Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Song Ru Hi in Consumed - with Zhang Ying on video.  Photo: Richard Davenport
It's been a very remarkable year for Border Crossings.  To start with the headline figures: during 2013, we
 - attracted audiences of 7,425
   and 969 public participants
-  presented 75 performances or exhibition days
   and 127 workshops or participation sessions
-  worked with 121 artists
   and 25 venues
-  travelled to 6 countries
   to involve their artists in our work
-  toured our new piece Consumed
   and presented the third Origins Festival

Consumed was a hugely exciting project for us, bringing our devised work to a new level of sophistication, and really embracing the complexities of working across languages, using new technologies as part of the drama itself.  Working again with Song Ru Hui and Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, we were able to deepen the collaboration and build on the trust.  The results were very remarkable.  There's a terrific TV documentary about the play in the Chinatown series by Propeller (which broadcasts to over 10 million viewers) - you can see it online at http://propellertv.co.uk/programmes/chinatown.

Origins was also an extraordinary experience, bringing together some of the most important artists in the world today.  It was a huge privilege to host Diane Benson, Victoria Hunt, Trevor Jamieson, Dalisa Pigram and Indigie-Femme in London - as well as the many other indigenous performers, artists and thinkers who gathered here for those rich and invigorating couple of weeks.  What makes the Festival really special is the way it connects international "high art" with the communities of First Nations people living here - and this year was especially exciting in that respect, with both the Samoan and indigenous Mexican communities being featured prominently.  The Day of the Dead event at Rich Mix is something we will never forget!

Origins: The Day of the Dead
It's also been the year in which our Community Engagement work really took off, with Lucy Dunkerley leading participatory projects for young people in schools and community settings across London and in China.  She also began the engagement with Muslim communities that is going to be a key part of our work in the next couple of years.  Back in June, Brian Woolland and I were in Lebanon, working on a new piece called This Flesh is Mine, which we are planning to produce in May.  It's going to be a co-production with Ashtar from Palestine, and has the potential to be a really extraordinary piece of work - bringing home the emotional experience of the contemporary Middle East and galvanising the debates we really need to have around the geopolitics of the region.

Looking back over the wider cultural experience of the year, it seems to me that the arts in general, and theatre in particular, were rather restrained, even conservative.  I know that's not a common view - and of course there's been plenty of "innovation" on show, but it's largely been of the "look at me, aren't I clever?" kind, rather than genuinely seeking out and generating new meaning and significant ideas.  It's the sort of innovation that is generated by insecurity - a competitive, rather than a sustaining approach to art.

There are exceptions, of course.  I hugely admired Sons Without Fathers at the Arcola - Helena Kaut-Howson's response to Chekhov's Platonov, which gave the play an incredibly sharp contemporary edge and banished all thoughts of this writer as wistful and bourgeois.  It was wonderful to see A Season in the Congo performed in London, especially with Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Patrice Lumumba.  Ashtar themselves made a brief visit to Rich Mix, with their piece 48 Minutes for Palestine, directed by Mojisola Adebayo.  But my theatrical highlight of the year was actually a piece I saw in Norway, performed by a Maya theatre company from Guatemala. Oxlajuj B'aqtun by Sotz'il Jay is a staggering performance, deeply rooted in Maya culture and spirituality, made in response to the death of Lisandro Guarcax González, "guide and founder of Sotz’il Jay, who was murdered on the day Oxlajuj B’atz’(Monkey 13) (25th August 2010). Because, as he said: “Nqarayij chi ronojel qasamaj nk’atzin chi nkitamab’ej nk’aj chïk winaqi' ”. We long for all our efforts to be transformed into the knowledge of the other."

This sort of communally created, culturally immersed, deeply felt and politically committed work is exactly what our culture needs at the moment, and it's something we see less and less.  More private and personal cultural forms - the novel, in particular - are very much alive and vital.  But culture in the public arena, where the theatre operates, is being drained of its lifeblood.  A theatre that is forced to justify itself in economic terms, a theatre that is reduced to simplistic pre-conceived social "SMART objectives", a theatre embarrassed by its spiritual role - this is a theatre in terminal decline.  2014 has to be about reasserting the vitality and necessity of the art form - not as something which contributes to economic growth or attracts tourism, not as a luxury which we add on once we've dealt with other needs apparently more basic, but as something which is itself basic to any healthy and dynamic society in its own right.  Survival alone will be an achievement this year - but it's also pointless if we don't survive as something truly necessary: as a space within our darkling work that offers healing and contemplation, regeneration and provocation, energy and light.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


It was quite a year, 1963.  If the BBC is to be believed, the most significant of the 50th anniversaries we've been celebrating was the creation of Doctor Who - but I'm inclined to think that the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King's Dream speech, the Cuban missile crisis, the arrival of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and the Beatles' first LP are all a bit more important.  Not that I want to do down Doctor Who.

Philip Larkin said it was the year that sexual intercourse began.  If so, then some people must have got in a few months ahead, because 1963 was also the year when I first saw the light of day.  Which has made this an important anniversary year for me too.

Of course, looking back over 50 years on Planet Earth does tend to make certain events feel more distant.  Doctor Who certainly seems to have been around for ever.  But so many of the other key moments from that year don't seem distant at all - even to me, who had not consciousness of them at the time.  The Dream speech is a defining moment of the contemporary era - a moment which gave definition and articulacy to so many of the battles over inequality and injustice that are still being fought today.  Back in the summer, I was invited to a commemorative event at the US Embassy, with Jesse Jackson speaking and a broad range of advocates for the UK's diversity agenda in the audience: Shami Chakrabarti and Keith Vaz, and a lot of artists.  It was very clear how present and immediate the speech still felt for all of us.  It's very emphatically of the now.

So my 50th year experience is not the form of middle age I had expected.  I had thought that my past would start to seem more distant, because it was.  In fact, it's seemed rather the opposite.  I've started to think of events before 1963 as closer to me, rather than further away.  If 1963 feels like a year which is still very present, then for my parents, who were young adults then, the war that had ended only 18 years before must have felt very immediate indeed.  And for somebody who in 1963 was the age I am now - the First World War would stand in the same relative historical place that the Dream speech does for me.  So next year's centenary is not really about that conflict receding from us, so much as an awareness that it is not actually that distant - that history is not the foreign country where things are done differently that we explore through our schooling, but rather a very present force, shaping our culture, our political context, our very ways of thinking and modes of being.

I've always known this, of course.  But this year has made it seem very immediate and real.

Friday, December 06, 2013


Some time ago, we ran a long and complex research and development process around the life of Nelson Mandela.  It's still a project which we intend to realise fully - but we won't do it until we know we can do it full justice.  It may still be some time away.  But today it seemed appropriate to share one short lyric from what will one day be a piece of music theatre about the extraordinary, inspirational figure to whom the world has kissed a fond goodbye.

  All things change.  Nothing is.  All things become.
The sunlight's nightly death gives hope of new dawn.
The carcass of the zebra feeds the soil.
The dry veldt is refreshed by sweetening rainfall.

Our deaths are not an end but a beginning:
the voices of our fathers underground
sing softly through the ashes of this burning
and lay a balm upon a gaping wound.

All things change.  Nothing is.  All things become.
Umkhonto we Sizwe must now be born.
Black Pimpernel, Rivonia's first accused,
Robben Island's hushed forebearing Crusoe.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

EcoCentrix and Namatjira

This year's Origins Festival is refusing to go away.  Although the intense period of Festival activity ended on November 3rd, there was a further week of the EcoCentrix exhibition at Bargehouse, and from tonight to Friday, Namatjira plays at the Purcell Room.

EcoCentrix was a very exciting partnership for us: the chance to help present an exhibition curated by Helen Gilbert and her team on the Indigeneity Project, who have been researching indigenous performance and its place in the contemporary world for as long as we have been running the festival.  There were many overlaps in material, of course - work by Marrugeku, Fiona Foley, Rosanna Raymond and Victoria Hunt was in the exhibition as well as the Festival, and Rita Leistner's images from The Edward Curtis Project related to the themes she and Marie Clements had explored at the Origins workshop in 2011 (itself based on the play and images shown in Vancouver the year before…  journeys, journeys…).  But perhaps even more important than this was the way in which EcoCentrix was able to expand the range of what was on show - allowing audiences to look at indigenous performance in relation to its space, land and culture, and to think about the key issue of sustainability in new and surprising ways.

One of the many things which indigenous cultures are really good at, indeed one of the things which seems to me to define their particular place in the contemporary cultural ecology, is making new things out of old things.  That can be on a really basic level - a bit of packaging becomes a puppet, a discarded pot morphs into a ceremonial drum.  But it can also be on a much more complex level of high culture, where ancient ideas can be adapted and re-contextualised to operate in relation to modernity, losing none of their power in the process.  Indeed, what emerged most strongly in EcoCentrix was the way in which this process leads to a gain in power - the way an idea or image embedded in time and cultural continuity is renewed and regenerated by its being related to modernity.  It doesn't feel obsolete at all, but relevant and immediate.

Namatjira is also about this idea.  A great Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira was regarded as fit to sit alongside white Australians (and was the first indigenous person to become a citizen of his own country) because he painted in a style which could be recognised and understood by Europeans.  But that does not undermine the indigenous sensibility in what he did.  If you see his work at the Royal Academy, it leaps out from the European imagery around it, demonstrating a completely distinct approach to landscape, colour and the spiritual life and energy of country.  He stood in a continuum of ancient culture - but made it of the moment when he lived, intersecting with the wider world, utterly new and unique.  I suppose that's the essence of creativity.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Two Schmucks, Three Opinions

Steve Tiller, surrounded by food
A while ago, my friend Jonathan Meth got into a Facebook spat with an actor and director called Steve Tiller.  It was about Palestine - a subject about which they are both very impassioned, not least because they are both British and Jewish, in each case secular and non-Zionist.  The Facebook spat turned into three long lunches - each three hours long, in fact.  The conversations over lunch were recorded, and form the basis of a 90 minute dialogue called Two Schmucks, Three Opinions, which I witnessed at St Barnabas Church in Bethnal Green on Friday night.  And it is rather wonderful.

The evening begins with food.  I've been getting more and more interested in how food relates to theatre - we even had a restaurant as a venue for Origins - how the experience of eating together makes the exchange of ideas a simpler matter.  In this instance, the meal reflects the core of the play, and the audience become participants in the lunch that forms the springboard for the exchanges.  The conviviality of this construction is important to the play - because conviviality is its subject.  How, it asks, can the Israeli and Palestinian people live together?  Jonathan and Steve are too nuanced and sophisticated in their thinking to suggest that they have any easy answers to this most intractable of diplomatic problems - but the form they have chosen does at least go some way towards the inescapable conclusion that they need to sit down at the same table and break bread together.

I was sitting next to a young man called Ahmed, who was one of two Palestinians in the room.  As a child of 11, he had been shot by Israeli soldiers, when he and his friends were throwing stones in Gaza.  The bullet had entered his body under the rib cage, and left through his back.  He was very fortunate to have lived.  Sitting next to Ahmed, there was nothing abstract about the political ideas Jonathan and Steve discussed: he embodied their physical reality.  Without the meal and the conversation it brought, I would not have known this.

Jonathan and Steve also bring a physical reality to the discourse.  For one thing, even though they read the transcripts of their lunches, you're constantly aware that they are speaking their own words.  If you know them, you can hear the idiosyncrasies - only Jonathan could say "It's not umbilical at all".  They've left in the overlaps and unfinished interjections, the moments when they say really stupid things - they've edited the conversations but not at the expense of the messiness that characterises what people say in the thick of an impassioned debate.  I don't usually like verbatim theatre - I don't see that language is necessarily given dramatic validity by the fact that a "real person" said it - but in this case, where the parameters are very clear and where the "real people" are also theatre-makers who can structure their transcripts without losing the spontaneity, it becomes closer to a structured improvisation, and it really works.  For another thing, they begin the piece by locating the politics firmly in their own physical presences as Jewish men - Jonathan rather disconcertingly describes his circumcision at the age of 8 days at the very beginning, and you can't get much more visceral than that.

So - the politics felt very real in the room.  And the questions - horribly insoluble.  The last part of the evening passes the debate to the audience, and there was a clear sense from everyone that the need was for Israel, somehow, to change its way of thinking about the Palestinian people, to recognise them as inhabitants of the same land, to include them in a single, cross-cultural, secular state.  Is there a role for non-Israeli Jews in this, I asked them?  The answer was that they could do as they had - invite people to dinner, debate in public, open the discourse.  It's true, of course.  It's the only way.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Truth and Reconciliation

Samoan ava ceremony at The Origin of Origins.  Photo: Nick Moran
It's an incredibly rich and stimulating time at the Origins Festival.  More than ever, this third outing has managed to combine some really incredible performances and films with a real depth and passion in discussion - an intense engagement with the cultures and the issues explored.

Truth and Reconciliation is a big theme this year, and Tuesday evening at Rich Mix really explored this, with Justice Murray Sinclair of Canada's Truth Commission joining us by Skype, plus remarkable films and the music of Indigie-Femme.  I was very struck by Justice Sinclair's remark that Truth was something the victims could tell - but that any process of reconciliation actually has to start from the perpetrator.  In a way, that's what the festival is all about: westerners have to become actively engaged with indigenous cultures, and recognise the harms that have been done to them in the name of our absurd drive for wealth.   We have to find a new way jointly to inhabit the planet.

When My Spirit Raised Its Hands
Tonight's opening, Diane Benson's play When My Spirit Raised its Hands, is a further contribution to this.  Already Diane has been a powerful presence at our Festival, pointing out the parallels between the Alaskan Tlingit experience and that of Australian Aboriginals in her response to Fiona Foley's brilliant lecture on Wednesday.  Her play, which is at Rich Mix till Sunday, explores the Civil Rights movement in Alaska, and gives a rare (perhaps even unique) insight into Tlingit life and culture.  Diane is not only a theatre-maker, she is also a political leader - the adversary of Sarah Palin!  And that's got to be a good thing....

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Origin of Origins

The smoking ceremony.  Photo: Nick Moran
Origins 2013 got off to an amazing start on Wednesday night, with the Bargehouse packed to bursting for an Aboriginal Australian smoking ceremony, a Samoan ava ceremony, and performances from Suara Indonesia Dance, Baila Peru and Indigie Femme.  With a fantastic indigenous buffet by our partner restaurant Mestizo, there was a great sense of conviviality!

Suara Indonesian Dance.  Photo: Nick Moran
The ava ceremony is a Samoan welcome, in which honoured guests are called and offered the powerful, slightly numbing, cup of ava.  Our guests included Fiona Foley, Tasha and Elena from Indigie Femme, Victoria Hunt, Michael Greyeyes, Coll Thrush and Gabe Hughes.  Gabe is the first Rhodes Scholar from the First Nations of Canada - and she responded to the ava with a traditional honour song.  All in all, a remarkable night, which sent Twitter ecstatic!

Thursday saw us back at Bargehouse for the opening of the EcoCentrix exhibition.  Helen Gilbert has brought together some truly amazing works of art, which on the first night included a live art piece by Victoria Hunt!  Highlights are The Edward Curtis Project images by our old friend Rita Leistner, and an amazing installation of red dresses, highlighting the disappearances of First Nations women in North America.  Four floors of riches....
Copper Promises.  Photo: Heidrun Lohr
Last night, Copper Promises opened at The Place.  It's only on for two shows, so by the time you read this, it may be over, but if it isn't - go.  It's beautiful beyond belief: intense, spiritual, concentrated, and full of technical wizardry.  At the post-show talk, Victoria talked about the process by which she made the piece - opening herself to influences and possibilities, rather than imposing herself on the material.  And the fact that the piece is being shown in the UK gave it added power - as Hinemihi, the Maori meeting house at the centre of the tale, now sits in the grounds of a Surrey country house....

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In solidarity with Indigenous People

With the Origins Festival due to start tomorrow - we reproduce this syndicated article by Laura Finley Ph.D.

Monique Mojica - Staging First Nations.  Photo: Ric Knowles

Last I heard, contracts negotiated between two consenting and capable parties are supposed to be binding, with repercussions if one party violates what has been agreed upon and codified into a legal document.  That is, of course, unless it is the state entering into such agreements with indigenous peoples. Then these legal documents are little more than lip-service, or so it seems, based on the actions of the U.S., Canadian, and other governments who have and continued to trample the rights of indigenous peoples with impunity. Instead of being held accountable to the legally binding agreements they have signed, these governments continue to deprive indigenous peoples of their land, their livelihoods, and their cultures. Worse yet, they have the gall to point the finger at indigenous peoples and their allies who resist this continued destruction of their land and resources, calling them the criminals.

The United States government has negotiated some 600 treaties with Native people, most of which it has violated. As just one example, were it to have adhered to its own agreement, the Lakota Nation would have encompassed much of the western Midwest (and some of the easternmost region of what we now call the West), with the vast resources offered by the land and water in that region. Instead, many Lakota live on reservations (or prisoner of war camps, as they might be called) like Pine Ridge, which is annually one of the most impoverished places in the United States. Unemployment rates run around 70 percent, and as of 2011, almost 50 percent of Pine Ridge residents live below the federal poverty line. Like a third-world country, life expectancy rates hover in the later 40s and early 50s, in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S, where the average women lives to be 81 and the average man to 76. But, when Native peoples have organized, like the American Indian Movement did in the 1960s and 1970s, they are presented as a threat, not as part of the solution.

Canada has done no better. Instead of honoring its agreements to indigenous groups, the Canadian government has stolen the land and poisoned the water, soil, and air in which many from the First Nations live. On October 15, 2013, United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples James Anaya issued a scathing report, noting that 20 percent of aboriginal peoples in Canada live in homes in need of serious repairs and that the suicide rate among aboriginal youth is five times greater than that of all Canadians.  Anaya called the situation a “crisis,” and, among other factors, traced it back to Canadian government policies that broke up homes and destroyed indigenous cultures by sending indigenous youth to horrific boarding schools where they were forced to become as White as possible.

But, instead of critically reflecting on Anaya’s report, the Canadian government elected to further oppress this already marginalized group. Just days ago, when indigenous peoples and their allies organized to protest fracking in New Brunswick (a natural gas extraction process that devastates the land and groundwater) the RCMP responded with force. Instead of listening to the voices of indigenous peoples about the Tar Sands pipelines, the Canadian government has criminalized their voices and continues to plunder on.

So, while the U.S. and Canada are two of the wealthiest nations in the world, both should bear the responsibility and pay the price for becoming so through the extraction of resources and land that did not and does not belong to them.

Indigenous people and their supporters have not and will not be silent about these issues.  Groups like Idle No More have organized, taken to the streets, and used traditional indigenous dance and culture as well as teach-ins and other nonviolent direct action to organize communities to speak out about the repressive policies. I was fortunate to hear from representatives from Idle No More recently and to participate in one of their rallies. To call it a humbling experience is an understatement.

For readers who are not familiar with these histories, I implore you to educate yourself. There is far more to the story than I have presented here. When you do, you too will be outraged, and hopefully called to act, to support indigenous peoples as they fight to regain that which is lawfully theirs and to ensure they can raise their children in non-toxic environments. It is the least we can do.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Walking First Nations London

Just rehearsed the guided walk for Origins.  It's going to be amazing!  Coll Thrush, who leads it, is an historian from the University of British Columbia, and he is writing a book about the visits made to London by indigenous people - primarily from North America but also from the Pacific - since the first contact between the cultures.  Amazingly, it goes back to 1502 - only ten years after Columbus - when some Inuit seem to have been in London.

Coll leads the walk from Covent Garden, through the areas where the four kings of the Cherokee (pictured, with their alcoholic interpreter) stayed, and the house where the Raleigh circle worked on an orthography for Native American languages.  He takes you to St Martin in the Fields, where the King and Queen of Hawaii once lay in state, draped in cloaks made from the feathers of 90,000 birds of paradise.  He shows you where Pocahontas and her uncle were met by King James and saw a masque by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones.  He ends up at Westminster Abbey, with an astonishing story about a shaman.

What is especially exciting is how conventional ideas of the two cultures are often reversed.  Many visitors felt that London was a savage and depraved place: one Native American was a priest who came in the 18th century to save the Londoners for Christ.  Many were so disillusioned by what they saw that, like the uncle of Pocahontas, they returned to their own lands determined to lead rebellions against the colonists.  You start to see your own history differently when it's refracted through the eyes of another culture.

There are two walks during the festival - on October 26 and November 2.  Click the links to book!

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Bliss by Fiona Foley
I was lucky enough to get invited to a preview of the RA's new Australia exhibition last week, and to hear the curator Kathleen Soriano, and indigenous artist Christian Thompson talking about it at the High Commission on Friday night.  As much as anything, it's very exciting that there is so much Australian culture, and so much indigenous Australian culture, on show in London this autumn.  There's even a new dedicated website, called Australian Nexus, which exists to bring them all together. And there is Origins, right in the thick of it.  Fiona Foley, whose Lecture is set to be a Festival highlight, has a video piece called Bliss at the centre of the last, most political section of the RA show: it deals with the way in which Aboriginal workers were turned into opium addicts, paid in drugs rather than cash - and it does it through the disturbing medium of beautiful poppies.  Vernon Ah Kee, the designer of Gudirr Gudirr, also has a piece in the show.  And so it goes on.  There's even an essay in the catalogue by Thomas Keneally - who got us interested in Aboriginal culture in the first place, way back in 2003-4 with Bullie's House.

The show begins stunningly, with an evocation of journeying into landscape: a lone motorbike rider drives into the bush, raising his arms in a crucifix.  And then there's a room of beautiful indigenous art - the traditional art of Dreaming, totem and landscape, although some of it has shifted form and medium to be painted on canvas and hung on walls.  The majesty, colour and sheer energy of these works is so powerful that it is difficult to see how the rest of the show can possibly live up to them - and for the first few rooms of European-style art created after the invasion, it emphatically doesn't.  It takes some time to realise that, in a way, this let-down is almost the point: that the settler art, supposedly more "civilised", more "refined", was in fact simplistic and timid by comparison with that of the indigenous culture.

Where the exhibition really takes off again is in the more modern sections, when white artists begin to engage with the reality of the land, rather than imposing a European sensibility; and when indigenous art becomes engaged with the political encounter between the cultures.  Sidney Nolan's series of Ned Kelly paintings are there - much more vibrant and epic in the flesh than in any reproduction (including the exhibition poster, which washes out the colours quite badly).  Albert Namatjira's watercolours are similar acts of cultural boundary-bursting - he uses that most English of forms to paint a landscape about as far from Surrey as you can imagine - and to fulfil his ancestral Dreaming.  Margaret Preston is one of the first non-Indigenous artists to absorb indigenous influences, and as a result her work seems to speak far more clearly of and to the Australian space - geographical, political and spiritual. Her evocation of Adam and Eve as indigenous people exiled from Eden by a white angel is provocative and visceral.

The show ends with Fiona's work, Vernon's Can't Chant (wegrehere) #2 and other pieces exploring the tensions of an emerging, but far from integrated or complete, cross-cultural, post-colonial reality.  Australia is full of tensions - and that is what makes it so culturally dynamic at the present moment.  It's a vital time to be engaged with what is happening there.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Seamus Heaney

It isn't often that the death of a public figure moves me as Seamus Heaney's has done.  Don Patterson said that "the death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself"- but I think it's more than that.  Poetry, and particularly the combination of the lyric and the political that characterised Heaney, is so personal, so intimate an art that the poet's persona comes to share the internal space of the reader.  When we lose a great poet, we lose someone to whom we are intensely close.  Put simply, a friend.

I first encountered this friend as a shy boy in my early teens, in a Hereford bookshop where I took lunchtime sanctuary from the baying bullies who haunted those years of emergence.  I remember weighing up the risk of buying the "Selected Poems", which tempted me because their writer seemed to mitigate the sissy discipline to which I was so drawn with a masculine, rural rigour that my persecutors might approve.  It cost me £1.95, and has been a treasure ever since.  On Friday, when his death was announced, I took it down again from the shelf and read that first manifesto, at once daunted and intensely determined:

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it."

Later, in my first year at Oxford, a group of us would gather in someone's room or other to read our favourite lyrics - and I arrived clutching the same book, which now seemed a passport rather than a badge of exile.  Slowly, as we talked about the poems, I began to understand the complex relationship between these texts and the momentous context exploding in Ulster - to see how the history I was studying was as much a force in the intensity of "North" as the emotional and the psychological journey of their author.  They began to shape my own artistic voice.

Then, one day, the man himself was there.  We had lots of illustrious people visiting Oxford, to the extent that we got quite blasé about it: the Literary Society had welcomed Faye Weldon, Colin Welland, Stephen Spender and (wait for it) Enoch Powell that term: Seamus Heaney was for many another name on the roll-call.  So there were probably no more than thirty of us present to listen to him read in his soft brogue those well-known lines, to give them his personal music, and to hear him talk around them and about them without ever explaining them.  He was a gentle presence, secure in his wisdom without being in any way arrogant - wry and (I thought) genuinely pleased that there were young people there who responded to what he was saying and how he was saying it - people who shared his need to speak at a level only poetry sounds.  To dig ever deeper.  Far below the surface.

His work in theatre, especially the involvement with Field Day, was further inspiration to me - this is one of a number of key companies whose way of postulating theatre in a complex contemporary space of cross-cultural tensions has influenced the Artistic Direction of Border Crossings.

In 2008, there came his substitute for autobiography - the wonderful Stepping Stones interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll.  I gave a copy to my great friend Jay Griffiths, and it became as special a book to her as it was to me.  "Nurturing the flame" she said - Heaney writes so well about the calling of the artist, the intense need to find articulacy, the conviction that language must be brought back from the brink and re-forged as the weapon of compassion.  In her own recent book Kith, Jay calls this calling "the daemon" - and so it is.  The inner impulse that pulls the book from the shelf into the boy's hand, the muscularity that digs with the squat pen, the gentle rage of prophecy.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Season in the Congo

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba
I've wanted to see Aimé Césaire's extraordinary play for years - so I was very excited to see it announced at the Young Vic, especially with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the leading role of Congo's first post-colonial Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. I wasn't disappointed.  He gives a brilliant, multi-faceted performance at the centre of a thrilling, complex and provocative production.

But you know that already from the reviews.  I don't disagree with them at all about the terrific central performance and the thrilling production.  Where I do part company with the consensus is around what it all adds up to.  Ejiofor's performance is so very powerful that critics have tended to read the play as "The Tragedy of Patrice Lumumba", and to treat the central figure as a martyr for post-colonial independence.  This seems to me to belittle the play, which actually takes quite a sceptical position with regard to Lumumba's idealism, charisma and rhetoric.  When we first see him, he is selling beer - and the play continues to associate him with various forms of intoxication; including the sexual, when he's seen in a sleazy bar, and above all the politically romantic.  In a way this is self-criticism from Césaire, the apostle of négritude,  and that's perhaps what gives this drama such intensity and makes it so disturbing.

The fact that the critics (and some audience members) haven't quite "got" this is partly to do with one production decision.  In general, the piece is superbly directed by Joe Wright, but to my mind he's made a mistake in casting Kabongo Tshisensa as the Likembe Player.  Tshisensa is a compelling presence, and it's lovely to hear him speak in an indigenous Congolese language - but the effect of this is to make him distant from the audience, as his words have to be translated by other actors - the first time, by Ejiofor himself.  So the English-speaking actor, the translator, feels closer to the audience than the Likembe Player.  Now, the role of the Likembe Player is to mediate between the audience and the drama - he is a storyteller and a commentator in a Brechtian style, albeit using a proverbial African mode of speech.  So he has to feel close to the audience, and in that way serves to distance Lumumba, allowing us to view him in a more sceptical light, and not to identify so fully with his idealism and passion.

It doesn't stop the play feeling terribly immediate and pertinent, though.  After all, it's about a democratically elected leader whose ideology is at odds with that of the dominant West, and who is therefore deposed by a US-backed military coup.  This as we watch the slaughter on the streets of Cairo....

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Eve Sussman

The other fascinating experience in Montréal was a visit to the Modern Art Museum, to see Eve Sussman's piece, made with the Rufus Corporation, White on White. 

This piece looks like a film.  You go into a room, you sit down, and you watch it.  You are in an audience.  There are images, characters and dialogue.  The actors are clearly located in a recognisable world - it's Eastern Europe.  At times the settings are very specific - as in the image above, which is a careful reproduction of Yuri Gagarin's office.  But actually this is not a film in a conventional way, because the scenes are not ordered.  Rather, the editing is generated by a computer using algorithms, so that there is some sort of association between the scenes (the result of hash-tags), but it isn't any sort of narrative sequence planned by the artist.  The apparent logic by which the plot unfolds is in fact totally random.

And yet, the strange thing is that you can't help treating it as if it were a normal film - because all the signals are telling you that's what it is.  And so you start to create narrative out of the juxtapositions of scenes, and to generate plot-lines which may be unfurling.  The fact that none of them lead anywhere, and that the film refuses to end or to loop makes this deeply dis-orienting.  It is also very close to lived experience - nothing ties up neatly.

In many ways this is a response to the collapse of the grand narrative - both in terms of the end of Communist ideology in the East and the failure of late capitalism in the West.  It also suggests a kind of post-traumatic numbness - I was reminded of it as I watched the Guatemalan film Polvo that evening.  This is a "real" film, but again the narrative is fragmented and difficult for the viewer to re-construct.  As if the experience of genocide no longer allows the characters to live in a way that "makes sense" - either to them or to their implicated spectators. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Présence Autochtone

Last year, at Planet IndigenUs, I was lucky enough to meet André Dudemaine, an Innu man from Montréal, and director of the Festival Présence Autochtone there.  We'd actually known of one another and corresponded for longer - André wrote a piece on Alanis Obomsawin for our first Origins Festival programme - but meeting in person is always a big step forward....  and our discussions in Toronto led to my being invited to André's festival last week.

Unlike either Origins or Planet IndigenUs, the Montréal festival focuses primarily on film, which happened to be very useful to me, as we're coming to the end of programming Origins 2013, and the film programme is now the last bit of the jigsaw.  It meant that there were some serious experts on indigenous film around - I was able to spend time with Jason Ryle, who programmes ImagineNATIVE, and Elizabeth Weatherford, who heads the film section at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.  It's one thing to get your own impression of a film at a screening - it's something else to discuss it with people who have that depth of knowledge.  They also proved the ideal companions to sample one of the Festival's other innovations - indigenous gastronomy....  The six-course tasting menu convinced me that food is not only central to First Nations culture, but is also an art form in its own right.  I've been thinking about ways of bringing food to the centre of our own festival -  and this approach helped the thinking!

The trip was also a chance to renew our relationship with Canada's extraordinary National Film Board: an organisation which has been leading the way in film for years.  I discovered on this trip that they developed synchronised sound and IMAX technology...  But what is really important about the NFB is its democratic function.  It gives a solid base for remarkable film-makers like Alanis - and allows them to be publicly funded in order to criticise the government and the society.  That, Ms. Miller, is what public funding of culture should be all about.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Riddu Riddu

You fly to Tromsø, which is two hours north of Oslo.  It's beyond the Arctic Circle, pretty cold even at the height of summer, and it never gets even remotely dark.  From there, you get a special bus to the tiny settlement of Manndalen (or, in Sami, Olmmáivággi) - another two and a half hours.  Most people are in tents dotted around the local Cultural Centre - a lucky few get a caravan.  This place is seriously remote.  Surely, you think, this can't be the site of a major indigenous festival?

But it is.  Since 1991, Riddu Riddu has happened each July, as a celebration of Sami culture, and a means of connecting it to other Arctic peoples, and to the indigenous cultures of the world.  This year a bus drove 29 hours from St Petersburg to bring a large party of indigenous Russians (including an extraordinary Siberian dance group) to the Festival.  To begin with, I thought the Siberians were Japanese - but no, there was another, even larger, group of Ainu.  There was a shaman and a storyteller from Greenland.  Buffy Sainte-Marie and her band came from Canada.  Moana and the Tribe were there from New Zealand (winning the prize for the longest journey).  My personal favourites were Sotz'il Jay - a Mayan group from Guatemala, whose performance was billed as dance, but seemed to me closer to shamanic ritual, as the entranced performers moved between human and animal identities.

It's important for us (and perhaps especially for me, as director of Origins) to recognise that the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, have an indigenous history and identity every bit as intense and significant as that of Native Americans, Australians and Polynesians.  It is salutary to be reminded that, right here in Northern Europe, children were put into residential schools, women were forcibly sterilised, language and culture were suppressed, and indigenous ethnicity was considered shameful.  many of the festival events are harsh reminders that it was only in the last 20 years or so that the Sami were able to reclaim their cultural identity with pride.  It's very touching to hear their languages clawing their way back, and to see the traditional clothes being worn.  

So it is also very powerful to watch the film Biekka Fábmu, which the Festival made about its 20th anniversary in 2011.  It was intended to show a success story - the arrival of Riddu Riddu as a central element in Norway's cultural programme, the integration of indigenous identity into a pluralist social space.  But July 22nd 2011 was the day of the bomb in Oslo and the shootings in Utøya - the day Norway was traumatised into re-assessing its image as an open, multicultural nation.  The Festival Chair's own daughter was on Utøya: she was eventually found wounded but alive.  The Festival ended early, with the concert for that night becoming an act of commemoration and mourning - and a gesture of solidarity amongst those who strive to create an accepting and diverse world.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Robert Greygrass

Everyone associated with the Origins Festival will be deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Robert Greygrass, who died in a road accident on Tuesday. Robert was a leading figure in our first two festivals, appearing in "Salvage" and his own storytelling performance in 2009, and presenting the brilliant solo show "Walking on Turtle Island" in 2011. Robert also brought his traditional Lakota knowledge and ceremonial skill to the Festival, playing a leading role in our closing events on both occasions, lending the dignity of an Elder and the poetry of a songster to these very moving shared moments of global connection. There are very few people who combine such power with such gentleness. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ich bin ein Berliner

From the East Side Gallery - painted on the remains of the Berlin Wall
Last week I was back in Berlin, courtesy of Martin Barthel and his Comparative Research Network.  In some ways, for example the structure, the week was quite similar to the one I spent with them last year (here's the blog on that one) - but in other ways it was decidedly different.  That was largely down to the people who were gathered there under the EU's Grundtvig scheme, which is remarkable in its cross-sectoral approach to interculturalism.  Usually when I go to an "event" - a festival, a workshop, or even Platform meetings and Practice Exchanges - there is a sense that everybody is there for much the same reason, and that, whatever the national, ethnic and cultural differences, everybody has a similar agenda.  In Martin's workshop, the agendas were radically distinct.  There were people whose work and way of thinking were close to mine, of course - a noted actor from Romania; a dance therapist from Hungary; an intercultural youth and community worker from Mauritania via Copenhagen, who extraordinarily runs an organisation called Crossing Borders! - but there were also people from education and business, politics and grass-roots NGOs, health workers and librarians.  Actually, there were quite a few whose professions never even came up in the conversation - and probably all the better for that.  The mixture allowed Martin and his colleagues Kamilla and Ewelina to create role-plays and scenarios which took everybody out of their comfort zone, and genuinely created the tensions which occur when different cultures meet.  Or collide.

It's simulation, of course.  My one quibble with this work would be that it highlights, through its very celebration of diversity, the one area which intercultural practice has not yet embraced, namely class.  However varied our backgrounds, they were all educated, middle-class professions - the sort of jobs that sit readily with language skills and international travel.  We may have role-played refugees and starving people, but we did not encounter them - even though some of the former were right on the doorstep in Kreuzberg.  I don't blame CRN for that at all - it's just something that has been preying on my mind for a while now.

It's to do with walls.  Berlin, in many ways, is the symbol of an inclusive idealism - its notorious wall either demolished or making space for optimistic murals.  But I have also recently seen Beirut, where there are deep, extreme economic divisions that accentuate cultural difference; and I have thought about those refugees' journey from Palestine, where there is still a literal wall dividing their people from their neighbours.  I have also been in Belfast, where it was explained to me that the people are not yet ready for the "Peace Walls" to come down.  And last summer we worked with refugees from the Western Sahara, where the occupying power, Morocco, has erected the longest wall in the world - and nobody in the West even talks about it.

I'm hugely grateful for the week in Berlin: and for the way it highlighted how very far there is to go.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Chimerica at the Almeida
I hugely enjoyed Lucy Kirkwood's new piece Chimerica at the Almeida.  It's very striking just how much it has in common with Consumed, and the two Chinese plays in the Trilogy, Dis-Orientations  and Re-Orientations.  It's what they call the zeitgeist: we're very aware of China as a force in the world, and as the key element in global culture that we are currently trying to understand.  As Martin Jacques (whose book When China Rules the World is cited by Lucy Kirkwood in her programme note) put it in the piece he wrote for the Consumed programme: "Our ignorance about China is of Himalayan proportions. We insist on understanding the country through a Western prism. We are so used to thinking and believing that everyone should, or will eventually be, like us that we refuse to recognise that China is profoundly different, always has been and always will be."

That has been very much our philosophy in making our pieces about the dialogue with China - we have always made sure that Chinese artists are involved from the beginning, as part of the creative process, devising, writing and shaping the play in collaboration with the Westerners.  It's a process which recently got us onto Chinese TV: see the Propeller TV documentary at http://propellertv.co.uk/programmes/chinatown

If I have one concern about Chimerica, it is that the viewpoint of the piece is so very Western.  In fairness, it doesn't pretend otherwise; and there is a powerful sense that the central character's fascination with an anonymous Chinese "hero" - the young man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - is a romanticised outsider's view.  But it seems odd that a play which appears to warn Westerners against imagining a China in a Western image should itself exoticise and "other" the culture and society.  In particular, the main Chinese character is arrested for sedition.  This felt particularly potent for me, as he is played by Benedict Wong - a wonderful actor who I also saw recently as Ai Weiwei at Hampstead.  The coincidence is instructive - our theatres seem to like their Chinese heroes in captivity, being tortured and interrogated by Kafkaesque authority figures.

I don't doubt the importance of this theme.  Any artist believes passionately in freedom of speech and expression, in the validity of cultural practice and open debate.  Anyone with a social conscience is stirred by the plight of figures like Liu Xiaobo.  But to make this the central plank in our discourse around China is to misread the culture.  What is significant in modern China is not so much the suppression of culture, art and debate, as the general consensus to go along with this.  A character in Chimerica says that the Tiananmen Square incident represents the moment when China shifted from a politically fluid society to one of commerce and compliance - and I would agree with that.  There is, from the leadership through to the people, a real fear of the cultural gesture - because the country has lived through so many disastrous cultural gestures - not least the Cultural Revolution itself.  As Ma Haili said in rehearsals for Dis-Orientations, the student unrest in the Square felt like the beginning of the Cultural Revolution again: and that was why it was suppressed.

This is not an easy context in which to make a cultural gesture.  But it is also, as Ai Weiwei constantly affirms, an essential one.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Zoukak Sidewalks

Zoukak means "alley" in Arabic - so Zoukak Sidewalks is a kind of pun - it's also a very good idea.  Not unlike our Laboratory in many ways.  Zoukak invite visiting artists to lead workshops, give talks and demonstrations, hold masterclasses, show videos of their work, and generally generate a buzz around performance.  In the last few months, that's included our own dear Patron, Peter Sellars, and other old friends like Mojisola Adebayo, as well as Nathalie Garraud from France and Bharatanatyam performer Rozina Shiraz Gilani. Last night it was out turn.  What was particularly exciting about this Sidewalks event was that we had been working with Zoukak through the week on ideas for a new play, and this was a chance to try them out.

What amazed me was just how much material we had been able to generate in only five days.  We were able to lead the audience through a possible structure for the entire piece, including a "spine" of scenes which Brian had already written, plus a totally new parallel narrative from contemporary Beirut, and a series of meditations from female voices on the place of women in the Iliad.  We were able to show quite a few scenes in some sort of theatrical form, and give a powerful sense of how the finished play might mix languages, periods, and styles. Several people commented on the way the play juxtaposed something very austere and classical with a grubby contemporary reality, and found it fascinating how the two inter-connected.  All very encouraging indeed. 

Thank you British Council...  a really inspiring week....  Now - how do we move forward???

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Beirut, Zoukak, and the question of settlement

An incredibly rich and inspiring couple of days in Beirut, working with Brian, Maya and the rest of the Zoukak company.  In fact, the Zoukak company plus  - as, for the first time, in this workshop Zoukak has invited a number of other Lebanese performers to join the process.  Given that they are normally a very tight ensemble of six people, this is adventurous to say the least - there are at a minimum three layers in the collaboration.

The fact of collaboration inevitably raises questions around ownership (I mean in artistic and cultural, not legal terms) and representation.  Maya feels that some of the work created in response to the stimuli Brian and I have suggested has been in danger of perpetuating some cultural clichés, and that this may be the result of a subconscious shift which occurs when Lebanese people represent themselves to Western eyes.  It becomes "cultural" in the wrong way.  I hadn't felt this about the material - but perhaps that's all the more reason why she should be wary: orientalism and exoticism are the bane of the sort of intercultural work we attempt in Border Crossings.  The fact that this, and other key issues, are being clearly voiced in the workshop is very heartening - we have a genuinely open dialogue here, with an awareness of the broader issues with which our collaboration inevitably engages.

The starting point for our work has been The Iliad - the great epic of a long war.  Brian has been particularly interested in the end of the poem, when King Priam humbles himself to kiss the hand of Achilles, and so achieves a measure of uneasy reconciliation.  Before we left England, he also said to me that he wondered whether this would actually work as a model here - and it turns out that he was quite right to doubt it.  Forgiveness and self-abasement do not seem to be possible to contemplate in spaces where there has not yet been any measure of accountability, and where the conflicts are fed and fanned by forces very remote from the immediate actors on the ground.  Somehow we need to move our work on so that it addresses this level of complexity.

Well - it's only the third day!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Beirut - Day 1

Brian Woolland and I arrived in Beirut last night, just as the Syrian conflict spread over into Lebanese territory.  We're here for a week, thanks to the British Council, to start work with Zoukak - a very exciting theatre company in the city.  I met Maya Zbib, one of their core members, a while ago when we were on a panel about international work at CSSD - and it turned out that she was being mentored by Peter under the Rolex scheme.  Many a connection....  Brian and I had been discussing an idea for a new play with Middle Eastern collaborators for some time, so it's fantastic that we've finally got an opportunity to develop it, and ACE has given Brian a grant to write it too.

So this isn't quite like most of the development processes we've undertaken in the last few years, in that this time there is somebody in the room who will be the author of the play, and who has strong ideas about what it may turn out to be.  So it's not a devising process as such.  On the other hand, Brian is very aware that cross-cultural work is not about a single voice but about multiple viewpoints, and that real drama about global issues can only be generated out of different energies between people from distinct backgrounds.

Today has already proved the point.  Brian and I have been suggesting to the actors various scenarios and episodes, drawn from mythology, which might be dramatised.  What is fascinating is the way in which these become the way in to very immediate concerns in this region.  The figure of Delusion becomes a way into a fundamentalist Islamist rant for one group; while for another it generates a scene about a fatwa which allows jihadists to have sex with young girls as a 'necessary way of dealing with their violent male energy' - apparently this is happening in Syria at the moment.  The work is not only exciting in terms of content, but also theatrically vital - not least because of the ease with which Lebanese actors are able to shift between Arabic, English and French.  The Arabic here is very muscular - softer than in Egypt, but very energised.  It makes for very intense drama.

And so, of course, does the city.  Heavily armed soldiers everywhere.  Military checkpoints.  And buildings pock-marked by the bullets of the civil war. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Hannah Baird, Will Leach & Laura Jane Watling in  Hayavadana.  Photo: Natasha K. Stone
For the last few weeks, I've been working at East 15 Acting School (not in East 15 these days, but Southend, of all places).  They have a fantastic BA course in World Performance, which moves away from the Stanislavski-based conventions of drama schools, to take in a much broader range of forms and styles, with a particular emphasis on Asian theatre.  In previous years, Kristine Landon-Smith, David Tse and Janet Steele have been among the directors asked to direct the final-year shows - so I was very honoured to be approached this time.  As much as anything, it's a wonderful space for me to experiment with texts and styles that interest me for the company.  Girish Karnad's Hayavadana is a play that has fascinated me for some time, so it was wonderful to work on it with such an enthusiastic and appropriately trained group of people.

Here's what I wrote about it for the programme:

Hayavadana: the Hybrid Horse

“Mixture is how newness comes into the world”
(Salman Rushdie)

It’s self-evident that Hayavadana is a play about hybridity: a man has a horse’s head; friends find themselves sharing bodies, heads and a wife; the elephant-headed god presides.  What is perhaps less immediately obvious is that the play is itself a hybrid.  The main plot gives the appearance of being an Indian folk tale, but is in fact a European story, written in 1957 by Thomas Mann, The Transposed Heads.  The sub-plot of Hayavadana himself is Shakespearean: there’s a clear nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the man with an equine head; and Girish Karnad has acknowledged that the idea of a second plot “to tell the same story twice” was directly inspired by Shakespearean models.

The hybridity of the play lies in the fact that these European models are presented through a form derived from the Indian folk theatre, and particularly the Yakshagana of Girish’s native Karnathaka – a form filled with dance, music, narration, ornate costumes and make-up.  The play makes a case for the Indianess of Indian theatre – as Girish put it in a (hitherto unpublished) interview with me: “I felt it had to be held out as an agenda, as a manifesto, to say ‘I’m now going back to folk theatre’ and using folk theatre conventions to show that one could do something sensitive, intelligent, acceptable to an educated, intelligent audience in terms of that form.”  The play touched a nerve when it was first seen in 1971: India was slowly finding her feet after the process of decolonization, and there was a need simultaneously to relate Indian culture to the influences of an ever more internationally connected way of being, and to reassert the value of traditional forms that had been dismissed as primitive or shallow under colonialism.

Hayavadana’s hybridity finds a way of addressing a contemporary Indian audience that straddles the colliding worlds of the post-colonial.  Bringing it to Britain is an experiment in doing the same thing.  For us, this production has been about addressing the hybrid, intercultural nature of our own contemporary condition; embracing the complexity of a society shaped by multiple cultural influences; looking at what the encounter between Europe and Asia can say to our own post-colonial space; exploring how a quest for completeness can reflect our own national conversation.  We have done this against a background of scaremongering about immigration, and electoral gains for the radical right both in Britain and across Europe.  This is theatre that feels very immediate, very pertinent, very necessary.

And so it has been a deep joy for me to work with students from East 15’s World Performance course – because these young actors are capable of making the theatre our society needs.  It is not going to be enough for the actor of tomorrow to deliver naturalistic western text and psychological realism: indeed, I would say that to restrict our theatre to these approaches would be a betrayal of the international audience we now address that amounts to cultural imperialism.  The actor of tomorrow needs to embrace the glories of non-Western forms – Yakshagana, Jingju, Bunraku, Bharatanatyam – and to generate new energies through their collision with our own, more textual traditions.  These young actors are eager to learn from the Other – and in so doing, they show us the potential of tomorrow’s theatre to bring people together and regenerate our divided world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Lucy in China

Shanghai Theatre Academy
Building on the success of Consumed, Lucy has just made a trip to China, to work on joint education and participation initiatives with our partners there.  Huge thanks to the British Council's Connections through Culture programme for supporting this visit!  As with most first visits to China, this was clearly an eye-opener for Lucy, and tremendously exciting!  Here are a few thoughts from her:

"Great first workshops - all female students, and despite being in essay session so very busy/tired- seemed to enjoy working with me. (Du Ping was worried they might not show as under lots of stress but had 14).  I decided to do similar workshops to those done in UK- so I could compare responses.  It was fascinating.  Stories of names were amazing - one person admitted her name is fake as she had to create a 'new' father  they invented to go on her papers so they could  travel to Korea. She uses her fake  name - her mother won't let her take her name as all women in her family have been unlucky (5 generations of single mothers).  One person's name was chosen from an ancient dictionary from the Ming dynasty- using lucky numbers.  One girl had a name meaning 'dawn'- but she kept being sick- so her parents consulted a name expert and changed her name to 'pure flowing water' - and when I asked her if her health  improved - evidently it had.  I had a teacher from the business faculty who joined us out of interest and she advised the girls that even if their parents aren't openly affectionate with them or tell them that they love them - their names chosen are  a reflection of their love!  I was slightly apprehensive they might take time to warm-up but they opened up immediately and it was a very lively session.  They were happy when I moved tables and told them to put notebooks away-  we were here to play!  I got a round of applause at end of workshop- (maybe that’s common here?- still nice though)"

"I was really sad to leave the students today- they too seemed so upset it was the last day. Despite all having major essays due tomorrow they were fantastic.  We were talking about dramatic action, and looking at wants and objectives-what we want now, short term future and end of life and what was stopping us. One girl, talking about the end of life, said she would like to look back and see she had regrets: I asked her if she meant no regrets, she said no, she is always a good girl, a good daughter a good student, always hands homework in etc. - just once she would like not to be, and to do something she could regret!

These students so need drama- they need to discuss their hopes and dreams, think about how human nature works. Many of them wanted to be dancers, musicians, composers but had long since given up their dreams so young - they enjoyed so much playing, talking, creating.  It was very moving.  I feel
very emotional thinking about them.  Both groups all girls - and so pressured.  Funnily going back to names- if fathers chose names they often chose names such as 'quiet beauty', (who quietly and shyly announced she didn't want to be quiet) or 'gentle flower': if mothers chose names they often seemed to go for 'reach for the sky'. One girl said her name had male and female characters and people often wrongly thought it meant her parents wanted a boy: in fact her mother wanted her to have the characteristics from a man that combined with the female character would help her to succeed."

"I had three hour session with Shanghai Theatre Academy this morning - Daniel [Shen Liang] said he'd never seen such a fast paced workshop before!  Students were lovely- they liked doing more than talking, so we mainly stuck to practical stuff.  At least two students are interested in the internet project - so I am meeting them with Daniel tomorrow afternoon.  I have also agreed to meet British student who was working there who is about to undertake her MA….might just squeeze in a morning sight sighting…"

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Which Way China?

Serge Soric and Song Ru Hui in Consumed
The tour of Consumed came to an end at Chickenshed, our local theatre.  Big experiment for them, as they've not received shows before - and lovely to see that it was such a success there.  One of the reasons we got such good audiences was that Lucy and her team had been working with the Youth Theatre there on the Intercult project - so there was already a lot of engagement with the play's areas of concern.  And we were able to to show the young people's work as part of the Which Way China? day we presented on the Saturday, as a sort of symposium around the production.

Last week, I went back to Leeds University, for another symposium, this one around Staging China, with lots of scholars and theatre-makers from China and across the world.  So I've been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the wider issues around the play.  Nice to do this at the end of a project - it reminds you of what the piece is actually about and why it matters to do it.

Consumed is about a globalised, technologically inter-connected world.  It is also very much about difference within that world, and the fact that China remains emphatically, powerfully distinct from the West in cultural terms.  That difference, as the conversations of the last couple of weeks have made clear, is not confined to language or culture in its narrow sense.  It runs through the whole way of thinking and being.  So people who imagine that China's rapid change is an evolutionary process taking the nation towards a Western model of liberal democracy are profoundly mistaken.  China will go her own way - and our task is to find how to live with that.  The intercultural theatre we are making with Chinese artists is a cultural experiment around a much larger political question - how do we, as distinct cultures, jointly inhabit this connected, globalised space?  How do we live with difference?

The Leeds conference threw some of the differences into very sharp relief.  On the first day, there were two acting workshops - one with Zoë Waterman, who was Greg Doran's assistant on the RSC's Orphan of Zhao, the other with Tian Qinxin, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of China.  The RSC workshop was, I suspect, intended by the organisers to be about the approach that had been taken to The Orphan of Zhao - after all, the conference was about Staging China.  In fact, it was about the RSC's approach to Shakespearean text, with very little acknowledgment that many people in the room spoke very little English, or (perhaps more interestingly) viewed English as a second language, and English culture from the outside.  I had a lot of fund playing Benedick in Much Ado, but, as so often with the UK theatre establishment, I felt the real questions were simply being avoided.

Tian Qinxin was extraordinary.  She is a small, soft-spoken woman, who habitually dresses in an old-fashioned Chinese scholar's robe, and little round glasses.  Her workshop consisted largely of provoking us to be expressive in a whole range of different ways.  "Be an apple.  Express it through your eyes.  Can your partner tell whether you are a red apple or a green apple?"  "Look through the seats.  See through the walls.  See outside.  You must really look - not pretend to look".  "He was good.  Everybody else was very bad."  The model of "director as master", which is very prevalent in Chinese theatre, and which I recall from Zhang Ruihong, was clearly there.  But so was a great humour, and a real passion to teach what she was aware was a culturally specific approach.  The RSC workshop began by disclaiming that it was Western.  It was.

So often the West assumes that its way is "universal", and that it is the yardstick by which other cultures must be measured.  That is what we have to move beyond.  There is no universal and there is no yardstick.  There is simply flux.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Lepage's Cards - intercultural devising and technology

Well into the second week of our tour of Consumed, and I'm sitting in the Rich Mix, during the fit-up for tonight's show.  So far it's been a fabulous journey, with terrific reviews and an ecstatic response from the audience.  On Tuesday night we were in Leeds, with an audience largely composed of Chinese speakers.  It was fascinating to sense the show changing because of the languages spoken in the auditorium.

Last night was a night off, so I went to see Tony Guilfoyle, who was so central to the devising of Consumed, in the Robert Lepage production Cards at the Roundhouse.  Tony was fascinating as ever, playing a former gambler, whose life is collapsing around him.  It's probably the strongest storyline in a mesh of different plots characteristic of Lepage.  Tony's presence in the play, plus it's multilingualism, its use of technology (less so than in some recent Lepage shows) inevitably invites comparison with our own work - though in many ways it couldn't be more different.

It seems to me that Robert is increasingly interested in form, rather than necessarily working from content.  His interview in the programme is almost entirely about the challenges of working in the round, and what impresses about the production is its staging.  Tony showed me the rabbit warren under the stage afterwards - the technicians race around on little trolleys, and move the revolve lying on their backs.  The actors pop up from under the stage - emphasising the verticality of the circular space.

For us too, form was very much a start point: Consumed is in many ways a response to new technologies, and I wanted to express that through a multimedia form that enabled us to dialogue with the technology.  Multilingualism was also a formal start point (necessitated by the casting), which also came to be part of the meaning.  I tend to feel that's the key in this kind of work - form and content operating in close dialogue with one another.  Our theatrical decisions coming to reveal meaning.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The amazing Song Ru Hui

Song Ru Hui.  Photo: Richard Davenport
I've known, and worked with Song Ru Hui since 2009, when we started the development process for Re-Orientations in Shanghai.  That makes this period of rehearsal for Consumed the fifth block of work we've done together in four years.  It's a fascinating and evolving creative collaboration, made all the more intriguing and challenging by the fact that we don't speak the same language.

Consumed was Hui's idea.  She'd been excited and stimulated by the devising process around Re-Orientations, and wanted the opportunity to develop a new piece with a smaller cast, working on similar lines but with more depth for specific characters.  We've ended up with a three-hander: Hui and two men.

The workshop process in Shanghai last year was actually quite complex for Hui.  Her training and method as a performer is very Stanislavskian - she needs to know everything about a character before she can play her.  That's almost diametrically opposed to my devising approach - where we create scenes, events, happenings - and slowly hang them together until a storyline emerges.  For me, the character is the person who does those things.  The psychology emerges from the events, rather than being there to motivate them.

But the dramaturgical period since the workshop has allowed a strong story to emerge, with three clear characters, each of whom has a very carefully worked out journey.  Our rehearsals over the last few weeks have been about charting that, in a way far closer to Hui's accustomed approach.  And the results are very remarkable.

Serge Soric and I were discussing her acting on the train after rehearsals last week.  It's not just a Stanislavskian, absorbed performance.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, it's a transcendent happening.  I've no idea whether Hui is a religious or spiritual person in any way - although I do feel that she emerges from a heritage of Buddhist culture which empowers the internal life.  It seems to me that acting, for her, is not a craft or a discipline so much as a spiritual practice, a way of being.  More than any actor I have ever worked with, she transforms on stage, becoming more than herself. She takes her art to another dimension, and so transforms the space around her.