Sunday, November 27, 2022

The ENO tragedy

My production of Die Valkyrie at ENO - 2002

The latest NPO announcements were, to say the least, drastic, and there's inevitably been a lot of very vocal reaction.  It's perhaps unfortunate that so much attention has been paid to the ENO being cut, given that so many other decisions were also very impactful. However, I'm not going to apologise for yet another blog post about the ENO, because 1) it's one of the national companies and so it absolutely deserves to be debated and 2) I have skin it this game.  

I first worked with ENO back in 1998, as Assistant Director on Nicholas Hytner's famous Xerxes: a production that I've since been able to revive both at the Coliseum and in the USA. The next year, I assisted Peter Sellars on Nixon in China: and so began a friendship which has been immensely beneficial to Border Crossings. Peter has been our Patron for years, and a very active one, giving talks both in person and online, as well as offering me an artistic sounding board.  I also worked with Deborah Warner, Phyllida Lloyd (a lot!), Calixto Bieito, Atom Egoyan....  I worked with conductors who taught me how to work with music, and singers whose ability to act through the voice made me understand a whole new layer of performance.  A lot of the protest about ENO's de-funding has focused on this aspect of the company - that it develops younger artists who go on to "make wonderful international careers" - but that surely isn't the point of public subsidy. The point of public subsidy is that the work is good in and of itself - and much of what we did in the first years of the 21st century was, I believe, exceptional. I remain incredibly proud of having directed the entire Ring cycle for the company, in a staging that made sense of the text's complexity and nuance, while acknowledging its elemental power and its simultaneously mythic and human scales. 

I know that's a subjective judgement, all the more so because it's a judgement on something I directed myself. But this actually goes to the heart of the problem, which is that it's very difficult to assess the quality of art, and theatrical art perhaps most of all. Because theatre is ephemeral, you can't be wise after the event. If you produce the theatrical equivalent of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and get the same response he did, there will be no future critics able to re-assess your genius after you've lopped your ear off. There was a time when "artistic quality" was the main measure by which the Arts Council evaluated organisations, but it proved too slippery for government, too subjective, too unquantifiable. As a result, the main criteria by which the arts are assessed, and therefore financed, have become politically volatile - with results the ENO and others are now experiencing.  

Under New Labour, the arts were instrumentalised as a catalyst for social change. Long before #BlackLivesMatter, there was a strong emphasis on supporting artists from minority backgrounds, particularly if their work was also seen to be reaching audiences from those same backgrounds. This funding priority is still significant in cultural policy, although it now sits alongside other criteria, added during the period of Tory rule that began in 2010. Encouraging arts organisations to develop as businesses is a really significant aspect of this. Think, for example, of the Catalyst programme (which we went through): a politically motivated initiative encouraging artistic companies to learn from the American model of private philanthropy, with little understanding of the very different cultural context in the US.  Think also of the consultancy firms who have been moving in on larger organisations, restructuring, prioritising and measuring the deliverables. Rishi Sunak feels like the obvious person to emerge as Prime Minister in response to recent cultural history - but it's not because he's the first Asian to lead a UK government, so much as the first person with an MBA. 

Before his arrival Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries had thrown one more policy consideration at the Arts Council in the form of the "levelling up" agenda, and that has been of huge importance to the most recent NPO round. It sounds laudable enough in theory - the idea was presumably that deprived areas (also known as former "Red Wall" seats) should be offered cultural opportunities to match wealthier parts of the country. The problem is that this self-evidently requires more funding for culture, not less. The only way the beleaguered Arts Council could allocate more money to some localities was to offer less to others. London was particularly targeted. A cynic might point out that London, with its exceptional theatre and opera, voted overwhelmingly Remain and is almost entirely Labour. And that the cultural provision and the politics of empathy are deeply connected.

The irony of all this in relation to the ENO is that the company had actually been very good at responding to the winds of political change. There are far more Black artists and staff there. They have exceptional access schemes and educational provision for young people. Their NPO bid actually included a proposal for a new arm of the company, called NEO, to tour outside London. And they got the consultants in...  of course they did.

One aspect of the NPO decisions that has not received the attention it should is how few of the organisations now funded are actually led by artists. It used to be a given that any arts organisation existed to follow an artistic vision, and that vision was provided by an artistic leader. Not any more. Most major organisations are now led by Executive Directors, who may not have the public profile of the Artistic Director, but are in fact senior to them, and make the key decisions. Art is now subordinate to "business sense".  

So here's another irony in relation to the ENO. As Mark Wigglesworth (a former artistic leader at the company) pointed out in his excellent piece for the Guardian, ENO did what it was told and asked the consultants McKinsey to help solve the financial challenges posed by an earlier cut. The logic of the response made sound business sense - do less opera so your costs go down. As Mark says: "The idea that you could expect the same amount of taxpayers’ money for doing less of the kind of work that required it was clearly problematic." There are other possible solutions, of course. There could be more productions like my Ring: done on a smaller budget, focussing on the acting and the music. The bizarre idea that a "successful" production is one that survives for thirty years could be jettisoned in favour of a theatrical approach which responds quickly to the historical moment of performance: and this would also serve to distinguish ENO more clearly from the Royal Opera, to which it has come to seem a sad second best, rather than a genuine alternative. But these are artistic decisions, and they need artists to make them.  Sound business sense will not make art.

I hope the ENO may somehow survive - of course I do. But if it doesn't, and that seems likely, then the crucial lesson for the sector is NOT that we need to become more business savvy, but that we need to become more imaginative, and to recognise that our organisations exist to support artistic visions - not the other way round.  


Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Invasions

Paul Coe and Cecil Patten planting the Aboriginal flag on Dover Beach in 1976

On Monday, 31st October 2022, Home Secretary Suella Braverman described the arrival of refugees and migrants in small boats from across the Channel as an "invasion". It was an extraordinary use (or abuse) of language, but one characteristic of post-Brexit Britain, where, as Fintan O'Toole argues in his superb book Heroic Failure, there is a deliberate appropriation of victimhood by the former imperial power. Quite how people who have fled persecution in Iran or Afghanistan, or ongoing civil war in Syria, risking their lives in a small boats because there are no safe legal routes to Britain, can be regarded as "invaders" is beyond belief. How a country that seeks to deport them to Rwanda, a country with a very dubious human rights record, can be regarded as the innocent victim is equally bizarre. 

An invasion, just to be clear, is an act of aggression. It demonstrates an intention to possess the land invaded and to dominate its population.

Of course, the linguistic twist is deliberate. By casting Britain as the victim and the refugees as powerful aggressors, fear is unleashed and prejudice is compounded. The day before Braverman's pronouncement, a right-wing terrorist had attacked a migrant centre in Dover. If the migrants are constructed as aggressors, then his murderous bombing becomes an act of righteous self-defence. It's very dangerous.

There have been, and are, real invasions around the world. The invasion of Ukraine was a real invasion by a powerful state intent on acquiring more territory. The colonial invasions which Britain made against the lands now known as (for example) Australia and Canada were also real invasions. In these cases, however, the prevailing discourse in Britain tends to use terms like "discovery", so as to shift the moral balance. It was an important milestone when the City of Sydney chose to describe Cook's landing as an invasion in its official documentation. Since then, "Australia Day" is frequently referred to as "Invasion Day" by Indigenous activists and their allies, with a hugely different emotional resonance.

A few months ago, we unveiled a plaque on Dover Beach, of all places, to commemorate the actions of Aboriginal activists Paul Coe and Cecil Patten in 1976. Pointing up the illegal and aggressive nature of colonial actions, they staged an "invasion" of Britain, planting their flag on the beach and writing to the Prime Minister to explain that they now ruled his country. It was very funny - and it showed the absurdity of the original colonial claim.  

Here's a link to our video about the "Aboriginal Invasion".  I recommend it to the Home Secretary. 

   

Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Invisible Exchange

Ian McKellen as Bosola - NT 1986

Since Brian Woolland was kind enough to write a long and detailed post about how his new novel, The Invisible Exchange, was rooted in his collaborations with Border Crossings, it’s the least I can do to respond with a (rather shorter) appreciation of his achievement!  

There aren’t many historical novels where you spend your time wanting to know what happens next. We all know that Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette got their heads chopped off. Even when the historical narrative is less well known, like the story of Frances Howard that underpins The Invisible Exchange, Google has a nasty habit of giving the game away.  But Brian’s novel bashes the historical genre up against the thriller, with a central character and a main plot line unknown to recorded history, and - when you think about it - not only entirely compatible with the known facts, but in some way essential to their having happened at all. By placing an underground fixer, Matthew Edgworth, at the centre of the story, Brian turns the novel into a real page-turner, while also subtly pointing out that the dominant aristocratic and royal narrative of text book history is not the only one. Matthew’s name says it all - he may live on the edge, but that doesn’t make him worthless. The picture my imagination formed of him was Ian McKellen as Bosola, in Philip Prowse’s National Theatre production of The Duchess of Malfi back in the 80s. Like Bosola, Matthew is dependent on the aristocrats whose dirty work he performs, and sees through their self-seeking machinations. Like Bosola, he encounters Bridewells and Bedlams, wise women and whores. In one particularly vivid sequence, he enters an almost psychedelic world of the subconscious, when he encounters the scrying mirror of Dr John Dee.  That mirror has Aztec provenance, and is now in the British Museum.

The novel begins with a variant of the “bed trick”. It’s a narrative device as old as the Bible, but most common in plays from the Jacobean era: the period in which the novel is set. The bed trick crops up in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, and in Middleton's The Changeling: but its most sophisticated outing is in John Marston’s The Insatiate Countess. Frances Howard was, of course, a Countess at the centre of a sexual scandal - and The Changeling draws heavily on her story. Marston himself puts in a cameo appearance in the novel. The bed trick is performed by Alice, who is a Dutch Courtesan (Marston again). Like Bosola, Matthew Edgworth is a Malcontent - a common figure in Jacobean drama, and the title of yet another Marston play.

So The Invisible Exchange is also an entertaining piece of playful post-modernism, but without the ostentatious whizz-kidding. You don’t have to get all the allusions to be engaged and compelled by Matthew’s story - but if you unravel some of the literary puzzle, it makes you realise how culture and narrative do not simply respond to an historical moment, but serve to shape it.  It’s this that makes The Invisible Exchange as contemporary as it is historical. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The lasting benefits of collaboration

Guest blog by Brian Woolland

discussing his new novel The Invisible Exchange


Working with Border Crossings

I first met Michael Walling in 1996 at a conference at Reading University, Ben Jonson and Theatre, where Michael had been invited to lead a workshop on Jonson’s Poetaster. Since then we have worked together in several different capacities. We’ve established a warm friendship and a working relationship that has been very productive. I readily acknowledge that my collaborations with Border Crossings have all been greatly influential on my writing, but this blog is specifically about the evolution of my new novel, The Invisible Exchange (published at the end of July 2022), and how working with Border Crossings has been so significant in its development.

I’ve written three plays for Border Crossings – Double Tongue (2001/2002), This Flesh is Mine (2014) , and When Nobody Returns (2016). I also took an active part in The Promised Land project. The development of each of the plays involved extensive research, workshops and discussions – with Michael, the casts and those with interests in the subject matter. The processes of preparing and writing a play might seem very different from writing a historical novel set in the early C17th, but there are surprising similarities.

The historical background to the novel

Frances Howard

I first became aware of the story of Frances Howard at about the time that Michael and I first met, when I was a lecturer in theatre at Reading University, and much of my work was focused on early C17th theatre. Contemporary events are often referred to in plays of the period. Aspects of Frances Howard’s extraordinary story are alluded to (albeit thinly disguised) in several plays of the period – perhaps most notably those by Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton and John Webster. Frances Howard was the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard (Earl of Suffolk). In 1604, at the age of fourteen, she was married to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, who was about six months younger than her. The arranged marriage was intended as a political reconciliation between two immensely powerful families. But the marriage was a disaster. Despite his inability (or unwillingness) to consummate the marriage, Essex became intensely jealous of his wife’s popularity at court, and he insisted she leave London and live at Chartley Manor, his moated mansion house in Staffordshire, where Mary Queen of Scots had been held under house arrest immediately prior to her execution. Frances was there for much of the summer and early autumn of 1611. 

On 25th September 1613, her marriage was annulled, and thus she became the first Englishwoman to successfully seek her own divorce – but in a deeply misogynist society she paid a terrible price for her fierce intelligence and independent spirit. Two years after marrying her second husband (Viscount Rochester, formerly Robert Carr) she was accused of murdering Sir Thomas Overbury, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. No evidence was produced at her trial which would stand up in a modern law court, and she was not permitted to defend herself despite having to suffer a stream of damning accusations which amounted to little more than malicious libels. The central argument against her was that she was a ‘creature of the deed’ – meaning that if she dared to initiate her own divorce proceedings, then she must be capable of murder.

The story fascinated me for numerous reasons. Frances’s trial revealed so much – not only about misogyny, but also about corruption at the heart of the Stuart court. I was intrigued by the parallels with our so-called ‘modern’ times. Frances was treated as a femme fatale who was branded by her prosecutor as so evil that she wasn’t allowed to speak in her own defence at her trial. The murder of Sir Thomas Overbury resulted in the execution of four ‘bit-part players’ and the imprisonment Frances and Rochester (by then they had become Earl and Countess of Somerset). Frances pleaded guilty to the charge of murder, though it seems likely that this was a kind of plea-bargaining because by then she and Rochester had a daughter, and the family was allowed to live together in relative comfort in the Tower. That in itself is very strange, for if they had been genuinely guilty of murder they would almost certainly have been executed. After seven years in the Tower, however, they were pardoned by King James, and released.

All of this intrigued me, although I had no idea how I would write a novel about it – until I came across rumours in contemporary pamphlets which referred to persistent rumours that Frances was seen in and around London during the period when Essex kept her under virtual house arrest at his mouldering manor house in Staffordshire. There is no evidence in the historical records that she was spirited out of Chartley, but for me it provoked ‘the big suppose’ that gave me starting point for the novel that became The Invisible Exchange. 

Points of view

When Michael and I first met, we naturally talked about shared interests. One of those interests was the theatre of Ben Jonson. Jonson was a complex man who wore his contradictions proudly. In some ways he was a conservative. In his poetry he often champions the stability of an old order, but in his plays he positions those from the underclasses and in the social margins at the very centre, he gives them real agency and invests them with wit and energy that far surpasses their social ‘superiors’. As Peter Barnes (who also participated in that conference) put it: 'Jonson never writes about Kings and Queens, that whole moth-eaten hierarchy of privilege and incompetence, but about people like us, working people who work to live...' (1). It was exactly those qualities that appealed so much to me and which also attracted me to the work of Border Crossings, for one of the defining characteristics of the company’s work is the desire to give voice to those who have been socially, politically, historically and geographically marginalised.

Although Frances Howard was an aristocrat (her family was said to be one of the wealthiest in the Kingdom) she has been marginalised by the Jacobean ‘justice’ system and by historians until very recently. I was interested in the way the story revealed the ways that institutionalised misogyny vilified and silenced her. (2) I started on a version in which the story was told predominantly from her point of view, but I found that didn’t enable me to reveal the mechanisms of that misogyny. I continued working on the novel in various different versions over many years, setting it aside for long periods while I worked on other projects, then returning to it. It was there in the background while I worked with Border Crossings on the two Homer plays and on The Promised Land project.

The workshops with Zoukak Theatre in Beirut (3) had a profound impact on me, and on the development of This Flesh is Mine. I took a series of early drafts of scenes which I imagined would form the spine of the finished play. As in The Iliad itself, these episodes were predominantly from the point of view of Achilles. In response to those workshops the play changed in many ways. As I wrote in an earlier blog:

Perhaps the most important single change in my thinking was to realise the importance of Briseis in the narrative. She is only mentioned twice in The Iliad – in the opening pages and the final pages. The … ‘spine’ of scenes referred to above… now becomes what is effectively Act One – which is set in an ancient world.  The characters – Achilles, Agamemnon, Briseis, Hecuba, amongst others – continue through to the second act; which is set in a modern world. In Act One, the modern bleeds into the classical; and in Act Two, the classical bleeds through into the modern. And what starts with Achilles as the central character … gradually shifts focus to Briseis and Hecuba. (4)

This Flesh is Mine

The conversations with Michael and with the workshop participants at Zoukak (and at a later stage with the Palestinian actors of Ashtar Theatre) resulted in major changes to the play that became This Flesh is Mine. On a more sub-conscious level, these conversations affected my thinking about the historical novel (which was gently simmering on a back burner at that time). When I returned to working on it, I knew that I needed to use a different narrative voice, to find a central character who would have the potential to engage a reader through an unusual perspective – in short, an equivalent to Briseis. He or she would be an outsider, who had access to the corridors of power, who knew the world of the Jacobean court but was not part of it. I wrote several chapters from the point of view of a gentleman usher. I wrote chapters through the eyes of Frances’s personal maid. But found that their social roles made them too passive. They could observe, but not affect what they saw. I needed a character who could exert more agency. 

And so, after several false starts, I experimented with telling the story through the eyes of a character who had been a relatively minor player in earlier drafts – Matthew Edgworth, a rogue and a fixer who’s employed by Rochester to enable his affair with Frances. Matthew is a fictional character, although the world he inhabits is thoroughly researched. In the novel he talks briefly about how much he learnt from going to the theatres from an early age. I didn’t consciously create him in the tradition of those Jacobean malcontents who breathe such wit and dark energy into some of the plays of the period – for example, Edmund in King Lear, Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, Flamineo in The White Devil (both by John Webster), De Flores in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling – but that is what Matthew became, a cross between a malcontent servant determined to break the glass ceiling and a Jonsonian trickster. As Matthew puts it (for the novel is written in his voice), “I’ve never had my master’s looks but I’m no fuckwit. If a smockfaced page can rise to favour, I too can make my way in the world, even if my scarred face will never decorate the pillows of the powerful.” Matthew’s story began to develop a life of its own. The overweening ambition and ruthless cunning that he’s inherited from his dramatic ancestors drives the novel’s plot, but it also serves an additional function, giving him access to the palaces and grand houses of the aristocracy, as well as the murky underworld of Jacobean London – the taverns, the gambling dens, the brothels and the prisons. 

When Nobody Returns – seeing from inside and outside

Although I cannot identify a specific moment during the development process for When Nobody Returns which is an equivalent to those workshops with Zoukak, it’s clear to me with hindsight that the discussions with Michael and the cast, and with the workshop participants (5) led me to write a play in which each of the three central characters, Telémakhos, Penelope and Odysseus, is in some ways an ‘outsider’. Telémakhos and Penelope have been forced to become outsiders in their own homeland because of the occupation. At the start of the play (and of The Odyssey) Telémakhos is twenty years old, the same age his father was when he left home to fight in the Trojan War. He hears rumours about his father, and is determined to discover the truth about them, so he leaves for mainland Greece to seek out those who knew his father. His identity is bound up with knowing his father, living up to (or living down) the stories he hears about him. When he reaches the court of Menelaus he becomes a stranger in a strange land, and on returning to Ithaka and finally meeting his father, his sense of self, of what is right, of what is necessary to rid the island of the occupation, is profoundly challenged. 

When Nobody Returns

The main character in When Nobody Returns may be Odysseus, but the point of view in the play shifts. We see the occupation of Ithaka through the eyes of Penelope; and, as in Homer, it is Telémakhos’s curiosity that takes him to the court of Menelaus, where he hears stories about his father. Penelope has become an outsider in her own home, and her attempts to subvert the occupation are important – for what they reveal about her strength, and also for what they reveal about the inhumanity of the occupation. Telémakhos is an outsider in search of the ‘inside’ information that will lead him to his father. And his father, Odysseus, is a stranger to himself, struggling to come to terms with his own identity as he battles those demons that still haunt him after his experiences of war. And throughout the play there is a continuing interrogation of what we mean by home – what draws us back, what keeps us away, and what happens when the solid certainties of home become unstable, whether through occupation or trauma.

Thematically, a number of similar concerns run through The Invisible Exchange. Matthew Edgworth is both an insider and an outsider. Like Odysseus, he’s a shape shifter, a master of disguise who can adapt to different social situations; and like Odysseus, he’s renowned for his cunning, but he is a dangerous man; a danger to others, and ultimately a danger to himself. But there are also echoes of Telémakhos in his characterisation. For all his roguish cunning, there’s a softer side to Matthew than the character he seeks to present us with. As Kate (Frances Howard’s maid) says to him: ‘You are not so heartless as you pretend.’ And the relentless curiosity he shares with Telémakhos makes him open to the different cultures he encounters. He’s successful as a trickster because he can use the desires of those he’s gulling against them. But to do that successfully, he has to be an attentive listener and to think as others think As he says about working for Rochester, ‘… the trick of it was to plant the seed, give it time to grow, then be astonished at his razor wit as the seed sprouted and the plan became his own.’ In the course of the novel, he meets four strong, powerful women, each from very different backgrounds: Frances Howard, the aristocrat; Alice, a woman he finds working as a prostitute; Kate, Frances’s personal maid; and Hannah, a cunning woman. He assumes he can manipulate and exploit them. But each of them challenges his certainties. Despite thinking he can work for Frances as well as Rochester, that he can play them off against each other to his own ends, he realises that Frances is ‘as ruthless as any of the men in her family, and far shrewder than her lover or her husband.’ I’ll leave the reader to discover how Matthew is confounded by his dealings with Kate and Hannah. It is, however, important to mention Alice, for her character evolved in response to our experiences of The Promised Land project. Matthew first meets her when he visits a brothel, ‘the House at the Sign of the Vixen in Petticoat Lane. I’d come to see Diego, the broker for the house. He owed me favours.’ Matthew sees a common prostitute. Alice, however, is not what she seems. As she herself says, ‘No matter where you found me, I’m no whore. And I cannot be bought.’ She refuses the easy labels that society assigns to her, and gradually we (and Matthew) discover her history. The large-scale settlement of Huguenot refugees in Spitalfields did not take place until the 1680s. But the persecution of Protestants in France and Holland had started long before that. This novel speculates that some families, such as Alice’s, had already tried to settle in the area in the early seventeenth century. By the time we were working on The Promised Land project, I had begun to make real progress with The Invisible Exchange. But Alice was still a walk-on role. I had always thought of her as intelligent and spirited, but hearing so many stories of real refugees, told with such passion and dignity, I felt compelled to allow Alice a far more significant role in the novel than I had originally conceived. It was the role her story demanded. I conceived of The Invisible Exchange as the first novel in a trilogy. I am currently working on the second, Creatures of the Deed. The character of Alice has now become so important and her story so urgent that the third novel in the trilogy (provisionally entitled The Turbulent Surge) has Alice as the central character and narrator. She will get to tell her story. 

Work that changes us

One of the things I have most enjoyed about working with Michael and with Border Crossings has been the sense that the work we’re doing may be for others, but it changes us. The process itself is always a discovery. Crossing borders – our own as well as those imposed by others (political / social / cultural) – is at the heart of the work. I have been challenged and my work has been enriched by the collaborations. In The Invisible Exchange, Matthew’s attitudes and assumptions are of his time and his place, but he sees possibilities, and he acts on them:

‘I liked the way Hannah thought. Stay alert to possibilities. When Lady Luck smiles, be sure to smile back and accept what she’s offering with good grace, for she’ll turn on you and damn you quick as blink. You see a possibility. You make it happen.’

The Invisible Exchange is now available in paperback from all bookshops, and in all e-book formats from 28th July.

1 Extract from the text of  Peter Barnes’s illustrated lecture on Jonsonian comedy at the Reading Conference on 10th January 1996.


2 David Lindley’s excellent book, The Trials of Frances Howard (Routledge 1993), offers a closely argued and rigorously research analysis of this institutionalised misogyny. 


3 The workshops in Beirut were funded by The British Council. The original intention had been for Border Crossings to co-produce with Zoukak. For logistical reasons that proved impossible. 


4 Michael has also written a blog about the process of working with Zoukak.


5 The key workshops that informed the development of the play took place in Salisbury with young people from military families, and with Palestinians at a summer school held in Jordan under the auspices of the Al Qattan organisation.


Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Peter Brook

 

Peter Brook: 1925-2022 

"In a dishonourable age it is challenging and stimulating to be reminded of finer attitudes. Each person can measure himself and see what he would most essentially respect when he is faced by a level of behaviour that is more dedicated, goes further than his own....  When somebody reaches a certain very high level he becomes so close to truth that he is incapable of speaking anything other than the truth."  (Peter Brook)

When Peter Brook said this, he was talking about the ideas behind Mahabharata, which he famously staged in the 1980s, but his words apply just as powerfully to his own long life, which has now ended at the magnificent age of 97. I feel rather ashamed that, as long ago as 1995, I was quoted in The Deccan Herald as admiring his professional longevity, still directing in his early 70s. Nearly 30 years later, he still hadn't stopped. Of course he hadn't. Brook could no more stop directing theatre than a Zen master can retire from meditation: it wasn't a job, but a way of being. Only a few months ago, he was directing our friend and collaborator Ery Nzaramba as Prospero in his Tempest Project, with not a hint of any sentimental and wistful self-portraiture about "the farewell to the theatre".  All the same, I like the fact that The Tempest should have been his final piece: a great text about theatre, colonialism, freedom, cultural difference, magic and the spirit.  These were the subjects that dominated his work.  

Ery Nzaramba as Prospero

I first became aware of Brook as a teenager, when I picked up a copy of Charles Marowitz and Simon Trussler's Theatre at Work for 30p in a library sale.  I was fascinated to read about his open, free approach to rehearsal and his quest to unlock the secrets in the actors' souls, particularly in his Artaud-inspired Theatre of Cruelty season.  I tried out some of the more outlandish exercises on some hapless sixth-formers who had agreed to act in a piece I wanted to do during the summer holidays; but I never really understood them until Alaknanda Samarth and I recorded Artaud's Theatre and the Plague during the 2020 lockdown.  At the heart of Artaud, and of Brook, there is a spiritual longing - and the cruelty is to do with the barriers our society has put between us and our spiritual truth. Our work, our battle, is to penetrate these barriers - or to cross these borders, I suppose...  

I think this is the reason Brook, from the 70s onwards, took on an intercultural approach to theatre-making, turning his back on the British mainstream to work from the Bouffes du Nord in Paris with a shifting ensemble of international artists.  
"Today" he wrote in There Are No Secrets, "the world offers us new possibilities...  Nothing is more vital to the theatre culture of the world than the working together of artists from different races and backgrounds." (p.94)

Of course I agree. And I remain deeply grateful to Brook for having pioneered intercultural performance as an ideal, and as a necessary response to the post-colonial globalised moment. At the same time, I feel wary of some of what he was trying to achieve (and indeed, did achieve) through cross-cultural collaboration. Mahabharata was a revelation to me in the 80s, when I hadn't even heard of the great poem, but it was also, as Rustom Bharucha famously showed, a diminution of the Indian myth filtered through the lens of Western tragedy, both Shakespearean and Biblical. Brook's engagement with non-Western cultures could often seem exotic and romanticised, as if their raison d'être was to serve as a correctional mirror for the decadent West.  For example, in 1989 he told Véronique Hotte: 

"In Third World countries, which are at heart 'traditional', tradition offers a defence against confusion and chaos, against modern life and its formlessness.  This kind of tradition generates very pure currents which give meaning to life."  (David Williams:Peter Brook - A Theatrical Casebook. p.404)

For all his desire to engage with artists from a range of cultural backgrounds, it was not the culture itself that interested Brook, but the desire to move beyond culture to some supposed "human essence", something that he regarded as "universal".  The truth is that this is impossible: any theatrical endeavour requires the use of language, gesture, colour, music, all of which carry specific cultural meanings. The "universal" often looked uncomfortably like Western culture being read onto non-Western bodies. For me, Brook's work was most potent when it acknowledged the semiotics of the body and of distinct cultures, when the performers drew off their differences rather than their similarities. I recall his wonderful production of the South African anti-apartheid play Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the Pit - or the extraordinary scream of Rwandan actor Carole Karemer in Battlefield, which so clearly drew off the recent past of her people. I think of Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi in Mahabharata - the only Indian in the cast, and so the central symbol of integrity. I think of Mozart's score, so emphatically European, holding together his gentle and thoughtful Magic Flute

The Mahabharata, directed by Peter Brook

It's good to disagree with your teachers, of course: that is how the world and the art form move on. And Peter Brook was a great teacher. Think of all the ideas that underlie modern theatre practice, and how many of them are his: the Empty Space, the Holy Theatre, the Rough Theatre...  His books, which articulate his unending search for the form of theatre and its meaning, will continue to inspire theatre-makers for generations.  

The last of these, Playing By Ear, was published as recently as 2019, and is a meditation on sound and music.  It also, therefore, deals with silence - and the centrality of real silence to any profound theatrical or  spiritual practice.  At the end of this last book, Peter Brook wrote:
"Once, in the Sahara, I climbed up a dune and, looking down, saw that the hollow in front of me was very deep.  I slithered down the sandy wall, and when I reached the bottom I was completely isolated from the desert, and all its tiny sounds had vanished.  There, for the first time, I actually experienced the living presence of total silence....  A touching old English saying arises in my mind: 'Words fail me'.  So this is the moment to end. The most precious thing is: 'Keep Silence.'" (p.138-9)

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Shiraz Bayjoo's TREASURE ISLAND

Treasure Island in Shiraz's version

I'm not sure whether I've read Treasure Island before. I certainly feel as if I have: it was a staple of BBC Sunday evening family viewing in the 1970s, and several films. I remember it being an inspiration for something I wrote at primary school, and I recall discussing Ben Gunn's mental state with my father while we looked at an old edition in his sister's house in Leeds. It's one of those books that is so embedded in the culture that you feel you've read it, even if you haven't. Well, now I definitely have read it - and it's not quite the book I believed it was.

The reason I think this is that the copy I read was in a beautiful new edition by Four Corners Books, issued as part of their Familiars series. They take a classic text, and they commission an artist to work in dialogue with it. In the case of Treasure Island, the artist was our friend Shiraz Bayjoo, the Mauritian artist who designed THE GREAT EXPERIMENT. He tells me that, when Four Corners approached him, his first instinct was to turn the job down, because he didn't really like the novel. That, the editors told him, was exactly the point. They didn't want him to illustrate the novel so much as deconstruct it, engage with it, expose it and play with it. And that is exactly what he has done.  

If you saw THE GREAT EXPERIMENT, you'll remember how Shiraz works with archival imagery to create vibrant and provocative interactions between past and present. Applied to Treasure Island, the effect of this approach is to shock the reader into a realisation of how deeply Stevenson's text is anchored in a context of British imperialism, slavery and racism. Shiraz's archive imagery reveals that the Admiral Benbow Inn is named after the naval commander who protected British plantations in the Caribbean.  When Jim Hawkins goes to Bristol, the choice of pictures reveals this as the city of Edward Colston.  When the text mentions how three pirates hoped for a reward for their deeds, Shiraz adds an image of St. Louis Cathedral, Mauritius.

Joseph Johnson, in Shiraz Bayjoo's illustration 

Above all, Shiraz's choice and placing of imagery brings out layers of racial politics in the novel that I would never have suspected might exist from the BBC teatime or Disney versions. This engraving of the black sailor turned street singer Joseph Johnson is placed at the beginning of the novel, in the section introducing the old sea captain Billy Bones. It gives a whole new meaning to the description of him as "a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man". Nor is Billy the only "pirate" who could be a black man. Israel Hands is described as "that brandy-faced rascal", and Morgan as "the old mahogany-faced seaman". When Jim Hawkins first encounters Ben Gunn, he comments "I could now see that he was a white man like myself", suggesting that this was not his initial expectation. Most strikingly of all, Long John Silver's wife, who never appears but who is clearly central to his plotting, looking after his considerable fortune while he is at sea, is called "his Negress". When Squire Trelawney writes to Dr. Livesey about Silver, he remarks: "He leaves his wife to manage the inn; and as she is a woman of colour, a pair of old bachelors like you and I may be excused for guessing it is the wife, quite as much as the health, that sends him back to roving."

Trelawney's obvious racism and sexism sits very uneasily with a contemporary reading, but it highlights the novel's extraordinary approach to morality, and its political basis. Everyone in the novel is trying to obtain the treasure that the pirate Captain Flint buried on the island: it's just that some are seen as "good" in doing so, and others as "bad". The "good" characters just happen to be white and British. If we understand that the "bad" characters are lower class in origin or black, then it becomes clear that the perceived ethical difference is simply a manifestation of rank. White British men are entitled to wealth because of who they are: black men and women, and people born into poverty, are considered evil if they try to obtain the same wealth by the same means.  

This blog post was written in the aftermath of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations, and the day after Boris Johnson survived a vote of confidence by Tory MPs.  

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

REMEMBRANCES - Guest post by Matthew James Weigel

Matthew James Weigel

I am grateful to share this space with you and everyone here at Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival, Birmingham 2022 and the Birmingham International Dance Festival. My name is Matthew James Weigel. I am a Dene and Metis poet and artist, born and raised in Edmonton Alberta, Canada, and here is where I live, work, and create. I was welcomed to this project by Michael Walling, and I am especially grateful to him for my inclusion in this project working with both ɅVɅ Dance Company and b.solomon/ /Electric Moose. It is a great pleasure and honour to be invited to contribute my poetry.

I’ve never worked with a dance company before. In fact, I rarely work collaboratively! I create both visual and lyric poetry which can be very solitary. But that being said, it has been an absolute delight to chat with everyone involved and talk about our shared goals and what sort of inspirations lift us up collectively. Some of my poems are written intentionally as spoken word pieces, and I think there is a special connection that spoken word artists share with dancers. There is an embodying process that happens, where the sounds and the stories live inside you and connect you to the world around you. These were some of the things I was thinking about specifically when I wrote this piece for REMEMBRANCES.

When we started, I wrote a piece responding to Michael’s writing, and we talked about it a little bit and chatted with Avatâra and the dancers. I was really fascinated by the process of creating choreography. There was a lot of familiarity to that process, in the sense that I could tell there was an analogous sense of vocabulary, technique, imagery and metaphor. Watching dance activates a different part of you from listening to poetry, but there are concepts of performance that are shared between them. You are hoping to connect with your audience and tell a story that exists in a single shared moment. During our conversation what came out was how important that connection was, not just a connection with the audience, but with the body as well. So, my next crack at the poem was to take what I had started with, which was a heavy meditation on the place that I live and the ground that supports and fuels me, and to activate the embodied experience of being here. I can genuinely say that the collaborative process allowed me to write a better piece of poetry than I had ever expected.

I think that’s the beauty of collaboration, not just between artists of the same medium, but when artists collaborate across mediums. We stretch across forms to find connections in new ways of thinking and moving in the world. And if anything, that is what art is for, it’s for helping us move through the world.

I think about this a lot in my art and my writing. My work is heavily invested in my relationship with the land, and how that relationship extends through to the non-human relations around me. Because my writing is so heavily based in research, it’s important for me to centre my work in those connections and relationships. I think it would be impossible to share archival and historical materials in an effective way without sharing my relationality to them, otherwise I feel like there would be an insurmountable distance within the work. To best tell the stories of the land around you, you have to do your best to understand the stories that brought you there. I am incredibly privileged to live where I live. The street I am on has its origins in a trail down to the river that my ancestors would have walked down. That river provides my drinking water. The clay from the river valley was formed into bricks that compose many of the buildings around me. And so, in that one set of relationships, me, the water, the buildings around me, there is a complex story of the history of me, of my family, and of the colonial history of Edmonton.

I take a great deal of inspiration from what is around me. From the spruce trees, the magpies, the willows. And so, the poem that I wrote for REMEMBRANCES follows the same path my work always follows: down the old path to the river, through the trees and surrounded by the beautiful conversations of magpies.

Matthew James Weigel's Whitemud Walking is published by Coach House Books.