Wednesday, June 04, 2014

This Flesh is Mine: a playwright's response

This Flesh is Mine: Iman Aoun as Hecuba.  Photo: Richard Davenport

This is a guest blog, written by Tim Grana, who contacted us after seeing This Flesh is Mine.  Tim is a playwright residing in St. Albans and currently working on a Shandean play based on the life of Laurence Sterne.

I did not ‘see’ This Flesh is Mine: rather, I was utterly immersed in a thoroughly gripping and visceral experience of what theatre—and only theatre—can, at its very best, do in illuminating and enriching our understanding of humanity.  It was a magnificent production of a brilliant play, one that not only captures the senses and emotions during performance but continues to resonate in the mind thereafter, confronting us as it does with those unquiet questions that will not be stilled by facile answers.   

Among the play’s many remarkable achievements is the seeming effortlessness with which it immediately conducts a modern audience into a genuinely ‘Homeric’ world. But not in the sense of an ‘adaptation’: it is a full-bodied re-creation of what it must have been for an ancient audience hearing a minstrel singing the Iliad: thrilling stuff, bursting with vitality, energy— with drama-- nothing like the often stilted or literary translations that we know.  This Flesh is Mine follows the Iliad in tapping down into the deepest strata of raw humanity, in precise and economical verse pitch-perfect to each character, and thereby unearths the fundamental drama inherent from the conflicting drives of our human nature.

The play takes us into a timeless realm of human universals, our modern world and the world of antiquity bleeding into one another by degrees, for human emotion is both timeless and universal, whether in actions of heroism or folly, or capacity for insight or self-delusion.  There really isn’t any ‘partisanship’ in Homer, in that the Trojans can be as heroic (and as foolish) as the Greeks, everyone can offer ‘good’ reasons for foolish actions, and there is something in the human condition that ever pulls us into tragedy if we are not wary—and often enough, even when we do perceive that risk but cannot find the saving graces of compassion, and forgiveness.  And that, I think, is how this play, which draws so deeply from the ancient wisdom of Homer’s drama, can speak so eloquently to our modern times.  There is no simple mapping of the players of the Trojan War onto the current parties of the Middle East, but there is a compelling illumination of human folly, intransigence, machismo—but also the faint but precious flickers of real courage, insight, and humility without which we must all perish.  It’s remarkable that there really aren’t any villains in Homer, just human folly, and an acknowledgement of the inevitability of that folly:  we can at once celebrate Achilles’ courage, strength and valour while witnessing the horror and devastation such ‘virtues’ unleash.  The play brought to mind a favourite quote from the American Civil War leader, Robert E. Lee: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”  

Andrew French as Achilles.  Photo: Richard Davenport
The characterisations of Achilles and of Hecuba were particular highlights for me, compelling and complex characters, with different facets of their inner selves coming into view as the play progressed.   Achilles remained attractive and sympathetic to us even in his most deluded and petulant moments—even, indeed, when desecrating the corpse of Hector.  And the depths of strength, sorrow, and suppressed rage that would bubble up from within Hecuba were among some of the strongest moments for me.

Many other delights in the play could be highlighted:  the skilled portrayal of the complex relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, or the playful suggestion that the hunt for Helen would be as futile as that for the phantom WMDs of Saddam—and by extension, that to search for ‘cause’ in conflicts that may have been raging even before our own births may do nothing to resolve them. 

 In one brief moment only did I feel the play lose a little focus, in the scene in which Patroclus seeks to borrow the unmistakable armour of Achilles, for he “cannot stand by”, as Achilles in his wrath can, while their fellow Achaeans are perishing in the face of the Trojan counterattack.  Achilles agrees to Patroclus’ request—too easily, I felt—and helps him don it for battle.  But on reflection I think this was not a fault in either the script or the performance, but for once simply in the distance between Homer’s world and our own.  As consuming as his wrath toward Agamemnon may be, Achilles’ love for Patroclus is greater—and through that love he acknowledges Patroclus’ need to fight for the sake of his own sense of honour.  If this is not too trivial an analogy, I suppose this must be something like the love that compels us, despite our fear, to loan the car keys to the teenaged son who has freshly won his driving licence. 

My one significant crit would be:  this play needs a longer run and a much wider audience. Even more specifically, I think Messers Bush, Blair, and Netanyahu should be compelled to attend a performance—and in an ideal world, that performance in a prison in which those gentlemen were detained without possibility of parole.  Well, like Achilles, I say, “A man can dream…”

Tim Grana

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The matter of Visas

Edward Muallem and Razan Alazzeh recording a scene for This Flesh is Mine
Now that a week has passed since the last performance of This Flesh is Mine (last for now, I should probably say), I feel I can finally talk a bit in public about the fact that two of our Palestinian colleagues, Razan Alazzeh and Emile AndrĂ©, didn't make it to London.  If you came to the show and got a programme, you will have seen that their roles were taken, at the last minute, by two very proficient Arabic actors based in London, Jumaan Short and Tariq Jordan.  Somehow we managed to find them within 24 hours of our return to London from Ramallah - so they had a week to work on the play before it went in front of a London audience.  That happened also to be the week when we were doing technical and dress rehearsals - but it is actually possible for an actor to step in to a production at that stage, because the production itself is already very formed, so they can work everything out much more quickly from all that is going on around them.  I was lucky that the two actors hardly every coincided on stage - so they could respond to other performers who had already worked for a month. All of which meant that Razan and Emile continued, in a way, to be very present in the piece.  Jumaan and Tariq did not give the same performances - far from it - but the ghosts of those performances, and the experience that those Palestinian actors brought to the roles, informed every moment of the play.

What had happened was that their visa applications had been rejected - we found out the morning after our wonderful preview performances in Ramallah, the day before we were due to fly home.  It wasn't a case of direct political interference to prevent Palestinian performers coming to London - though that wouldn't have surprised me in a climate where the ENO was unable to bring Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, and the Lebanese authorities have recently confiscated the passport of Lucien Bourjeily to stop him participating in LIFT.  Nevertheless, it was political, in way that is more subtle and so all the more insidious.

Put simply, the forms weren't filled in correctly.  The Ashtar administrators sent a supporting letter from us, inviting the performers to appear in the play, and ticked the box saying "tourist visa".  They should, of course, have ticked "business".  Why didn't they?  Well - Ashtar previously came to London in 2012, to present Richard II as part of the Globe to Globe Festival; and the events of the Cultural Olympiad were given a special dispensation - a tourist visa and a letter of invitation were considered enough, even for Palestinians.  It's not surprising that, having done this once, the company thought it would be a simple matter to do the same again.

My question is this: why was 2012 a special case?  During the Olympics, we wanted to show that London was an international cultural capital, that it welcomed artists, that it welcomed the world.  But that is clearly not the default position.  In fact, it's just a lie.  For a few weeks, when it suited the PR campaign, the doors were open.  The default position, to which we immediately returned, is one of suspicion and xenophobia.  If there is any excuse not to grant a visa, it will not be granted.

Something similar happened to us in 2007, when a group of Ghanian performers were denied visas because one of them, having been born in a rural area, did not know her date of birth.  On that occasion, the British Council in Accra made the case to the Consulate, and the decision was at once overturned.  This time, even though the British Council was actively (and financially) involved in the project, they could do nothing.  Because the visa service now has very little to do with the Consular Service.  It has been "out-sourced".  Privatised.

The spin around privatisation is always that it saves red tape and cuts costs.  Our experience indicates quite the opposite.  The privatised visa system is clearly much MORE bureaucratic and impersonal than the public one.  It is also much more of a drain on the public purse: the British Council's investment in flights for these Palestinian actors was largely wasted as a result of the visa decision.  So one arm of government undermines another.  Hardly the way to cut the deficit.

Two more facts - just to underline the absurdity of the whole thing.  Razan lives in Paris, though she retains her Palestinian citizenship.  So, when she didn't get the visa, we thought we could simply buy her a connecting flight from Heathrow to get her home.  No.  Palestinians need a visa even to transit through a UK airport.  So that was a whole new flight that had to be bought.  However, one of our Palestinian actors, Iman, was able to travel to the UK with us.  Why?  Because, by accident of residency in the disputed territory of Jerusalem, she is able to travel under an Israeli passport.  And, of course, Israelis can travel to and do business in the UK without a visa.  They are above suspicion.