Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Developing SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA - Guest post by Liam Rees

In the workshop room for SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA

For four weeks, director Michael Walling and three actors (Richard Adetunji, Vlad Gurdis and John Rogers) have been exploring response to The Suppliants by Aeschylus, in which the suppliant women flee forced marriage and seek asylum in Greece, but are met by a seemingly endless debate about the correct course of action. I'd been interested in Border Crossings' approach to devising for some time, and was delighted to join them for a week, acting as a dramaturgical outside eye. Here are some observations from the process.

“Democracy is a conversation.” We can agree on that, can’t we?

The oldest written record of the word “democracy” is in The Suppliants by Aeschylus, and this rehearsal room is obsessed with the idea of democracy. As one actor explains, it comes from the Greek ‘demos’ meaning people, and ‘kratos’ meaning power. So the power of the people. But how is that power expressed? In theatre, it’s through our voice, and there’s a constant back and forth of disagreements, compared experiences, and conflicting perspectives in the room. There’s a cacophony of voices in the rehearsal room: the actors, the director, Aeschylus, and the real life suppliants, a group of Syrian women seeking asylum in Turkey. Like Aeschylus, their words and voices have been recorded and interpreted but they can’t be in the room with us. There will always be some gap in our understanding…

“The worst thing that’s ever happened to you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Each day in rehearsals is different but always centres around trying to understand the plight of the suppliant women. One day is spent exploring the classical text via mask work. It unlocks a more mythic aspect to the text, less reliant on a personal or psychological connection. In a way the mask protects the actor from any traumatic material. The next day we watch interviews with the Syrian women and everything is all too real. We dig into our own experiences and our own points of connection with the suppliants of Syria. There’s no mask to hide behind. These aren’t characters we’re playing. We’re five men trying to make sense of men at war and male violence against women. At one point we ask if we should have more women in the room; but is that then forcing them to take on more emotional labour? Surely men need to take responsibility for sorting the issues they cause? It’s “not all men” but it is almost always a man. There’s no simple answer and at the end of every day we take care to check in with each other and not take the heavy, personal, messy questions home with us. But the questions never go away throughout the process. Michael shares anecdotes about visiting Turkey and the ethical issues inherent in documenting and interviewing asylum seekers. Is this exploitation or genuine dialogue? Does paying them for their time turn suffering into a commodity to be consumed? Is there any “good” way to tell their story?

“It’s great that we’re having this conversation.”

Every day brings new questions and every new question leads to rewrites and reinterpretations of the source material. There’s Aeschylus’ original text, the interviews, and a meta-commentary performed by the actors as fictionalised versions of themselves.  At times it can feel overwhelming. Are there too many questions that we can’t answer? In the heat of one discussion we’re forced to ask what the point of this project is? Are we simply going in circles? If it’s impossible to understand someone else’s experience then what is the point in trying? Is this conversation actually intended to result in action? Or is it a distraction? A means for us to absolve ourselves of feelings of guilt?

There’s a repeated phrase in one section: It’s great that we’re having this conversation. 

Because silence doesn’t feel like an option.

Everything about this show invites disagreement.

For now, there’s still time for the cast and crew to decide what this show should be.

But that conversation can't go on forever, can it?

Liam Rees is a director who specialises in developing new work and new writing. He has a particular interest in international collaboration and enjoys making theatre that uses digital tech to put the internet onstage and facilitate more international conversations. 

Friday, December 29, 2023

Looking Back at 2023


When I started to think about reviewing 2023, the logical first step was to look over what I'd written last December about 2022. That was the year when we issued THE SLIGO MANIFESTO, and my account of the year followed its structure, examining how we were moving towards those new ideas about what Border Crossings needs to do and to be in today's shifting world. Much of 2023 has been about laying the foundations for that emerging model.

The year began by consolidating and polishing the work we'd been creating in 2021-22, particularly the final stages in the prolonged and searching ORIGINS Festival we'd made through that time. BOTANY BAY may officially have ended a year ago, but the process of working through what that huge project had actually achieved was in itself a major undertaking, and it wasn't until the start of March that we published Carolyn Defrin's reflective post on this blog. SONGSTREETS, which we'd also been developing through ORIGINS, was launched in the Spring, and remains available to download and experience. It's one of our most exciting ventures yet in digital performance - Thor McIntyre-Burnie's sound world shifts the experience of walking the streets of Brixton, animating them as Tony Cealy shares histories and dialogues with the locals, with the music brought out by Jessie Lloyd becoming manifest as the soundtrack to their lives. It's been fascinating to live with this work over the last few months, watching how the shifting seasons change the experience, how the cold day of the launch emphasised the challenges facing the community, while taking the walk in summer made it a story of resilience and celebration. 

Early 2023 also saw the final phase of X-EUROPEAN: the project exploring Third Space methodologies in which Border Crossings (Ireland) was the theatrical collaborator. It was only days after we held our last project meeting in Aalen (Germany) that the city of Adana, home to our wonderful Turkish partners at Çukurova University, was hit by a devastating earthquake. İlke Şanlıer's deeply impassioned and pained guest blog post came in the immediate aftermath. Somehow, Adana has re-emerged as the vibrant, busy city it was before (although its neighbour Antakya remains a site of devastation): we are now working closely with İlke and her colleagues on SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, which promises to be the first of our theatrical creations fully to embody the principles and ideas outlined in THE SLIGO MANIFESTO. We undertook the first phase of development in Turkey during November, and are hugely excited to be starting work with British and Irish actors in January. The next week or so will also tell us whether or not we've been successful in a large funding bid which would enable a second 2024 project - one that would reach performance in the autumn...  


So there are definitely reasons to be hopeful as we begin the New Year, though at the same time the great crises facing the world seem to be coming into sharper, more intense and horrific focus than ever before. Cop 28 has ended with an agreement to phase out fossil fuels, and yet the president of the summit himself intends to continue investing at record levels in the production of gas and oil. The war in Ukraine is heading towards its third year, while in Gaza there are unprecedented levels of civilian and child casualties. In the UK, the government remains determined to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite the Supreme Court having ruled that this is illegal; and in Ireland we have seen the radical right unleashed on the streets of Dublin in a frenzy of racially motivated violence.

We need the arts. We need our cultures. We need spaces of exchange, depth and emotional sharing; spaces where, in the face of the reductive, shallow sloganeering that passes for a public discourse, we can encounter one another in the fullness of our common humanity. 

Lucy and I experienced this very deeply during our November in Adana, where we worked with Syrian women on our new theatre and film project, SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA. We heard stories of horror, and stories of tenderness. We saw tears, and we heard laughter. While we were there, we also had the privilege to present an online reading of THE GAZA MONOLOGUES, created by our partners in Ramallah, ASHTAR Theatre. In these moving stories, written by young people in the aftermath of a previous conflict, we again recognised the vulnerability that makes people loveable, the simple presence that makes them dear.

As we move into the New Year, it is in cultural spaces like these that we retain our hope to turn the page of history. 

Friday, December 15, 2023

Statement from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Occupied West Bank

The destruction in Jenin Refugee Camp - photo: Estefania Vega

This post is a statement from The Freedom Theatre, who are based in Jenin Refugee Camp, in the Occupied West Bank. This is distinct from Gaza: what is happening to theatre artists and others in Jenin demonstrates the spread of hostilities throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The statement in this form dates from the evening of 14th December.


On the morning of the 13th of December, the Israeli army began attacking and ransacking The Freedom Theatre. They shot from inside the theatre, destroying the offices and knocking down a wall.

The army then went to the homes of Ahmed Tobasi and Mustafa Sheta, blindfolded,  handcuffed and took them away.

That evening the army went to the home of Jamal Abu Joas and severely beat him and then took him.

We can confirm (15:05 EET) that Tobasi has been released. He is suffering from leg and back pain where the Israeli Army beat him. We will update on his condition as soon as possible. 

After over 60 hours the full scale invasion by the Israeli Army has stopped. However invasions have been almost daily and we expect their return, and continue to be concerned for the safety of all

Upon being realised Tobasi said “They treated us like animals. They are trying to hurt us in any way they can, but its important we stay strong” 

We continue to ask people to demand the immediate release of Mustafa Sheta and Jamal Abu Joas, as with the over 100+ people taken by the Israeli Army in the last two days.

These attacks follow the murder of three members of The Freedom Theatre in the last few weeks including 17-year-old theatre participant Yamen Jarrar, 26-year-old Jehad Naghniyeh and 30 year old Mohammed Matahen. In June 2023 15-year-old Sadeel Naghnaghia and 17-year-old Mahmoud Al-Sadi theatre youth participant , were also murdered.

Earlier in July The Freedom Theatre was damaged due to bombing, during a three-day invasion and Technician Adnan Torokman was detained for four days by the Israeli army.

For decades, Palestinian artists have been arbitrarily detained by Israel, sometimes for years, who also target and destroy cultural buildings, a war crime under international law. In the last few weeks in Gaza, an unprecedented number of writers, poets, theatremakers and journalists have been killed, including DR. Refaat Alareer, who was deliberately targeted and murdered.

We thank everyone in Palestine and worldwide who has worked tirelessly to demand Tobasi’s release. Our friends and allies continue to prove that collective action works.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Gaza Monologues - guest post by Ali Abu Yassin

Last night, we gave an online reading of THE GAZA MONOLOGUES as part of the International Day of Solidarity with Gaza. The monologues were written by young people in Gaza in 2010, in the aftermath of the first assault, guided by Ashtar Theatre. We were lucky enough to partner with Ashtar in 2014 and 2016, so their cause is particularly significant for us. Today we are publishing a letter from Ali Abu Yassin, who is one of Ashtar's directors, working in Gaza.  

Ali Abu Yassin, in the wreckage of Gaza
My friend

When I read your letters asking me to write a word about Gaza, I usually answer you immediately. This time, I was silent for days; the words escaped me. Why? Maybe because of the horror of what we are living, because early this morning, my family and I miraculously survived a crazy missile that destroyed our neighbour’s house, and threw all the rubble onto our house? Or because I feel that the pictures I see are more eloquent than all the words? or because I am no longer very convinced of the usefulness of talking, especially since we have been talking about the justice of our cause, in the midst of the daily killing, siege, starvation, and state terrorism which we have been subjected to over 75 years; with no answer?

My friend, yesterday, the Israeli occupation forces, bombed the Baptist Hospital in Gaza, and so far more than 500 people have been martyred. They were cut into pieces and became a pile of meat.

As playwrights, we know that one of the cruelest theatrical tragedies is the play Antigone, in which King Creon refuses to bury Antigone’s brother, and from here the dialogue between them revolves around what it means to be human, what is dignity, what is value, what are rights, even after death. Antigone sees the body of her brother in front of her and cannot bear leaving him unburied. While the bodies that we saw after the Baptist Hospital massacre, without heads, hands, or feet, are the new tragedy of our era.

An old woman at the rubble of the hospital addressed a nurse asking him: “Son, give me that hand lying there. I recognize it from the ring. It is my daughter’s hand that I leaned on in the morning when she helped me sit on the chair to watch the news. That hand that turned on the TV for me. She greeted me and kissed my hand before leaving. That hand that always embraced me and patted my shoulder. That hand that combed my hair and always cut my nails. That hand, my son, was the source of all my strength in my last days. Let me give her my last kiss, so that it will spare me the need to have more of my daughter’s body.”

My friend, I do not know what more to write. If you consider this a word, then read it to your friends and give them my thanks and appreciation, because I know that free people with big hearts, human attitudes, and principles have become very few these days.

We will meet one day, when I am free like the rest of the inhabitants of this earth.

Ali Abu Yassin
October 18, 2023

You can donate to Ashtar Theatre's work with traumatised young people in Palestine here:

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Remembering Dev Virahsawmy

Shaun Chawdhary as Prospero &
Catherine Mobley as Kordelia in TOUFANN

The Mauritian playwright Dev Virahsawmy, who has died at the age of 81, was one of Border Crossings' 21 Faces, when we marked our 21st anniversary with a retrospective in 2016. He wrote then that our 1999 translation and production of Toufann, his fantasy piece loosely based on The Tempest, had helped him become known outside Mauritius, and had convinced his sceptical countrymen that writing in Morisien (his preferred term for the Kreol language) could lead to international recognition. But truly it was we who owed a debt to him. Dev was a true pathfinder in the thorny thickets of intercultural work, showing how language, theatre and culture can and must combine in the process of forging new, more just socio-political spaces for a decolonising world. He was my constant guide to the shifting fortunes of his island home, with his penetrating intelligence constantly placing the Mauritian experience in its global context. When we made our play on Mauritian history, The Great Experiment, it just had to be Dev whom we invited to be our interlocutor for the online discussion conducted during lockdown. 

That was three years ago. Looking back to that time, I realise that in May 2020 Dev also wrote us a "Guest Blog of Farewell", marking his retirement from public life. He knew then, of course, that he was ill, but he didn't really retire. Only in August, Nisha and I were able to visit him at his Rose-Hill home, where he told us about his excitement that Morisien was finally to be used as a key language for schooling, enabling Mauritian children to be taught in their mother tongue. It was a triumph that he had accomplished, with the help of some far-sighted Catholic bishops, after a lifetime of campaigning, and it was wonderful that he lived to see it. On the other hand, he also talked about the way in which Narendra Modi's populist India was becoming ever more dominant in the Mauritian economic and culture spheres, countering the entire de-colonial process with which he had been engaged throughout his life.

As he always did, Dev gave me copies of his latest books, mostly poetry, and inscribed them with very personalised and touching words. This time, however, Loga, Dev's wife of 59 years, gave me the book he had always refused to write, and which she had therefore taken on herself. Lotus Flower: A Conversation with Dev Virahsawmy is a biography, a dialogue and a love letter by the person who was closest to him, and it taught me a huge amount I didn't know about my friend. You can read it online - please do!  What Loga is able to show is what the various obits and Dev's Wikipedia page fail to understand. Dev was not a political activist who also wrote plays and poems, nor was he a language scholar who insisted on writing in the obscure dialect of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. Rather, Dev's life project combined language campaigning with cultural activity and political activism as a single, unified project - you cannot understand any one part of his achievement without the others. Dev realised very early in his life that Morisien was a real, dynamic and poetic language, and was also the sole common cultural property of the Mauritian people. In the language, therefore, lay the potential for the emergence of a national culture, and in that lay the potential to escape the ongoing colonialism that continues to exploit the peoples of the global south. In his youth, Mauritius was a British colony, and retained close links to France (to this day there is a lobby that maintains, absurdly, that Morisien is actually just a bastardised French). He was 28 when Mauritius achieved independence, and he was active in the campaign to prevent the independent island going the way of other former colonies in the region. As Loga explains: "The sugar barons who had complete control over the economy of Mauritius were planning to set up apartheid in Mauritius with the help of apartheid South Africa and apartheid Northern Rhodesia under Ian Smith." After that threat was avoided, Dev's politics and writing were both focused on building an independent nation with its own language, fighting off the neo-colonial incursions of the superpowers. In his 1981 piece Zeneral Makbef, the battle is with the warring giants Yankidola and Rouspoutik. By the time he came to Toufann, he was already aware of the emerging Hindu hegemony in Mauritius, and the threat posed to the intercultural island by an alliance between that single ethnic group and an increasingly assertive Hindu nationalist movement in India. If Dev's Indian Prospero had managed to take revenge on the former coloniser Lerwa Lir (=King Lear, =Britain and France), then that did not in itself mean there would be any hope for the mixed-race Kreol Kalibann. By the 2020s, Dev's worst fears were being realised, and one of his last interviews is an extraordinary plea with the Mauritian people to resist this new colonisation. 

I said earlier that Dev knew in 2020 that he was ill. Actually, he had always been ill: he had childhood polio which left him without the use of one arm, and suffered from post-polio syndrome. What sustained him throughout his life was his total commitment to social justice, and the love of his family. I send my love and sympathy to Loga, Saskia, Anushka, and Dev's grandchildren Anastasia, Yann and Rachel. 

"Apres sa ena zist silense."

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Arrival, Adana, Antakya

Women making bread by the roadside, Antakya

Just over a week ago, Lucy and I arrived in Turkey to begin work on Suppliants of Syria. We're partnering with our old friends from Çukurova University in Adana, where the wonderful İlke Şanlıer combines her role in the Film and TV department with directing the Research Centre in Migration.  It's the perfect combination for a project that combines theatre and film with an active engagement in the ongoing refugee  "crisis". The theme is being lent additional potency by the current situation in Palestine: just after we arrived, a very large protest in support of Palestine took place at the airbase in Adana, where American planes and personnel are stationed. The police used tear gas and water cannon to prevent people entering the base; but that doesn't mean that the government isn't sympathetic to the protestors' expression of solidarity between Muslims.  

We've been able to establish a relationship with the Meryem Women's Co-operative: a fabulous organisation that enables Syrian women to work in areas like gardening and food production. A group of around 20 of them are in the process of becoming our Chorus. We've also been filming and researching in and around the city. I don't want to write too much about this as yet, because it needs time to absorb what we're seeing. Today we went to an area of Adana known as "Little Aleppo" on account of its large Syrian population.  The poverty was very apparent. Many of the people there seem to eke out a living by selling discarded or recycled clothes which they show piled in the streets. Earlier in the week I visited Antakya: the city to the south of Adana which bore the brunt of the earthquake earlier this year. Antakya also has links to Syria: the majority of the pre-earthquake population spoke Arabic, and Syrian maps still show the area as part of their country, which they regard as having been annexed by the Turkish Republic in 1939.  The city is utterly devastated. My friend Ali, who now lives near me in London, showed me round what remained of his childhood home. He often could not work out where he was, because there were no landmarks remaining. He would occasionally stop and examine the remains of a cornice or a metal door, and then say "This must be the old bank..."

And yet, in spite of everything, life endures. Ali's parents had a 100 year old house in the rural hinterland: it was destroyed.  But Ali's father Mehmet, at the age of 69, has single-handedly build a new living space beside the rubble where the old house stood, and on Wednesday night we ate the traditional meal for the end of the olive harvest and the production of the new olive oil on that land.  In the middle of the wreckage, Ali pointed out a plant. "It's a tomato plant", he said. "It used to be on the balcony just above where it is now." Somehow it survived - and is thriving. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

Film and the Indigenous

Chasing the Light

Back in 2017, I had an email from Martin Scorsese's office. We were screening a film called Chasing the Light, by Navajo director Blackhorse Lowe, as part of ORIGINS. "Mr Scorsese" the email told me, "would really like to see this film." I put them in touch with Blackhorse. Hopefully something came of it.

What's undeniable about this little footnote in film history is that it proves Martin Scorsese really does do his homework. His new epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a deeply serious engagement with Indigenous culture, specifically that of the Osage people. Ceremonies, language and culture are all meticulously recreated, and (I understand) this is done with total accuracy. The story it tells is a true one, and is appalling: an Osage woman whose married name was Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) had her family murdered by her husband Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), so they could get their hands on the wealth that came to the Osage when oil was discovered under their reservation lands. 

The film is a masterful piece of storytelling, but it also seems to be a white man's story. Mollie and her family have little agency in the film. At one point she travels to Washington, although even that is to appeal to the President. Otherwise they are on the receiving end of active malice. It is also very much male malice, and the Indigenous characters are almost all women. Somehow, despite all the careful research, the conventions of the movies still seem to be winning through. The key relationship in the film is not even between Mollie and Ernest, but between Ernest and William. Beside the history, it seemed to me that the key source text was actually Othello. De Niro's Machiavellian manipulator plays Iago to DiCaprio's naive, gullible Othello: and the result is that the audience ends up feeling sorry for Ernest. Yes: the hero of the film is the man who murders his Native American family. And that is discomfiting, to say the least.

Killers of the Flower Moon

I was very struck by the comments of Christopher Cote, who was an Osage consultant to the film. "This history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love." Quite so.

I did, however, see a truly great Indigenous film at this year's London Film Festival, and that was The New Boy: the latest feature by Kaytetye (Indigenous Australian) director Warwick Thornton, whose previous work includes Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country, both of which we've screened at ORIGINS. The success of those films has given Warwick a lot of kudos: he was able to attract the great Cate Blanchett to appear in The New Boy. When I meet him at the screening he jokes "She was a bit raw when she came to the shoot, but we managed to get her into shape." However, it is not Blanchett who dominates this film but a child actor with scarce a word to say, Aswan Reid. 

Aswan Reid in The New Boy

Reid's character, known only as "the new boy", arrives at an orphanage run by Blanchett's Sister Eileen, where he encounters Christianity on a very profound level, accessing it through his own Indigenous spirituality. Actual snakes, real blood...  Thornton, like many Indigenous artists whose people encountered the church in its complex amalgam of compassion and exploitation, has long had a very ambivalent relationship with the Christian faith. In his 2011 short Stranded, a figure hangs on a neon cross above the red desert landscape of the Australian north. The title of Samson and Delilah is Biblical.  I don't think this makes him a Christian filmmaker, least of all in this new work, but it does demonstrate an understanding that Christianity is not only an oppressive force, and that on some level it may be able to enter into a genuinely productive dialogue with Indigenous worldviews. 

Of course, that won't happen until the cultural landscape gives equal weight to both sides of every story.