Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Answer to Phelim

Dear Phelim

You've written me a very interesting and helpful comment - I appreciate it. Your tone indicates that you know I'm coming at this from the position of somebody who shares the idealism behind what you have been (so bravely) attempting in Satyagraha. I grapple with the sort of challenges which are present in this work all the time: as much as anything because of the nature of Border Crossings as an intercultural company, and the fact that I sit in the comparatively privileged position of a white director who manages to make a living out of this. I chose to write as I did in the blog after thinking very hard about the production for some days - because I was genuinely discomforted and I wanted to discover why. This may be as much a discomfort about aspects of my own work, which I need to question constantly, as it is about yours. As I said in my last post, so much of your production reminded me of things I've done myself. Given that I was already pre-disposed towards the idea of the opera, I thought I would come out with feelings different from the ones I in fact experienced. Now, that is probably a good thing - what's theatre for if it doesn't disrupt an audience's expectations? - but it also requires some careful probing.

I realised that the gesture of the projected Chorus was an echo of the Satyagraha oath - but it does have the same feeling as a gesture of blessing, and in the context of the scene, where Gandhi and King are both being constructed as sacrificial figures, it seemed to me to have the effect of softening that sacrifice, and making it easier for the audience to deal with. I suspect this is partly because of the medium of projection, and the choice of white, which gave them the aura of a film-like heavenly chorus (and we do easily read Glass as filmic music) - which I can quite see was not what you intended. What you say about the relationship with Arjuna in the Gita suggests that you read sacrifice in a much more powerful and disturbing way. If we are to meditate on the assassinations of Gandhi and King - these iconic figures who perform the rare feat of bridging the gaping void between the spiritual and the political - then it is essential that we root this in a physical form which allows us to locate them politically - in the real world which requires social and economic, rather than merely ideological alteration. This is something which theatre is very well equipped to do, and music theatre (by virtue of the spiritual strength of the human voice, produced with such physical effort), supremely so. Gandhi's spirituality, like all Hinduism, is rooted in the physical and the elemental: that is what defines him, and makes the paradoxical concept of "maya" so powerful at the heart of his philosophy. Much of your production emphatically did this - but for me it pulled back into an easier, more Western numinosity in certain key moments. I felt a lot of the time that the physicality of the production was deliberately distanced from the singers, and that as a result we saw a Western spirit-body duality, and not the holistic ideas of Indian religion. Singer as spirit, actor as body - in the Indian theatre these specialisms do not exist.... So maybe it's the form, yes.

Your closing comments are acute, and I think they strike at the heart of my response. I used to love the Coliseum, in all its broken-down shabby functionality. I loved the fact that it embodied the destruction of empire within its decaying shell. I loved the sense of the secular cathedral with fraying seats. And now - it disturbs me. It feels imperial, fascistic and triumphalist. It glows like a Hygena kitchen. It has no theatrical roughness. Now - we live in an age of dislocation, and sometimes the placing of contemporary work in a relic of past theatrical glory can be incredibly telling. But for me, the dislocation on this particular night was beyond this, and was compounded by the fact that virtually everybody on the stage was white (you're right), and that I was sitting with a friend from Tagore's University in Bengal who had never been to an opera before.....

This is strange territory - because I had just come back from reviving Nixon in China in Athens, and I did the same piece in the Coliseum last year. Minimalist music again - white people playing Asians, modern political icons on stage, multi-layered realities, a sense of Asian spirituality...... So I really am talking about my own work as much as yours, and I do thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that. Your production has opened my mind and set me thinking. And I can absolutely see why it was the hottest ticket in town.

Thank you for engaging in the dialogue.

warmest regards

No comments: