Monday, January 08, 2018

Power and Abuse

Vicky Featherstone
The year begins with the news that Vicky Featherstone - Artistic Director of the Royal Court - is the "most powerful person in British Theatre".  At least according to The Stage, which publishes an annual list of the "top 100".  In all fairness, I should say that it uses the term "influential", rather than "powerful': but the fundamental point would still seem to be that these are the people who can make and break careers.  Which makes it feel rather paradoxical when you look at the reasons behind the choice of Vicky for the "top spot".  Almost all the coverage, and the judges' own citations, are about the stand she took on sexual harassment in the theatre, in the wake of the scandals around Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark etc.  Surely the whole point of these scandals was that they centred on men in positions of "power" (or "influence", if you prefer - theatre careers often develop through "influence"), who made use of those positions for their own sexual gratification?  Surely, if this calls anything into question, it is the very existence of the power structures that make this behaviour not only possible but endemic?

What Vicky did in response to the scandal seemed to me the opposite of "powerful".  She made the space of the Royal Court available for people to speak with impunity about their experiences.  She then made an ill-judged decision to pull Rita, Sue and Bob Too out of the Royal Court's programme on the grounds of its vague association with Max Stafford-Clark - a decision that she then reversed in response to public criticism.  I think she was right to reverse the decision; and that it takes a lot of bravery to admit, so very publicly, to having made an error of judgement.  Is that "powerful"?  Not in any conventional sense.  You wouldn't catch Harvey Weinstein backing down in public, would you?

And this seems to me to go to the heart of it.  Theatre should not be about "power" and "influence" at all.  It should be about talent, creativity, collaboration, and a sensitive, nuanced response to the complexities of the current moment. Such responses are achieved through open discussion and considered debate, not through "executive decisions". My friend Donatella Barbieri gave me a copy of Mary Beard's Women and Power for Christmas - and it's worth quoting at length:

"[We are] still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called 'leadership', and often... to a degree of celebrity.  [We are] also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few - mostly men - can own or wield...  On those terms, women as a gender - not as some individuals - are by definition excluded from it.  You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.  That means thinking about power differently.  It means decoupling it from public prestige.  It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers and not just of leaders."

This is how theatre works when it is truly meaningful, and not just a career ladder to pointless stardom.  But the journey towards that new and better way of the art form operating in society will not be helped by the perpetuation of The Stage's "power list".  Let's just scrap it, shall we?

And brava Vicky Featherstone, for suggesting better ways.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Jungle

The Jungle at the Young Vic
Just occasionally, you see a piece of theatre that completely affirms the necessity of the art form, that speaks to its context with intense moral urgency, that refuses to simplify or to sentimentalise.  Such a piece is The Jungle at the Young Vic.  Seeing this performance was a superb way to end what has been a year of political doubt and moral turpitude.  Everyone who sees this astonishing production will be better placed to move into 2018 with a clearer, more defined sense of how we can "act" in this most challenging of times.

The play was perhaps of particular importance for me, as Border Crossings is working on the new Season of Migrations, and in a couple of weeks I will be in Turkey, joining our partners at Adana University to learn from their work in the refugee camps there.  I had been feeling a deep concern about the ethical dimension of this - how is it possible for artists from the very Western countries that have responded so shockingly to the displacement of so many migrants to engage with them in a way that does not become mere voyeurism?  How can we participate in a manner that is both creatively valid and politically potent?  In the Voices of Culture report, we looked predominantly at work that engaged refugees in an instrumental way, at the same time as lamenting the failure of the cultural sector and of governments to open real dialogues and to engage in genuine intercultural exchange.  My recent talk at the European Culture Forum in Milan made the same point - we can't just employ culture as a way of moulding refugees into some pre-determined new identity, or (worse) as a means to distance them as they "tell their own stories" and make the liberal audience feel positively reassured about their own compassion.  What we have to find is a form that recognises our presence in the unfolding political drama, at the same time as understanding that we are not its protagonists.  The Jungle, written by two young men who engaged deeply with the Calais refugees at their time of greatest need, offers that dramatic validity, fuelled by compassion, humanity and anger.
What puts this work head and shoulders above other theatrical responses to the ongoing crisis are a series of courageous theatrical decisions:

  • The audience is in the thick of the action, seated at makeshift tables, representing the camp's Afghan cafĂ©, on which the actors perform.  The set makes it impossible to distance yourself from the raw emotion of the refugees' experience.
  • The refugee characters are complemented by portrayals of British volunteers, all of whom are commendable, and all of whom are flawed.  They are in some way our representatives on stage - particularly the gap-year Beth, who listens to several testimonies that deepen her sense of the people she meets.  These characters make sense of our presence, which is far from participatory, but which they prevent from being voyeuristic or exploitative.
  • The refugees are the characters at the heart of the narrative.  It's interesting that the printed text ends with a scene for Beth - and this has clearly been cut in rehearsals so that the play ends with a direct address to the audience by Safi, a Syrian migrant, played with grace and dignity by Ammar Haj Ahmad.  I don't know whether Ammar is himself a refugee - he is certainly a Syrian.  The programme biographies rightly present all the actors in a purely professional way - but there is also a sense that some people are working with material they know intimately, and that they have brought a deep sense of their cultural selves to the production.  This is vital - both for the artistic truth and the moral purpose of the project.  Safi gets the last word, and it comes from a place of truth.
  • There are a few moments when video screens serve to remind us of the political context as we have perceived it - through news reports.  We see the little body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach.  We see flashes of the Paris terror attacks.  Towards the end, there is a report from a charity worker in Calais - a reminder, as our recent guest blog by John Comino-James pointed out, that the camp is still there.  It's just that today, the refugees aren't allowed to build anything that could be regarded as permanent.  They are imprisoned in a perpetual indeterminacy.  These flashes of our usual "objective" perception of events serves to problematise still further the relationship between the performers and the audience, between the material and its spectators, between the refugees and British society.  


It's been a rather wonderful year for us at Border Crossings, and I had thought that I would use this last blog post to review achievements and look forward.  Well, we know about the achievements, and now I am looking forward - feeling empowered by this stunning piece of theatre further to develop our own ventures in the jungle of culture, policy, and human need.

May 2018 be a year of renewed clarity, commitment and creativity for us all.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

European Culture Forum

Michael speaking at the Forum in Milan
I was delighted - and amazed - to be invited to the European Culture Forum in Milan as one of the platform speakers.  It's not just that Britain is a bit semi-detached from the EU at the moment - it's also that speaking at this event is normally the preserve of EU Presidents and Nobel Prize-winners...  Still - the invitation came and it would have been churlish to turn it down.  What a fantastic opportunity and privilege!

The first day of the forum was very upbeat.  Much of it was around the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which was kicked off at the event, and this clearly gave a lot of people much cause for celebration.  It is, of course, wonderful that Europe is going to be putting so much energy into cultural heritage in 2018 - though I would love to know what this is going to mean in practice, and how far "heritage" embraces the complex morality of our continent's past.  If it does, then perhaps there's space to take in the migrant crisis, the role of Islam, the inheritance of colonialism. There's a danger it could all turn into a festival of "aren't we marvellous?"  Towards the end of the first day, Ferdinand Richard from the Roberto Cimetta Fund sounded an appropriate warning note when he said that culture was in danger of being hi-jacked by nationalism.  This is the Europe we are actually living in, and Britain's current tragedy reflects that.  It seemed important to address this on day 2.

So - the plenary of which I was a part is available to watch here - it actually begins at 8hrs 18mins in, and lasts a healthy two hours, so if you can't stand the thought of that, here's a basic summary.  The Moderator, Hannah Conway, very kindly gave me the first word - so I was able to set a bit of a tone for the debate.  I was asked about the role of culture in promoting social cohesion - and my response was that the two things are essentially the same.  We shouldn't be taking an instrumental view of culture, calling it a "tool" or something to be "exploited" or "used".  Culture, I ventured to suggest, is the public generation of meaning - and so it's the base from which a healthy society can grow.  You don't know why you are doing anything else if you don't have meaning - so of course in order to have any form of social cohesion, you have to have culture.  What's more, for that cohesion to be sustainable, the culture has to be dynamic and fluid - this is where it begins to overlap with democracy.

The question of inclusivity had to be addressed - I think a lot of people were very pleased that I called out the Forum for the all-white panels.  The question of culture within policy matters - I used the example of our refugee work in Plymouth, but also called for something bigger, for a real engagement of art and culture in the political process, on the lines of Periclean Athens.  Of course that was described as hopelessly Utopian - but the truth is that "realism" hasn't done too well recently. The current situation - Trump, Brexit, Putin - is a list of things many people said "could never happen".  And then they did. I think that might be true of the Utopian alliance between culture and policy as well.

Monday, December 04, 2017

"I Was Asked to Help Sort Bread" - Guest Blog on The Calais Jungle by John Comino-James


A November weekend and another trip to Calais with Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity to deliver aid and support.   A van, two minibuses, a stack of aid, 32 volunteers and only one certainty: that every visit is different.  On the Saturday half of the group will go to help at the Refugees Community Kitchen, half will go to Care4Calais.  None of us knows exactly what will be needed or asked of us.  
*
I’ve never been to the Kitchen before and don’t know what to expect.  Can you imagine a workspace in an industrial building producing something like 2000 hot meals a day? A workspace with stainless steel preparation tables, sinks for washing vegetables,  deep sinks for washing up,  and a row of cauldrons bubbling over gas rings,  extraction equipment, loud music pumping away, volunteers all dressed in similar outfits?

When you enter you ask, ‘What do I do?’ and someone gives you a job.

I was asked to help sort bread.  Sort bread?  Sort bread.  Sort bread that supermarkets donate, bread that is past or on its ‘Display till’ date.   

Someone explains the task.  The drier bread is to be cut and set aside to be prepared as garlic bread; the packages of pre-wrapped rolls or bread are to be opened.  If the contents are still soft, only just out of date, they will be distributed alongside the hot meals.  Whole loaves are to be cut into manageable chunks.  Some will have to be discarded altogether.

Put bluntly the task was to sort through various kinds of bread because it was deemed no longer fresh enough for sale, no longer good enough for us, that is to say for regular shoppers like me who take a certain quality of freshness for granted or expect it as our right, and sort out what was still useable for them.  

Emotion sneaks in through a back door.  I feel myself near tears.  The word BREAD, on every level, carries associations far beyond the texture and flavour of risen and baked dough.  It suggests a universal notion of sustenance, of basic nourishment.  How unbearably invidious to be sorting such a basic food in this not good enough for us but good enough for them kind of way.  Of course, what my brimming feelings really meant was that I’d hit upon an unacknowledged fault-line in my complacency.

But something else, something positive happened as I worked, at first sorting bread, then scrubbing potatoes, then chopping salad.  Working alongside volunteers from France, Belgium, Germany and Canada was incredibly energising.  How wonderful that we were all there with out diversity -- and even our differences -- working alongside each other in an enterprise made necessary by the insistence on borders and destruction and division.  There was no glamour in most of the tasks we were doing:  what was paramount was the idea of service, of getting on with the job – and the need to support the preparation of the day’s meals for the refugees.   Refugees, migrants, people, most of whom we would never meet face to face.
*
Can you imagine a lake surrounded by grassy areas and thickets of bushes and trees, the sort of place you might go with your family on a summer’s evening or at the weekend?   A narrow concrete road that leads you to a car park?  You can’t see that one boundary is a motorway embankment, or that beyond another stretch of woodland are the backs of houses. Here the world falls away, it’s a place to relax.  My grandchildren could skateboard here or dash about on scooters. There’s a colourful sign of Do’s and Don’ts: no motorbikes in the woods, but horse-riding permitted, no swimming in the lake, no picking flowers, but windsurfing is allowed. Do not light fires. 

This is where we park the van, roll up the shutter, unfold tables. 

Perhaps I only imagine I smell smoke drifting out of the woods.

There are five of us, two experienced long-term volunteers from Refugee Community Kitchen who will co-ordinate and organise the distribution, and three of us to serve the food: rice, a spicy curry, and salad.  I’m to serve the salad.  There are chopped onions, seasonings, bread.

There’s a sail visible on the lake, the waters dark and ruffled by the breeze.

In two’s and three’s figures appear.  Dark anoraks. Scuffed trainers.  Men in worn clothes, huddled against the cold.  We hand out rectangular polystyrene dishes.  Cheerful greetings.  Rice first.  Some ask for more, some ask for the curry to be on top of the rice, some want it separate.  Some don’t want the curry.   Some decline the offer of salad.  Respect the dignity of choice.  I do my best to serve the salad tidily while trying at the same time to make eye contact.  How are you?  Good, thank you.  No no, no  salad thank you.  Plastic spoons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  The sun settles, dusk comes.  Would you like more?  For many this is the first food since this time yesterday.  In little groups a stream of people.  A mix of nationalities: Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans.   I am humbled by their thanks, by the generosity of their response.  What does it do to them, this hiding in the woods, avoiding the police, this reliance on donations of food, of clothing? What does it do to them, seeing their tents or other makeshift shelters destroyed by police or having sleeping bags or clothes contaminated with pepper spray?  What does it do to them?

The wind bites deeper.  

As we drove in I saw a rig on which there were four taps and a long trough at waist level.  There was a man there stripped to the waist, his hair frothy with shampoo, soaping his upper body for the cold water.  They have come to this, somehow, and through what unimaginable dangers.  They have come, following a dream of a better life, a life that they believed must surely be better than existing in a familiar homeland shattered by war.  They have come to this.  We met a man who had twice made the journey from Afghanistan.  He crossed illegally into the UK, was deported and set out again.  Politicians speak about not creating a pull factor, but what kind of ‘pull factor’ was that?  Those same politicians rarely acknowledge courage, initiative or persistence, qualities that should surely be valued.  To see these qualities, to see this potential would be to risk seeing these people as we are trying to do, as human beings in need, as individual human beings, each with hopes and pain, with dreams and loss.  Politicians urge us to look at the bigger picture, but perhaps that way lies not reassurance but madness or despair: the temporary tented camps gradually taking on the social mechanisms of permanence, the fences and razor wire, the infrastructures shattered by war, the disrupted governance, the rival militias, the estimated 65 million displaced persons across the world…

There’s not an exact count but we’ve served somewhere between 150 and 200 meals.  What distresses me almost more than anything is not that the distribution process is so practised, so well-drilled, so efficient, so generous, but that it seems so terrifyingly normal.  

It’s getting dark, the wind is really cutting through our clothes as we stand waiting for the last few men to come.  I feel myself impatient to get out of the cold.  It’s about 5 or 6 degrees, and the wind-chill drops that right down towards freezing.  What a relief it will be to slam the door of the van against this cold.  We pack up.  What’s left of the food is loaded back into the van.  We fold the tables and just as we are about to pull down the shutter two or three latecomers arrive.  They too will be served. 
*
Bright lights in Calais, a convivial restaurant and illuminations for the Christian Festival. God rest you merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.   Joyeux Noel.  The winter solstice is barely a month away, the turning of the year, the shortest day … and for the men in the woods, trying to get a little warmth from forbidden fires, the longest night.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Great Experiment - Guest Blog on the Devising Process by Rosanna Lowe

How can theatre bring history to life? Who writes the history? Who is written about?  Who is it written for? In re-telling stories from history, can we truthfully embody figures of the past or can we really only narrate them? Who are we entitled to represent? How much liberty can we take? How much can we invent? How authentic can we be?

These were the questions that arose, as we began the month-long research period for Border Crossings’ current theatre piece, an exploration of the indenture system in Mauritius. Previously I knew nothing about ‘The Great Experiment’, the attempt to see whether the British Empire’s economic interests could be preserved by replacing newly abolished slavery with a system of ‘free’ labour, bound by a contract called an indenture. This experiment was first trialled in the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, primarily to prop up sugar plantations, and saw one of the largest migrations in history - almost half a million indentured labourers, mainly from India, crossed the Kala Pani, the Black Water, to Mauritius. As a company, we set out on our own journey across unfamiliar waters –  devising a piece with no pre-established characters or storyline.

What we did have, however, were delicate fragments of historical narrative, a bewildering jigsaw puzzle of facts, figures, faces and stories.  Quickly the rehearsal room transformed into a kind of exhibition space, with mounds of related reading and articles on everything from Gandhi’s campaign against indenture in the early 20th century to contemporary Mauritian poet Khal Torabully’s concept of ‘the coral imaginary’ and of ‘coolitude’, reclaiming the identity and dignity of the ‘coolie’, a formerly derogatory word for the indentured labourer.

Often the absence or distortion of information was poignant and powerful – reading out the ship records of the names and ages of the migrants felt like a moving litany to ghosts of the past whose stories we could only imagine. Probably the most challenging and gaping absences were the stories of people of African origin in Mauritius – we had none, apart from the compelling story of the mixed race journalist Remy Ollier, who founded a newspaper, campaigned for the rights and political involvement of people of colour in the early nineteenth century and who was poisoned at a relatively young age.

The most powerful aspect of our rehearsal-room-come-exhibition space was the sea of faces that began to people the wall. These photographic portraits, required by indentured labourers for their identity documents, were amazingly diverse - whiskered or shaven headed, wizened or youthful, bejewelled or naked, sometimes with a story or information attached and sometimes not. We were of course examining these people and their stories, but with the watchful eyes of these extraordinarily striking portraits overlooking us, it felt there was a kind of additional duty to honour these people’s stories and their presence.

It was fascinating to see how our own lens on the world, on our own identity and on history shaped the way we saw the material. Even the seemingly static faces on the wall could change, as we looked at them with different eyes. One morning Nisha, our Mauritian actress, looked at our wall of faces and exclaimed with typical exuberant warmth ‘Look! They’re smiling!’ For me, something of a miserabilist, the faces had always seemed grave – perhaps because of the lives they’d lived or because of the enforced formality and stillness of photography at the time. But as soon as Nisha had said this, the faces changed in front of my eyes – suddenly smiles, life, liveliness seemed to be hovering at the corners of their mouths.

Our other incredible resource and one of the most unique parts of the process was the involvement of three eminent historians, creators of the academic research project ‘Becoming Coolies’, which aimed to break down some of the stereotypes of Indian indentured labourers, examining their diversity and their personal agency in migration. Initially I think we were curious and a little concerned about how an interaction between performers and historians might work, as was Professor Crispin Bates, when he declared to us over Skype: ‘My fear is that this could end up as a Mauritian Les Miserables…’ But once in the room together, there was a great generosity in the sharing process, with the performers benefitting from the historians’ extraordinary expertise and the historians delighting in the performers’ ability to bring history to life in unexpected ways.

Very quickly in the rehearsal process the issues of theatrical representation arose – as a group of 5 performers, two Mauritian, one Rwandan, one Irish and one British, what would or could we play? We began by playing roughly to ‘type’, in terms of gender or race. But it quickly became apparent that this was not only limiting, but also potentially problematic. Does a black actor playing a slave perpetuate a disempowering narrative? Does playing someone from a different race or culture represent a type of appropriation? Eventually, we decided that anyone could play anything and experimented with a range of modes of representation. Sometimes the jarring of the performer and the character threw up something interesting and sometimes the dividing line disappeared – whenever Ery played any character, something truthful and authentic shone through. For me, an amazing moment of alchemical transformation was when Tony took a photograph of an indentured labourer who had died of malaria and spoke from behind, using the face as a mask – suddenly the face became voiced, embodied, dignified.

Another wonderful resource for us was the presence of the three Mauritians in the room - David and Nisha as performers and Shiraz as visual artist. We heard the sound of the ravane, the goatskin drum and various variants of sega, traditional Mauritian music, from Bhojpuri sega to seggae (sega and reggae’s lovechild). We heard personal stories of the continuing difficulties of cross-cultural relationships, competing narratives of pride and shame in ones origins, of both togethernesses and tensions between the many Mauritian cultures. Shiraz’s video images showed the beauty of the island – an exquisite moonrise over lush green mountains – but they also whispered with ghosts of the past, as faces of those who had actually worked the land hovered superimposed over the sweeping miles of sugar plantation.


Rehearsals consisted of a series of games and exercises, but also an incredible amount of discussion of the material. Our director Michael often sat scribbling in a corner – and a mosaic of post-its emerged on which we heard (sometimes to our own surprise) the comments we had made, which were then rewoven into improvisation. One fantastic exercise had us creating an enormous map of nineteenth century global capitalism, drawn on the floor in chalk, tea leaves, sugar and loose change, showing the movement of goods and capital under empire. While the English craved sugar, the British Empire fostered the Chinese craving for opium, which contributed to the devastating famines that factored in many migrations from India. Rehearsal breaks subsequently took on a peculiar significance, as we all scuttled off to indulge our own personal cravings for caffeine, nicotine or sugar.

Unbeknown to us, our director Michael had envisioned from the start that the piece itself would slide between the contemporary rehearsal room and the historical scenes. A beautiful theatrical moment we created was the literal sliding between worlds – as we sat round the rehearsal table discussing the space allocated per person on the indenture ships, our own space became destabilised, our minds and stomachs began to lurch, our tabletop books began to slide and we slipped into the destabilising world of the ship itself, making its epic and hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean.

We had started rehearsing not long after events at Charlottesville – a powerful reminder of what can happen as a result of an attempt to redress racist historical narrative by removing a controversial statue. As the devising process continued, the echoes of the history we were examining seemed to ripple everywhere in the world around us. Halfway through the rehearsal process, the Evening Standard launched its campaign against ‘modern slavery’ in present day London. We were rehearsing in London Bridge, at the edge of the Thames, not so far from the docklands area that had sailed so many of the ill-gotten gains of Empire in and out. At one point in the process David realised that the building where we were rehearsing, in Exchange Theatre’s performance space, had a very old industrial chimney and a hook for hoisting goods – what was processed there? Could it have been sugar? A quick google revealed that a South African sugar company are currently housed in part of the building.

A stone’s throw from the rehearsal space was Becket House, one of the UK Border Agency’s immigration main reporting centres, also housing two ‘secure cells’ for those arrested while signing on or brought in by snatch squads operating from the centre. As I walked past to rehearsals in the morning, there was always a huge queue of people snaking round the block, holding paperwork and ID, waiting to sign on. It was a modern day reminder of the huge wave of arrivals at the Aapravasi Ghat, the immigration depot in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, where the identity papers of new arrivals were processed by the supposed ‘Protector of Immigrants’.

One morning on the way to rehearsals, I saw a gardener moving in and around the immigration queue. He was wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Putting Down Roots’, which reminded me of Shiraz’s extraordinary photography of the gnarled roots of the banyan, a resourceful tree which begins life as an epiphyte, seeding itself in a crevice of a host tree or building. We kept returning to this theme of roots, to the physical and emotional relationship to the new land and the old, to the rootedness and uprootedness that comes with the experience of migration and which continues through subsequent generations, as the family tree grows and branches out.

Our ongoing rehearsal room discussions of race, privilege, identity, economic injustice and migration in the contemporary world became a kind of framing device for the historical scenes, which were often stark and simple, sometimes wordless, sometimes abstract, leaving space for the audience and for the complexity of interpretation. In the contemporary scenes we ended up playing slightly heightened versions of ourselves, exaggerating the tensions between us to create the conflicts and revelations of the piece. As a middle class white person, who has never reflected much about identity, origin, ancestry or white privilege, working on The Great Experiment was a powerful wake up call. I’ve always been very interested in history – my father was a history teacher who told us historical tales as bedtime stories and I’ve worked as a writer on history projects, including the TV series Horrible Histories. But it shocked me to discover how little I knew about British imperial history and how little consideration I had given to the links between Britain’s current wealth and Britain’s colonial exploitation. For all of us, finding our personal relationship to the material by examining our own identities was sometimes humbling or challenging, but ultimately eye-opening.

Border Crossings always creates work that crosses cultural, geographical and linguistic borders, as does Exchange Theatre, co-producer of The Great Experiment. The piece that we created felt like it also crossed the borders of the historical and the contemporary, the academic and the performative, as well as crossing some personal boundaries. It was about the possibilities and challenges of communicating across centuries, cultures, continents and worlds. In some modest way we went on a journey together as ‘jihaji-bai’, as ship-mates, in what felt like a fantastic theatrical experiment.

- Rosanna Lowe
Rosanna Lowe is an actor and writer.

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.