Wednesday, December 31, 2014


This Flesh is Mine.  Photo: Richard Davenport
It's been the year that the blog posts got fewer but longer.  Less to do with simply reporting what we've been doing - I guess Facebook and (even more) Twitter have well and truly usurped that function - more to do with commentary, discussion, and engaging in controversies.  And there have certainly been plenty of those.  I suppose it's to be expected, as we began our period of engagement with the Middle East, producing Brian Woolland's wonderful This Flesh is Mine in collaboration with Ashtar Theatre in Palestine.  It's a production of which we are hugely proud, and marks the first in a series of projects around cultural dialogue with this most inspiring and battle-scarred area of the globe.  As the year ends, we are planning its revival, as well as two new productions related to the region, and continuing our community work with Middle Eastern communities and refugees in the UK.  Our community work has been made possible through ongoing support from the Lloyds Bank Foundation - huge thanks to them for allocating funds below the radar, where they don't get publicity but they really do help to change lives for the better.

As part of this engagement in global debates, we've also seen an exciting new development in the Laboratory, with the first of our public conversations around the key issues around our work.  Rustom Bharucha's evening around Terror and Performance was extraordinary and provocative - with lots of stimulation for ways of moving forward our ideas.  In the new year, there will be announcements of further discussions - I can promise fireworks.

It's also been an important year for our work with indigenous cultures.  Origins being a biennial festival had a year off in 2014, but there had to be a lot of planning for 2015, with some really important new partnerships being negotiated.  I'm not allowed to reveal all the plans just yet - but I can offer the teasers that there will be at least one partner of national standing involved, an even greater diversity of countries and art forms represented, and a charismatic figure of global standing to give the Origins Lecture!  So watch this space....

For the last few years, I've used the last post of the year to survey cultural developments and events that I've found particularly exciting.  This year hasn't been the most exciting - perhaps not surprising, given the immense strain on the sector.  There's been a lot of playing safe - and even some of the more radical work has seemed less exciting in terms of content, more in terms of style and technical prowess.  As so often, artists from overseas are showing us what we should be doing.  In one case, Exhibit B, I even had to go overseas to find out, because the show was closed in London in response to protests.  What do we think we are playing at?  This was the most moving piece of theatre I saw all year.  I also loved John Adams' new opera The Gospel According to the Other Mary, stunningly staged by our fabulous Patron Peter Sellars; David Grieg's The Events; and two LIFT shows - Young Jean Lee's The Shipment and the Chilean production The Year I was Born.

Also heart-wrenching was the Belvoir's extraordinary re-imagining of The Wild Duck at the Barbican - I really never thought I would be calling that play an emotional highlight!  Australia also contributed my best film of the year - Charlie's Country at LFF - and two terrific novels.  Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest is both a touching study of encroaching dementia and a crime thriller - you really don't know what's going to happen next.  Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (not yet published here but on Kindle) confirms her as a rich and poetic, authentically Aboriginal voice.  The novel is at once political, lyrical, futuristic and rooted in deep, dreaming time.

Another Australian novel won the Booker - but only just.  I loved Ali Smith's How to be Both, which was pipped at the post.  I read Eyes before Camera, and it felt satisfying that way round, with the emotional climax of the end also making sense of the opening.  I'd love to know what it’s like to unravel it the opposite way...  but of course, I'll never get the chance.  You don't quite get to be both.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Performed in Paris

Macbeth: Nirupama Nityanandan and Serge Nicolaï
I've been in Paris for a couple of days, thanks to Vincent Mangado and Dominique Jambert, two actors from the Théâtre du Soleil who I met on a panel in Cambridge a couple of months ago.  Panels seem to be rather good networking spots - we also owed our time with Zoukak in Beirut to a panel.  I guess you actually get to talk about your artistic ideas if you meet in a public forum...  it cuts the need for small talk!

The current Soleil production is Macbeth.  It's clear to see why Ariane Mnouchkine wanted to tell this particular story at this moment in French history.  It's a very contemporary reading, with TV crews and automated weaponry.  In the English scene, the London Eye rotates in the background, having clearly displaced Big Ben as a symbol of the City.  The Macbeths are a "power couple", surrounded by luxury, clearly wealthy beyond belief, and yet somehow still ambitious for more, to the point of self-destruction.  It's the world of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni - politics as glamour.  Lady Macbeth is first seen supervising the gardeners on their estate.  The intense exchanges after the murder of Duncan take place in a stable, with (very realistic) horses tossing their tails and snorting at every exclamation and every knock.  The murder is discovered as the court prepares for breakfast around a banquet table, complete with self-service bars for the cooked items.

What this achieves really well is an atmosphere of sick opulence coupled with universal suspicion.  The Lady Macduff scene is particularly strong: an entire household of servants assembles to hear the Messenger's warning, and set about burning important papers, dressing the children and packing cases before the murderers arrive.  It's actually very realistic for a Mnouchkine production, continuing a trajectory that she's been on since Le Dernier Caravasérail, which at times it resembles, especially in its regimented scene-changes.  The action is accompanied by an almost constant live musical score - but if anything, this actually serves to make the production feel even more in the mode we tend to accept as realistic, since it brings it closer to the language of film.

There's something unsatisfying in this.  This political world, presented so realistically, sits uneasily with the military background of the play.  The opening war, with the political figures on the battlefield, seems untrue to the contemporary setting.  In the later scenes of the thanes rebelling against Macbeth, there are buried cachés of rifles, torches and bicycles - recalling Ariane's longstanding desire to create a piece about the French Resistance.  Again, it seems to belong to a different world from the contemporary political aggression.  Nor do the supernatural elements of the play fit well with the contemporary realism.  It was difficult to understand who or what the witches were supposed to be, the nature of ghosts and visions in a world that screamed of "rationality".  Only the sleepwalking scene, superbly performed by Nirupama Nityanandan, seemed able to cross the barrier between the suburban and the supernatural.

As ever, it was wonderful to be at the Cartoucherie.  The ritual of eating before the show - cheaply and very well at communal tables - and the extraordinary warmth of the open spaces make attending a performance there a special, holy, public event in a way from which we all should learn.

Exhibit B
I also - at last - got to see Brett Bailey's Exhibit B.  I had thought, after it was closed due to protests in London, that I had missed the chance.  For a time it seemed as if I might miss it again - there were more protests in Paris, and an attempt to close the show through the legal system.  As we approached the performance space, there were gendarmes with guns and crash barriers, checking names every few yards.  This was every bit as intense as the situation had been in London, except that the French authorities had upheld the tradition of Liberté, and supported the performances.  This meant that the debate could be informed by people actually seeing the show, although the protestors refused to do so.  In one particularly striking development, Lilian Thuram, a black footballer from the triumphant 1998 French World Cup team, announced that he would be going a second time, and taking his children.

And this points towards something that, in the midst of the racism row, is very surprising.  Exhibit B is a very tender, compassionate, and deeply moving piece of work.  It is an act of mourning and commemoration.  It serves to educate and to warn, but not to accuse.  It is, I would dare to say, an act of healing.  

The performance begins with the spectators seated, waiting for their individual number to be called, which allows them to enter the exhibition space.  The process has the effect of separating you from friends and companions.  It also feels very tense (something added to by the police presence outside).  This is how asylum seekers must feel at ports: cut off and dehumanised.  Reduced to a number.

You walk past a series of tableaux, each of which features one or two black performers, who are motionless apart from their eyes, with which they deliberately return your gaze.  Each tableau has a caption that contextualises it - and these constantly underline that "onlookers" are part of the exhibit.  You are a part of this.  There are tableaux drawn from the history of "human zoos", evoking the practice of displaying "savage" people from Africa as curiosities, including the display of body parts after their deaths (in some cases until very recently).  There are others that confront the way in which colonialism in Africa assaulted the body - the cutting off of the hands of rubber workers judged to be lax in the Belgian Congo; African women in a concentration camp in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) boiling and scraping their compatriots' skulls clean to send to Germany for pseudoscientific examination.  There is a "coloured" woman from apartheid South Africa, who because of her racial designation could not even sit in a park with her "white" mother.  There are refugees from Somalia and Congo, recently arrived, their lives summarised in a bald list of facts beside them.  There is a a contemporary Somali man strapped in a row of airline seats, his mouth taped shut: in front of him are listed 14 asylum seekers who have died during their forced returns from Europe since the 90s.

It sounds rather simple, rather factual, rather documentary.  But the presence of the living performers makes this drama, theatre.  As Dominique says, they incarnate the people who are remembered here, bringing them into your consciousness as you become aware that you are also in theirs.  This does not have the effect of making you feel accused - but rather allows you to commune directly with the performers, and to sense through them the tragedy of history.  They enable this through their extraordinary stillness and deep, calm concentration: Brett tells me afterwards that the only rehearsal he undertakes with them is a training in meditation.  As you pass by each person, and share time with them, you do honour to those they embody.  It becomes very difficult to move on: you only do so when you are ready, usually with some small physical signal of farewell and of homage.

All this is embraced by beautiful vocal music, emanating from the final tableau, in which four singing heads emerge from plinths, harmonising.  Above them are three photographs: the severed heads of three Namibians.  One of them is a child.

You emerge devastated, but also purged.  There is time to sit quietly, to talk if you need to.  There are people there from the Ligue des droits d l'homme.  There is a space to write your feelings down, if you wish.  I took time to process.  I am attempting to do it now.  But, of course, the whole point is that this intense exchange between bodies and souls in space is beyond mere words.  

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Gospel According to the Other Mary

As people who've been reading this blog for a while will know, I should declare a bit of an interest in the operas of John Adams.  I first got to know Peter Sellars by assisting him on Nixon in China at the ENO.  That led to me reviving that piece, both there and in Athens, and to Peter becoming the Patron of Border Crossings.  His presence in London has given us chance to catch up a bit about the company's activities, and I've been able to pick his teeming brain.  So, if I sound almost insanely enthusiastic about the new opera that Peter has created with John, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am biased.  But somehow, I think it's more than that.  I think this is a very, very important work.

At the Millennium, Peter and John created a piece about the birth of Christ - El Nino - the radical idea being to look at what it was actually the 2000th anniversary of....   That piece combined the Biblical narrative with contemporary texts, mainly from women writers in Latin America.  The Gospel According to the Other Mary has many similarities: this time the women's voices are more from the US itself (apart from Rosario Castellanos), and this time the narrative is the Passion.  Given that Peter has recently staged both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions - he knows the story.  But it's one thing to explore classic works that draw off a Christianity that was shared by the society from which they sprang: it is quite another to create a new piece of sacred music theatre for a globalised age in which religious belief is at best marginalised, at worst viewed with scorn and derision by the "rational" intellectual establishment, headed by Richard Dawkins.  But it is the logical development of all that Peter and John have been doing for years.  Even Nixon, which appeared on the surface satirical and driven by the news agenda, slowly melted into a profound and complex meditation on death, the transience of human life, and the constant potential for renewal contained in both spiritual and political processes - indeed, it made a powerful case for the regeneration of the political through the spiritual.  The Death of Klinghoffer, their piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was similarly informed, and in some ways resembled a Bach Passion in its structure.  It comes as no surprise to learn that Alice Goodman, the librettist of these earlier pieces, is now a Church of England priest.

If I have one criticism of the new work, it is that I miss Alice's voice.  The libretto, assembled by Peter as a collage of texts, is certainly rich and resonant, but perhaps lacks the sense of a narrative drive and cohesion that both the music and the production have in spades.  It's something we address all the time in our own work - how do you balance unity and diversity, the power of authorship with the acknowledgment of the multiple voice?

Which said, Alice's absence from the project allows it to admit the voices of some other truly extraordinary women, and in particular the indigenous voice, which has long echoed in Peter's work, and of course is crucial to our own through the Origins Festival.  The libretto includes texts from Rosario Castellanos, who spent much of her life working with the indigenous people of Chiapas in Mexico - the same indigenous people who have gone on to lead the Zapatista rebellion.  It also includes the poetry of Louise Erdrich, whose Native American voice is at once brutally honest and deeply engaged with the natural world.  For indigenous culture, concepts like resurrection, which westerners find laughable, are built into the workings of the world.  And so the resurrection sequence of this Gospel begins with the fact that the spring regenerates the world.  In Louise's words:

"The tiny frogs pull their strange new bodies out of suckholes."

The indigenous voice, and other voices of the marginalised, serve to locate this Gospel alongside social activism in the contemporary world.  There are allusions to drug rehabilitation, to the bonded labour of Hispanic migrant workers in the US of today, to César Chávez and the United Farm Workers' 100-mile march.  There is the presence of African-American street dance - an art form of urban protest if ever there was one.  The Mary of the title is an amalgam of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany - but what matters about her is not so much that she is Mary as that she is Other.  It is at the edges of society - where people have lost everything, where there are no daily comforts to sustain the illusions through which life is endured in late capitalism - it is there, this opera asserts, that the miracle can occur.

And the miraculous, in this opera, is not merely metaphysical or disembodied.  There is a constant erotic charge in the piece - related both to Mary's self-destructive aspects (Louise Erdrich again:

"I will drive boys
to smash empty bottles on their brows.
I will pull them right out of their skins.
It is the old way that girls
get even with their father -
by wrecking their bodies on other men." )

and to the intimations of redemption offered by Jesus.  I had worried when I heard that Jesus was never seen as a character - this could very easily go into Ben-Hur style "Let us not approach the sacred" - but in fact the production constantly plays with the whole idea of incarnation as expressed in performance, with the singers shifting in and out of "character", each being doubled by a dancer, and frequently taking the words or presence of Jesus into other bodies.  This means that you get a very strong sense of his living, embodied presence - in fact more so than you would if he were played by a single performer.    The sexual charge generated between Mary and the various manifestations of this living and dying body are incredibly forceful in both the music and the staging - especially in the colossally talented New York street dancer Banks.  What is evoked in this energising of the space between bodies is the presence of logos - not in the Authorised Version's sense of "word", but as Erasmus more accurately translated it - "the conversation".  "In the beginning was the conversation....  the conversation was made flesh and dwelt among us".

In this production, music, the body, set and light are all in constant motion.  As in life, nothing every stops.  It evolves.  And so we receive an incredibly powerful sense of a grace that does not dwell in a received and immutable doctrine, but in the vibrant interchanges between distinct and diverse beings, alive in thought and word and breath and body.