Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Back to China with Nixon

Fred Frumberg and I are co-directing the revival of Nixon in China at ENO. It's very helpful, in this year of Chinese work, to go back to one of the pieces that got me fired up about the culture and the politics in the first place. This is now the third time I've been involved with this opera: and each time we do it, it seems more relevant to the current situation. Nixon's trip was the harbinger of the Open Door policy which Deng Xiaoping inaugurated in 1978, and which I saw so much evidence of in the rampant commercialism of Shanghai. Looking at the material again, I'm especially struck by the way Alice Goodman (the librettist) makes Mao a prophet of what will happen in China after his death; foreseeing the arrival of the "new missionaries" who "crucify us on a cross of usury", and of the "organised oblivion" which is contemporary politics. The opera feels like a plea for the return of idealism; an end to the culture of management.

Fred's an interesting bloke. For years he was Peter Sellars' regular assistant, and knows the staging of the opera backwards. Nowadays he works in Cambodia, with traditional temple dancers, trying to revitalize the old forms that were destroyed under the Khymer Rouge. The other day, he spoke at length about how the period of Pol Pot still hangs over the country; how everybody lost people who were close to them; how people still won't go into the tourist museums of the killing fields, because they are sure they will see a photo of somebody they loved. This is like the Cutural Revolution - we still don't know how many died in this movement, which happened in our own lifetimes.

Our way of working has evolved over the first couple of weeks of rehearsals. Fred explains the staging to the singers in enormous detail. I talk about the history, the emotions, the poetry and the energy. It's a strange approach: I normally feel that staging should arise naturally out of a performer's impulse, but I have to accept that I'm working on a revival of somebody else's original production, and that that original director (Peter) does dictate staging in a very ordered and specific way. I'm also aware that this staging is quite brilliant, and if we can get the cast to inhabit it fully, then the results will be quite stunning. Already there are scenes of enormous power, especially the ballet of The Red Detachment of Women, which turns into the enactment of the Cultural Revolution, with Nixon, Pat and Kissinger somehow drawn in.

Several trips to the theatre during these first couple of weeks rehearsal. Lydia baksh, who was Linda in Orientations first time round, was terrific in David Zoob's The Dead Fiddler at the New End. Nice to see a good audience for fringe work: that theatre has made real links with the Jewish community in North London. David's experimenting with a marriage of narrative and Klesmer. At times the show feels a bit close to its origins as a short story, but it's brave and idiosyncratic work.

Deborah, Olly and I go to Riverside to see The Exonerated. The space has been turned through 90 degrees from its usual, and feels bigger in the auditorium but smaller on stage as a result. We'll need it to go back. The play is simplicity itself: just a row of actors speaking into microphones, reading the testimonies of people who had been on death row, and then were freed. The format has allowed them to change from one starry cast to another: we saw Sam West, who was very understated and very moving.

Stephen King emails to say HSBC won't be sponsoring us: apparently there's been a rush of China-related requests since the Olympics. Nick Williams phones from the Arts Council to ask for a bit of detail. And I meet Valerie Chang to talk about audience development with the Chinese community.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Zhang Ruihong was right (of course): Dis-Orientations won't be performed in China. Tracy Xu emails to say the Shanghai Festival committee felt that the "scenes sensitive" weren't for them. I'm stoical about it: the key thing is that the collaboration will be happening and working for the audience here, that Zhang Ruihong will bring her talent and knowledge, and that we will be able to offer her something of what's good in the West - the openness of our process and the democracy contained within our theatre. The process of change in China is complex and delicate: it may well not benefit at all from us blasting in there with something that would be felt controversial. Gradualism - that was Zhou Enlai's way.

Thinking about this rich and strange dialogue between our cultures, I find myself on the 25th floor of the HSBC UK headquarters in Canary Wharf, talking to Stephen King, who is their Group Chief Economist. He and I were at college together, and I sat next to him at a reunion lunch last summer, where I heard about his job. It seemed an ideal opportunity to try out Deborah's hunch that our image (and this project) would be very much the sort of thing a bank would want to be associated with, particularly a bank which deals with China and other emerging markets. Stephen's instinct is that she's right: he's passing on the info to his marketing people.

The glass-walled office we are in towers over the East London skyline. Through the wall, we look out at the Barclays building, the Millennium Dome and the widening river far below. When Stephen first came here, he had to give a presentation to the board on the 40th floor. Given that planes taking off from City Airport fly just above the building, he found what would have been a nerve-wracking experience at the best of times a totally petrifying one. It was just after 9/11, and he was convinced that every aircraft was heading straight for him. The corridors here are marbled and lushly carpeted: bankers in smart suits glide through them with an air of total confidence. These people, in their close relationship with China's burgeoning wealth, are the people who run the world.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Big Move

We moved house last week. Hence the silence. This is being typed in an internet cafe somewhere between the Wood Green office and home (which is also the registered office, postal address, and home of the internet connection - except that it's not up and running yet). It's more complicated to move a business than a home. Hopefully, if the Consortium takes off (and all the signs are that it will), then we'll be able to devolve these functions to Wood Green. At present, I just don't know there will be somebody in that office often enough to be sure. It was even a relief going in today (for the first time since the move) to see that there weren't hundreds of messages on the answering machine.

As I worked, the phone went: Denise Namura for a bi-lingual conversation. She's going to come and do a workshop for us; although she's disappointed that we can't pay to bring her partner along. If only the Laboratory didn't have to be self-funding - but it does.

I've been teaching at Rose Bruford between unpacking boxes: a design project on Troilus and Cressida. Always helpful to go back to the classics: as Ariane Mnouchkine said about her productions of Shakespeare and the Greeks, these great texts are our models, and by working on them we can learn how we might create a new theatre for our own world. T&C feels especially wonderful to me - full of strange moments of shocking resonance. Like when Achilles suddenly breaks a scene of comedic prose with:

"My mind is troubled like a fountain stirred
And I myself see not the bottom of it."

Amazing. So much of our work is about trying to create multiple realities on stage: about searching for ways in which we can plunge underneath the banality of everyday existence and touch something numinous. And here Shakespeare does it in one simple shift of style.