football, without talking to each other. My son wanted to play as well, so he moved closer and closer to them, until one of them kicked the ball in his direction, inviting him to play. They communicated perfectly without words.

Another young man was shooting hoops on the basketball court. He was very good at it. Some admirers stood by and watched him play. They as well communicated very well without words - he knew, that they admired him, and they knew, that he appreciated them watching.

In the fitness area, there were several different people using the fitness equipment. Very diverse people of different ages, from very young to quite old, different skin colors, singles and couples, men and women. Together, they performed an act of ballet: Without talking, they freed the fitness devices and changed from one to another in perfect harmony, sensing the wishes of the others. Specially two people, a couple, seemed to know each other for a very long time - they were in perfect harmony and matched perfectly. They had a routine they performed without talking at all. They always changed the devices at the same time, did the exercises in the same rhythm. The communication between these people was just like a dance routine.

No wonder people, who work with refugees, often use sports as a means of coming together, getting into contact and achieving something together. Sport is one of the best, most efficient ways of communicating without words.

Presence

While we were in the park, school finished, and the pupils came out of a school nearby. Many of them crossed the park to go to the subway or to catch a bus. The girls were walking two by two, close together, talking quitly with one another. The boys were walking two by two as well - but talking very loudly, shouting all over the place, sometimes walking with great distance between them, expanding their conversation over half of the park.

Even if I couldn't understand their words, I could still read their body-language. And that language is gendered, influenced by gender roles. The girls were saying: "We better stick together and don't take up too much space!" and "We‘d better not attract too much attention on us!", while the boys were saying "I/We own this place!".

Their behaviour told me a lot about the society they live in. I understood, that men and women are not equal, that men are allowed to take up way more space than women, and that they are taught from a very young age on, that they rule the world. Girls are taught to hold back, to be pleasant and to admire the boys. The society they live in must be fundamentally gender biased.

Another presence that marked my son and me very much was the presence of Black people in London. Coming from Berlin/Germany, we were in awe. My son is Black, I am White. In Germany, even in Berlin, we are very often stared at. People keep asking themselves how we are related. My son gets stared at, touched without even asking and asked a lot about his Blackness. He was overwhelmed when we were in Brixton, waiting outside the subway for a friend. He was amazed by the great number of Black people that came out of the subway – they were the majority! That is an experience that he never makes in public German spaces (only in empowerment settings). He loved seeing so many Black people in the subway in general, and also finding them in very different professions in London. Their presence was very empowering to him.

The presence of Black people in London versus their presence in Berlin tells a lot about racism and postcolonial relations. For us foreigners, the situation in London seemed a bit better than in Berlin, but many housing areas still seemed quite segregated, which shows how both societies are still fundamentally structured by racism.

Secret Languages

In Tottenham, we went into a little café. Inside, there were two men speaking an african language, two men speaking french, and two men speaking a slavic language. As they all spoke different languages at their tables, they were able to have a very intimate ambience while talking. My son and I spoke German, which seemed to be unusual to the others, since they looked quite a lot at us. But we, as well, had our intimate language. It still matters a lot, what language you speak - the reactions vary very much depending on what counts as "normal" in that area, and what prejudices people have about people speaking your language. In general, speaking French for instance provokes other reactions than speaking an African language in a public space. These reactions are racially biased. These biased reactions are a very powerful way of communicating without words – most of the micro-aggressions linked to racism and other forms of discrimination are exercised without saying a single word. Looks and body language are more than enough to be very clear about what a person thinks about someone else. As we get more an more conscious about racism and discrimination in general, people often start taking care about the things they are saying – but we should focus as much on our general expression and body language. They are way more unconscious and direct ways of communicating and reflect what we really think, even if we don’t say it.

Body language and the tone of the voice are secret languages that also told me al lot about the people in that café in Tottenham. Even if I couldn’t understand what these pairs were saying, I still got to know a lot about them. First of all, that they had some relation to a country in which a different language was spoken. Their way of speaking, their voice, and their attitude, told me a lot about them : How they were feeling, a little about their character, and something about the relationship between them and their counterpart. I could also get some information about what kind of topics they were discussing, or at least, what the topic meant to them emotionally. For example, it was easy to tell, if they were discussing work topics, private topics, leisure topics or if they were fighting. It got very clear, if the topic was serious and very important to the person, if it was emotionally charged, or if it was a light topic.

Without words, we can understand very important things: emotions, relation and intentions. What’s lacking, is the concrete theoretical content. We maybe can’t discuss very theoretical issues without a common language. But we can use emotions, relation an our intentions to communicate in a very profound way. That means, that we need to get involved in a different way that what we mainly see as a professional relationship when we work with refugees for example. We need to go into a relation with them, show and share our emotions, and be clear in our intentions. On that basis, understanding will be easy. We also need to reflect the basis of our work and be very self-aware and self-scrutinizing about our own biases and prejudices. That is the foundation for going into an open, un-biased and true relation and communication.

Marieke Schippert works with NARUD - an African community organisation in Berlin.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Controlling the Narrative

The Town Hall Affair
In the week that saw Robert Lepage's new production SLĀV closed in the face of accusations of racism, I want to explore some of the underlying issues which may be leading to the wave of protests sweeping over intercultural performances recently.  SLĀV is far from the first production by a white male director to be condemned in this way.  Think of The Orphan of Zhao,  In the Depths of Deep Love, and Exhibit B.  In most of these cases, the question of casting to race (or not) has been central -  but Exhibit B had an entirely black cast, and was still widely (and in my view very unfairly) denounced as the racist work of a white director.  The question seems to me not only who performs a role, but, perhaps more crucially, who controls the narrative.

The question has been at the heart of three very remarkable productions I've seen over the last few weeks.  In The Town Hall Affair, the Wooster Group reproduce the famous 1971 “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation”, chaired by the pugnacious novelist Norman Mailer.  Or rather, they reproduce the documentary film called Town Bloody Hall, produced by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and released in 1979.  In the play, excerpts from this film (and from Mailer's own vanity movie, starring himself as a film director running for President) are played on screen, while the actors synchronise the dialogue, right down to the ers, ums and coughs.  The effect is at once very funny and deeply disconcerting.  It points up that, just as Mailer, Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston battled for control of the evening through the use (or subversion) of the conventional structures of a panel discussion (and the production redresses the balance by allowing Johnston the last word that Mailer had not admitted); so the filmed record, just by being a mediated record, has itself become the narrative.  By reproducing the dialogue of the film, the Wooster Group dispute its absolute authority.  As Theodor Adorno argued, in mimesis there is a kind of doubling - a hint that the "reality" of the "real" (or here, of the accepted narrative, which is perhaps the closest we can come to the "real") is not absolute.  By exposing the performed nature of the "real", they suggest the potential for alternatives - other ways of doing things.

Lady Eats Apple
Back to Back Theatre's Lady Eats Apple also disrupts and disputes a received narrative - in this case, the book of Genesis.  There are two gods - one played by a learning disabled actor, one not.  The god played by the learning disabled actor creates a man and a woman - also played by learning disabled actors.  He says that they are perfect.  He also says that they are not very intelligent.  In the play's final act, this Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden to become cleaners in the vast space of the Barbican auditorium, take tentative, delicate steps towards an intimate relationship.  They also try to revive the god played by the neuro-normative actor: but he is dead.  Of course he is.  We can't rely on the old myths any more - we have to re-create ourselves in our own image.

Fatherland
In Fatherland, another superb LIFT show at the Lyric Hammersmith, these questions are applied to our own country, and to personal relations between fathers and sons.  Subtitled Songs and stories from a forgotten England, the play endeavours, through staging verbatim interviews, to find a theatrical space for working-class men from the North of England.  These are voices we rarely hear on our stages - "I've never even been in an effing theatre before" says one interviewee - and have rarely heard in our political spaces either.  Until, of course, the Brexit referendum, which another character calls "an opportunity to kick Westminster in the bollocks."  The tensions between the men portrayed in the play and the men who made it are palpable - and deliberately not resolved.  If theatre aims to "give voice", does that not suggest that somehow "voice" is something in the gift of theatre-makers?  Does our control of "voice" and "narrative" not undermine our intention to disturb and challenge?  Are we not every bit as much part of the status quo as the political system we think we are battling?  As one of the characters in Fatherland says to the author and directors: "You're going on a little daytrip to get ideas and make it seem like you really care about what life is like here for people like me....    and you don't.  You just don't."


Monday, June 04, 2018

Imperious spaces

Hellerau
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Germany for a meeting on our MORE THAN WORDS project, and took the opportunity to pop down to Dresden, where Avatâra Ayuso was showing her extraordinary new dance piece UKI - a collaboration with Ink elder Naulaq Ledrew.  I'll probably have more to say about the performance at a future time - today I want to write a bit about the theatre itself, and some thoughts it stirred around space, history and culture.

Hellerau is on the outskirts of Dresden.  Travelling there does not feel like a journey to a major European arts space: the suburb sits within a forest, and is deliberately not "urban".  It was built in the early 20th century, as Eastern Germany's version of the Garden City movement - with the vast Festival Theatre incongruously surrounded by rather twee, Hansel-and-Gretel style workers cottages. The theatre site, on the other hand, is vast and imposing.  It reminded me of the Cartoucherie in Paris - partly because of its sheer scale and the resonance of workmanlike celebration in the spaces, and partly because, like that disused ammunition factory, it carries a military history.  That's good for a theatre - these are spaces where explosions should happen...  

In the case of Hellerau, however, engaging with the history remains a challenge, to say the least.  The theatre's website coyly remarks: "in the 1930s it served as a military camp; later the Soviet army used it as their barracks."  The 1930s were, of course, the Nazi era - and it's clear how the combination of the theatre's austere and imposing facade and its folksy surroundings made it deeply appealing to deranged nationalism.  The open space in front of the theatre used to be called "Adolf Hitler Platz".  Of course, that name no longer features on any map, but the space has never been re-named, and so suffers from an uneasy anonymity.

Has Germany really come to terms with its past?  These days, the discourse around Nazism is deafening in its silence.  It was an attempt to confront that past that led to the Baader- Meinhof Gang, and (more productively) to much of the disturbing power in the drama of Heiner Müller and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Gerhard Richter (himself from Dresden) uses his art to tackle the deliberate suppression of memory in German culture.  Otherwise, all you see are a few ghosts - the little bronze plaques that mark the last sightings of German Jews in the streets of Berlin, the Jewish Museum, bizarre survivors like the Olympic Stadium.  Hellerau is full of ghosts - and to my mind it would be a much more powerful and evocative arts space if it were to embrace that, rather than rebuilding everything to a de-historicised, virginal blankness.  I would love to see it preserve the military "look", the imposing vastness of the square that threatens to become a car park, the peeling plaster on the outer walls of the former barracks walls.  In such a space of memory the wonderful progressive initiatives of the theatre - its Refugee Arts Centre, its Intercultural Garden - would acquire deeper meaning and resonance, being located in a continuum with history.  I can see it is uncomfortable to maintain that past - but it is actually what gives energy and hope to the present and the future.

Translations
I was still mulling these thoughts when I went to see Brian Friel's great play Translations at the National Theatre.  The reviews for this production have been adulatory, and justifiably so.  Translations remains one of the greatest plays about the process of colonisation - the way in which systems of oppression are established in the minds of the oppressed, partly by a discourse of superiority, but also by a wiping out of language, of history, and so of identity.  In my mind, it sat with Hellerau in a ying and yang relation - if oppression is made through the obliteration of folk memory, then might not that process be just as dangerous when applied to the oppressor?

The National's decision to present the play is laudable for precisely that reason.  It is the second time in recent years that a great post-colonial play, a theatre piece striking back against our country's imperial history, has been staged in the Olivier Theatre (the first was Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman).  I can see the reasoning - and yet somehow the vastness of the Olivier space, its sheer imperial bombast, its architecture of national arrogance, militated against the play's attitude of delicate resistance on a human scale.  Translations is set in a hedge school - a space that is theatrically powerful in relation to the invading army precisely because it is small and poor.  And the most effective response to the army does not come from anger or (offstage) violence, but through the cultural engagement followed by the schoolmaster Hugh and the emotional engagement of the "peasant" Máire.  It's one of the play's many provocative ironies that Máire views the English language, and her burgeoning love for the English Lieutenant Yolland as a means of potential escape into a "modern" world; while Yolland responds to the "authentic" and "natural" world that Ireland and Máire seem to present to him.  Their great scene of mutual comprehension and incomprehension - when Máire the "uneducated" switches from Irish to Latin in an attempt to communicate and the "educated" colonist doesn't even realise she has done so - is played with great delicacy and warmth; but I couldn't help feeling that its point was intimacy and physical proximity, and that the scale of the theatre was expressing almost exactly the political opposite of the play.