Sunday, February 21, 2016

Spirit Festival

Natasha Wanganeen MCs
I'm in Adelaide for the Spirit Festival - South Australia's indigenous gathering - and was thrilled to find an old friend, Natasha Wanganeen, was the MC for the main concert event.  Natasha, who I first spotted in Rabbit-Proof Fence, played Doolie in our production of Bullie's House: the start of our indigenous work, way back in 2004.  There's previously unseen video material about that show online now - click here!

At the centre of the festival yesterday was a ceremonial mourning event for the Elder Auntie Josie Agius, who I was lucky enough to meet when I was last in Adelaide in 2012. Auntie Josie passed away in January - so I was very surprised to hear her name being spoken very openly throughout the ceremony, printed in the programme etc..  There is a strong tradition in indigenous Australian communities that the name of someone who has recently passed is not spoken - often for as long as eight years.  They are not talked about directly for a long time, and looking on their image is forbidden.  This is an anthropologist's nightmare - and also explains why, for example, there have been no productions of Uncle Jack Davis's plays since his death.  It also explains why Australian films, books and websites often feature warnings that they may contain images of people who have died in recent years.

During the evening, I find myself sitting next to Auntie Josie's son, and I ask him about this.  "We can do that now", he tells me, explaining that there is a video in the South Australia Museum's Aboriginal galleries (wonderful, by the way!) of Auntie Josie talking about her culture, and that special permission was sought to keep it.  It's clearly of comfort and value to him that his mother's memory is being valued so publicly - so the shift away from tradition is a positive one for him.  But at the same time, I can't help feeling a little disturbed that something so culturally specific and distinct should be ebbing away.   How we mourn tells us so much about who we are. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Encounter

Simon McBurney in The Encounter

I first saw Simon McBurney perform in Edinburgh, 30 years ago, in A Minute Too LateComplicite’s smash-hit show about death.  He was amazing – I’ve followed his work ever since.  The Encounter is his most brilliant piece of work yet.

A Minute Too Late was largely a response to the death of Simon’s father – and in this new piece, his father is present again, as a ghostly trace surviving only on a solitary VHS tape.  His children are present too, particularly his six-year old daughter, whose recorded voice is so clear as Simon addresses an empty space that her presence is palpable.  His work often has this deeply personal element to it – like Robert Lepage, even maybe Yeats, he is happy to employ his art as a confessional, or perhaps a therapeutic space.  So, after 30 years, I feel that I know him intimately.  We have actually had two conversation – once when he came to see Nixon in China, and once on a tube, where we talked about working in Asia.  He is as shy, nervy and endearingly anxious in person as he seems on stage. 

For me, The Encounter was particularly powerful because it represents an encounter with indigenous people, the Mayoruna of the Amazon to be precise.  On one level, it’s the story of an encounter between them and the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre.  On another, it’s Simon’s own encounter with the same people.  Always a believer in authenticity, he retraced McIntyre’s steps in making the show.  And, on another level, it is our encounter – with Simon, with McIntyre, with the story, and so with the Mayoruna too.  And that makes it an encounter with ourselves as well: as Simon says at the start of the show, we are defined by the stories that we tell, by the narratives into which we invest ourselves.  By immersing ourselves in this story, allowing ourselves on some level to experience the very different world of the Mayoruna, we become slightly different people.  I would say, better people.  People with an expanded and deepened humanity. 

Much of the discussion about this performance has centred on the technology, and it’s true that it is amazing.  Even for someone like me - whose hearing difficulty means he can’t use the binaural headphones and has to have the whole thing channelled into one ear – the quality of the sound experience is incredible.  In an epic space like the Barbican, the acting can be incredibly intimate and personal, as if Simon were inside your head.  Which, in a way, he is. 

Because The Encounter is also about the possibilities of human communication.  During his time with the Mayoruna, cut off from his own world, McIntyre was convinced that the Elder, whom he nicknamed Barnacle, was talking to him in a language he could understand.  He heard Barnacle speaking inside his head, telepathically, without any words being uttered or language being used.  The narrative would seem to suggest that this communication was real: what McIntyre heard Barnacle say was always true. 

This kind of strange experience is not all that uncommon in relation to indigenous cultures.  There are different ways of thinking, being and relating in other people’s worlds, which may well involve phenomena we do not yet know through science.  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.   When he talked about the piece on the radio, Simon said that he’d spoken to the Mayoruna about the idea of consciousness, asking them where they understood their sense of self to be.  Every time he asked this, in whatever way, they pointed to the forest.  If the self is not in the head but in the environment, then maybe it’s only a small step to communicate between two selves within that wider consciousness.

Is this a form of magic?  Certainly the show is magical – it has the alchemic quality of theatre, transforming things into other things.  At the start, Simon is very careful to explain how it’s all done, how the technology works.  Through the two hours, we watch him working it.  We can see how it’s done.  And that’s what is really magical about this piece – that the magic comes from our imaginative collusion, or complicity, in this transformative process.  It is an act of faith, just like that which McIntyre placed in Barnacle.  A faith that saved his life. 

And yes – I know it’s usually “your philosophy” – but the First Folio says “our” and I prefer it.  Hamlet counts himself amongst the ignorant – as any thinking person surely must.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Brook's Battlefield

Battlefield: Ezy Nzaramba
The late Pierre Boulez, David Attenborough and Peter Brook all seem to be proving it: 90 is the age to be.  Many cultures have known for a long time that we need to value our Elders - at last the West seems to be catching up.  And Brook's production Battlefield, created at the age of 90, is actually his finest work for some time.

It's a return to the territory of his famous Mahabharata production - although where that was epic and vast, this is intimate, brief and personal.  This seems to me to offset some of the criticisms Rustom Bharucha made of Mahabharata: unlike the earlier production, Battlefield does not turn the Hindu myth into a Hollywood blockbuster or a Shakespearean tragedy.  Rather, it makes it the occasion for contemplation, introspection, and a complex emotional journey.  The play begins after the climax of Mahabharata, the great war, and deals with the question Eliot asked of the contemporary age: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"

It is an urgent, necessary question for an artist to be asking at the end of his life, in what may well be his last piece of work.  In many ways, the play embodies that sense of an unending quest, with older characters attempting to make sense of the world they are about to leave.  Bhishma, who can only die with his own agreement, clings to life in the face of a mortal wound, speaking of how a dying man can long for honey.  When at last he leaves his body, in a moment of extraordinary theatrical simplicity and  power, it is his mother, the River goddess Ganga, who expresses a terrifying, astonishing grief.

I'm making it all sound quite heavy - but actually the play is full of humour too, with Bhishma and other characters telling parables, which are winningly enacted using only cloths and sticks for set and props.  The story of the worm crossing the road who loves his life is at once endearing and provocative.

Being Brook, all of this leads towards a spiritual meaning; and, being Hindu, that meaning is essentially one of resignation.  Yudishtira, left to rule in the aftermath of the war, comes to accept the suffering that has gone before, recognising it as yet another "illusion" (the Sanskrit term is Maya).  Both Michael Billington and Aleks Sierz have challenged this in their reviews of the production, asking whether we can really accept (say) the suffering of the Syrian refugees as something of no real consequence.  This dismissal of human pain could seem particularly callous in relation to the play, given the presence of Rwandan performer Carole Karemera at its heart.  Hinduism can be criticised for its acquiescence in human suffering, partly the result of its cultural origins in India, and its role in the maintenance of power structures.  However, in absolute terms, the theology is right - human lives are tiny, inconsequential things in terms of the scale of space and time, of course they are.  But, as Sartre argued, that doesn't mean we should not care about them - it simply means we have to acknowledge that it is our own decision to choose morality, and that the compassion we feel for the Syrian child or the Rwandan widow is our own compassion, willed and active.  Strangely, this makes our humanity more significant, rather than less.  It is Carole Karemera who gives expression to this deep grief in our condition, through the prolonged wail of the bereaved mother-goddess.