Monday, December 31, 2007


A really great year for the company - almost up there with our annus mirabilis of 2004. Dilemma was, of course, the highlight, and I shall long treasure the memory of a packed house rising to its feet in one spontaneous movement on the last night. But there was also much exciting work in the ever-growing Laboratory, with the work around First Nations theatre, and the launch of the Origins Festival with the symposium at Australia House being especially exciting. And we also published our first Theatre and.... book, Theatre and Slavery, with a very glitzy list of contributors. And we laid the foundations for some really important developments in the future. As I write this, Dzifa Glikpoe is in the UK as our Arts Council International Fellow; we're talking to organisations in China and India about the next stage of the Orientations Trilogy, and Origins is moving on. Yes, it's been a great year.....

A few cultural highlights for me personally (this being New Year's Eve).

The best book I read this year was the first: English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. An amazing (and very funny) voyage into the colonial process in Australia. I also loved reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which I devoured in one hungry sitting (admittedly sitting on a plane for a long time). It's incredibly disturbing and deeply compelling. I finally got round to reading Life of Pi, of which I had great expectations, none of which were fulfilled. It's all the same... Best factual book (though that's not an adequate description for this wonderful poetic journey) - Wild by Jay Griffiths.

In the theatre, I much enjoyed Complicite's A Disappearing Number, and Peter Brook's production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, both at the Barbican, and Lemi Ponifasio's beautiful Polynesian ritual Requiem at the QEH. It was also wonderful to see Ngapartji Ngapartji at the Dreaming in Australia, and this Festival is my overall cultural experience of the year. I also saw some great films there: Rhoda Roberts' A Sister's Love, and Alan Collins' Sunset to Sunrise (the latter we later screened at the Origins symposium). In mainstream film, I guess my film of the year is The Last King of Scotland.

Music: John Adams (of course) - The Flowering Tree and Dharma at Big Sur.

Roll on 2008....

Friday, December 28, 2007

Books for Ghana

The year ends on a high note for us, with a grant from the Morel Trust, which will enable us to distribute 100 copies of the Theatre and Slavery book around Ghanaian libraries. That's very good news! Too often books like this don't get read where they can really make a difference. I've still not given up hope of getting the production out there - though that's a challenge! - this is at least a start.

Dilemma and the trip to China have left me feeling optimistic about the future - though there are many signs that I shouldn't be! The Arts Council ended the year by sending letters to a great many clients informing them that their revenue funding is being cut. The list is very long - with the Drill Hall probably the most shocking of them all. If there were any sign of new clients stepping in as RFOs, that would be a compensation, but there doesn't seem to be any. And here are we clinging on as a project-funded company.... What's more, the British Council is apparently closing all (yes all) its arts departments. I don't yet know much about this - I can't imagine it means that there won't be any more arts activity within the organisation, but it does sound very like the arts will again be pressed into the service of other masters, like "development" and "governance", and the inevitable propaganda for the British education system.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mme. Mao's suicide

On my last evening in China, I finished reading The White-Boned Demon. I was amazed to discover that Jiang Ching actually wasn't in prison when she hanged herself, but in a "treatment apartment". Ross Terrill writes: "Toward 3.00 a.m. a weak and depressed Jiang crept from her bedroom to the bathroom and with several handkerchiefs fashioned a noose and tied it to an iron frame above the bathtub... At 3.30 a.m. a nurse came in and found her suspended above the bathtub." This is amazing, given that when we created Dis-Orientations we had no idea that there was a bathtub anywhere near when Mme. Mao died. And yet the image we found was of her hanging herself at the same time as Alex prepared her own fatal bath. Spooky or what?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tianjin and back to Shanghai

Tianjin, an hour or so from Beijing by train, is "Not a very big city", or so I am told by Zhao Hui from the International Cultural Exchange Agency of Tianjin, China, who meets me at the station. Its population is only 11 million people. Fair enough: you would have to add London's measly 6 million to that in order to match Shanghai.

I knew very little about the place before this trip, but I've been reading about its particular importance for Jiang Ching during the Cultural Revolution. She was very popular here: a bit of an irony considering that Zhou Enlai was also educated in this city. As Hui and her boss, Qiao Zhi, drive me through the urban sprawl, I can imagine her raving away amidst its Stalinist architecture. It's not a very pretty place.

Qiao Zhi has been interested in Dis-Orientations since it first appeared on the CTC website, and we've exchanged emails from time to time ever since. I scared him a while ago with a suggested fee for performances, but now things look more possible, if the Yue Opera Company and the Festival do what they said they would / might. I'm very aware that we've not talked about money at all - I hope that the Chinese partners will handle finance in China as we did in the UK, but that's by no means a given. At least Qiao Zhi is direct about this from the start: they will pay a fee for one performance in Tianjin, provided they can afford that fee. Fair enough!

Qiao Zhi and Zhao Hui turn out to be incredibly kind, hospitable hosts. Our meeting only takes an hour or so, but they then take my for lunch, followed by looking at videos of other work they've presented (virtually all of it Chinese, in spit of the International label), and then a shopping trip in the "tourist area", during which they help me haggle over clothes for the children, and insist on buying me a traditional hand-painted bust of a Peking Opera performer. As if that wasn't enough, we then go for dinner (although it's only three hours since a big lunch). This time it's traditional Tianjin food, which is like no cuisine I've ever tasted. We have a sweet purple mash which they tell me is made from "something like a big tomato"; three different porridges in incandescent colours, one of which tastes like liquid marzipan; various fungi and the comparatively familiar pork in honey sauce. They're very sweet-toothed in Tianjin. The restaurant, called 1928 after the year it opened, is vast, and the waiters are all mounted on roller skates to deal with the distances they have to travel. As well as food, there's a Peking opera cabaret, a little bazaar, and a photographic exhibition, which includes images from the Cultural Revolution period. There's one of a performance taking place in a village, as a form of political education. In another photo, a family is sitting on the floor of their tiny home. Qiao Zhi says that his family was just like that twenty years ago. It's not all that long, really. He's a young man, and yet he has seen enormous changes in his lifetime. At the next table is an old lady with her family. What she must have seen....

Another overnight train brings me back to Shanghai, and a meeting with Nick Yu from the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. I enjoyed meeting Nick when I was last here, and felt we had a lot of similar ideas. I'd intended this to be a courtesy call really; and was interested to hear about his recent projects. He's done an intriguing piece called Drift, set in different times, and a re-working of the first Chinese play to adopt the Western spoken form (huaju), exactly 100 years ago. This play was itself adapted from Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Nick's version, the master-slave relationship reflects on the position of the artist in relation to powerful people.... potent stuff or what? I tell him about our own work on slavery - it's an interesting coincidence. Then Nick asks if we would like to develop another project in collaboration with SDAC. Well, yes.... how about Re-Orientations? He jumps at the idea. This is intriguing. Maybe we can present Dis-Orientations here, and develop the third part with a different partner but around the same time... I begin the usual conversation about possible funding sources, and Nick cuts in to say that he knows that's a problem in the UK, but that he already has the money for the Chinese actors and for our accommodation and per diems. So that means I only have to find funding for flights and UK fees. This is starting to get very interesting indeed! Of course, there's many a slip, and I promise myself that I won't get too excited. Yet.

De-briefing session with Ophelia Huang at the British Council. She sounds all the cautionary notes I've been sounding to myself - only louder. In particular, she thinks it's important to find somebody who can be a bi-lingual contact between ourselves and the Yue Opera, as much as anything so that the British Council doesn't appear to get involved in direct negotiations of contracts etc. She's going to check with Director You if there's an English-speaker among their admin staff, and I promise to take some soundings in London. I have a few ideas. SDAC is less of a problem: Nick's English is fluent.

I walk back along Fuzhou Lu, the street of bookshops and the Yu Fu Theatre. I'm fired up enough to think I should invest in some research materials for the next stage of the project. Mao's poetry. A VCD of Mei Lanfang. The Journey to the West. A CD and DVD of the androgynous Super-Girl Li Yuchun, who is now being marketed under the gender-and-culture ambiguous title "Chris Lee". Where might all this lead us?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hangzhou and Beijing

On the train to Hangzhou on Saturday morning, I found myself sitting next to a young man who saw me as a good opportunity to practice his English. He was on his way from Ningbo to Hangzhou in order to sit an exam for the Civil Service. It was, he told me, very competitive. He was surprised to see me reading The White-Boned Demon. "Why do you want to read about this bad woman?" he asked. "She almost destroyed China." He then explained to me that Jiang Ching was Mao's second wife. I told him that she was actually his fourth. He looked at me with the "mad foreigner" expression I've grown accustomed to in the People's Republic.

Hangzhou, he tells me, is "the most beautiful city in China". On arrival at the train station, it looks like every other Chinese city I've been to - concrete and haze. However, a short if hairy taxi ride takes you to the area around the West Lake, which is very pretty indeed, if shrouded by the omnipresent pollution-induced mist. This is one of China's ancient capitals, and the city where Zhou Yingtai and Liang Shanbo (the Butterfly Lovers whose Yueju story we use in Dis-Orientations) met and fell in love. It also has a very famous cuisine, with fish from the lake cooked in a sugar and vinegar sauce a speciality. I try this on Saturday night at the Louwailou restaurant on Gushan Island, with a photo of Zhou Enlai having the same meal in the same room over my head, which appeals. For Sunday lunch, I sampled Dongpo pork, which is unbelievably fatty, but tasty with it!

I sit by the lake with the video camera running, just in case I find we want to have a Hangzhou scene in Re-Orientations. That is, assuming it ever happens. The down side of this trip has been the way in which the bringing of the existing play to China has totally eclipsed the idea of making a new one, to the extent that I'm not sure we're even eligible for some of the funds we've applied for towards this. I feel a strong artistic need to make the third part - but it may be that it ends up being a separate piece again, which doesn't get performed as a full Trilogy. Wait and see.....

Although Chinese people seem to work a seven-day week, my schedule is actually quite light for this bit of the trip. Hangzhou really is just a bit of research and some sight-seeing. I take in the Lingyin Temple (a Zen Buddhist monastery) with its amazing ancient statues carved into the mountain beside it, known as the Peak Flying from Afar, because (intriguingly) the mountain, like the religion, was supposed to have been transported from India. These links between China and India are very interesting in view of Re-Orientations. Of course, the famous Journey to the West is all about a trip to collect Buddhist texts. There's an allusion to this in The White-Boned Demon: Jiang Ching once sent Mao a note of apology for one of her rages, which was a quotation from the book. Like Monkey, when the monk has left him to go to India, she writes "My body is in Water Curtain Cave, but my heart is following you."

I visit the National Tea Museum in Hangzhou, where I fall into conversation with a young Russian woman called Masha, in China for a year to learn Chinese so she can get better at her job (which seems to be something like a high-powered economic consultant to governments the world over). She's been reading Xinran's books, and tells me how much the accounts of the 50s and 60s in China remind her of her own family history in Stalinist Russia. Her grandparents were condemned and transported to Khazakstan (where she, no Borat, was born), because they had owned a couple of chickens and cows, which made them bourgeois. Failing to find a taxi, we take a bus together back into the city centre - the tea museum is set among tea plantations. Like many spaces in modern China, the bus has TV playing on it. This one is showing a Western documentary about medieval ideas, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Strangely enough, nobody seems to be watching.

I take the overnight train to Beijing, and am able to get online again! Last time I came to this city, I wrote in this blog about it being shrouded in perpetual haze. This time it's back with a vengeance, accompanied by snow. Visibility is very limited. I catch up on admin, then take the tube to the Confucian Temple in Dongcheng. In Ningbo, one of the staff, Brian Hilton, said that I should read up a bit on Confucius - since he was making the same points about dialogue as the means to the discovery of truth that I said I admired in Plato; and round about the same time as Plato too. Unlike the Buddhist Lama Temple and the Taoist Dongyue Temple which I visited two years ago, this one has virtually no religious use any more, since it was associated so intimately with the Imperial cult - although I do see one man fall to his knees for a furtive prayer, and there are some offerings in the main hall. But it's nothing compared to all the bowing, praying and incense burning I saw at Lingyin yesterday. The guide book explains that ceremonies ended in 1948 (pretty obvious why), but were brought back in 1989 "as a tourist programme".

This is also the area where you can still see Beijing's traditional hutongs; most of which have been flattened in the drive towards "modernization", and particularly to make way for next year's Olympics. I walk through the back streets, and peer into the courtyards of these traditional communal living spaces. People cycle up and down the lanes, cutting through the haze, and buy dumplings from the street vendor. If these hutongs go too, what will happen to these people?

Friday, December 07, 2007


I took a short internal flight yesterday from Shanghai to Ningbo. No, I'd never heard of it either, but it turns out to be a huge, largely industrial city and port on the Yangtze delta. It boasts seven thousand years of history, but you wouldn't think so to look at the centre, which is like a Chinese version of Milton Keynes. Still, the cultural heritage is very much alive, and Director You got quite excited when he heard I was coming here. This is the region from which Yueju originated, before it really took off in Shanghai, and there's an ongoing loyalty to and love of the form here. Also, Ningbo boasts a campus of the University of Nottingham, which (with rumours of further outposts in India and Mexico) seems intent on global domination. The campus, with its very disconcerting replica of the Trent building in Nottingham, has so far been (perhaps inevitably) dominated by Business Studies and Accounting - but just recently has branched out into fields like Literature and Linguistics. And that's why our Literary Advisor and former board member, the Mauritian academic Roshni Mooneeram, is now working here.

Roshni is planning a conference on Intercultural approaches to Shakespeare for next year, and we spend some of the morning discussing it. I'm pleased to be able to point her to some interesting Chinese theatre-makers, once of whom, Lin Zhaohua, has a production of Coriolanus running in Beijing at the moment. I had hoped to see it - but I'm only going to be in Beijing on Monday night, and that's the only night it doesn't play. Maybe I'll get to sample his work here next year.... The conference in in September, so it may well be I'll be here anyway. Let's hope.

Don, who teaches Computing, takes Walter (a visiting Dutch academic) and myself to a tea house for what was meant to be a morning tea and develops into lunch. That gives you an idea of the rhythm of the place. Nothing is even remotely close to hurried. The tea itself is supposed to be calming, and perhaps it is, but I suspect that the ritual which surrounds the tea is every bit as important to the mellowing process. You get to this tea house through a James Bond entrance in a very unprepossessing lift - and suddenly you are in another world of indoor streams and curtained alcoves. The waitresses pour the various infusions into clay pots, using all manner of complex tactics to maximize heat and seal the aroma. After a couple of hours, during which we've talked about everything, we've become serious tea junkies. Wonderfully, they charge us the equivalent of £10 for the tea, and all the food is thrown in for free. Incredible.

Tonight, I give a talk to Staff and Students at the campus. The topic is "Cross-Cultural Collaboration in the Theatre", and this obviously means talking a lot about making Dis-Orientations, and the particular fascination and pitfalls of working with Chinese artists. As a sampler for presenting the show here, the talk is a very useful litmus test. For one thing, it's very well attended, and there are loads of questions at the end. The right questions too. Also, the temperature in the room gets very high as I show them some of the scenes. They're wowed by Ieng Un as Jiang Ching (and this is only on an OK-ish DVD), and excited by the Yueju and the ballet. But the incredible moment is when I show them the scene of Julian and Sammy's gay encounter. The tension is palpable - they've clearly never seen something like this before. One male voice hisses "Stop!" - not as a command, but as if he can't control himself. But nobody voices any objection - the questions are not about whether such material is accurate or appropriate, but only whether it will be allowed. I can only answer that I've been told we can imply such things provided they are not shown explicitly, and that from the research done into the subject, it is something which needs to be talked about.

There's a queue of students who want to talk to me privately afterwards - and it's in many ways a relief to add that it's how to make cross-cultural performance that is on their minds.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mr. President

Now I know how Nixon felt.

At 9.30 this morning, Director You (my Zhou Enlai for the day) appears in the hotel lobby with a huge car, in which we are driven across town. No translator, so we just keep smiling at one another politely and uncomprehendingly. Just after 10, we are in the very fast lift of the Yihai Building, being rocketed up to the 24th floor, where we are met by Forrina Chen (playing Nancy Tang for the day). I met Forrina in Hong Kong back in March: she's in the "International Liaison Department" of the China Shanghai International Arts Festival. And (thank god) is perfectly bi-lingual.

Forrina shows us into a vast meeting room, around the walls of which are huge armchairs, into which we sink. Mine is just to the right of the room's centre. There's a table in the very centre of the wall, which has a big pot-plant on it. Director You is seated to my right, and Forrina takes a chair to the left, leaving the centre-left space for the President. Then Mr Chen Sheng Lai arrives. He says "Hello" and I say "Ni hua", and from then on we're dependent on Forrina. It's just as well, because we both sink quite deeply into the chairs, and so we can't really look at each other, but end up playing hide and seek with our eyes around the pot plant. Or stare into the empty space in the middle of the room. It all feels just like the scene in Mao's library from Nixon in China.... So much so that even the photographer appears, and we all rise to our feet and stand in an awkward smiling line to mark the momentous intercultural encounter.

Luckily, what is actually being said at the meeting is all rather useful. Mr Chen likes the idea of a cross-cultural collaboration in theatre - they've only done this with music before - and the presence of Zhang Ruihong makes it a sure seller. He's intrigued about the ways we handle language in the production, and he like the thought of a piece set in contemporary Shanghai with Western performers, which also draws off the traditional culture here. He asks some astute questions about why we wanted to work with Yueju: I give quite a complicated answer about gender, identity and the changing world - I have no way of telling how Forrina translates this, but both President Chen and Director You nod sagely, so it must have been convincing on some level. I decide that I'd better take the opportunity to pre-empt any possible difficulties later on, and tell them that I've taken on board Mr Ke Yasha's recommendations about ways of making the piece more "suitable for a Chinese audience" - which means dealing with sexual and political content in a subtle way. More sagely nodding. I'm beginning to think this might just happen....

DVDs are taken, and I suppose much depends on these. I hope they can play them more readily than I could on the laptop yesterday.... Then Mr Chen give me a copy of the Festival programme for this year. It's a 200 page coffee-table book, bound in hard covers, with every page in full colour. And the list of performances is extraordinary. This explains the Presidential suite - it's the largest Festival in China, and one of the largest in the world. And here are we being backed by the Yue Opera Company, one of their main collaborators, to be a part of it.

I only hope they like that DVD.....

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

City for Sale

I got that phrase from Ross Terrill's biography of Mme. Mao - The White-Boned Demon. It was used to describe Shanghai in the 30s, and seems every bit as apposite now. If anything, the rampant capitalism, with all its bizarre inequalities and contradictions (known as "Chinese characteristics") seems even more extreme than it was when I was here two years ago. Certainly the number of people who accost me on the street with a heavily accented "Hello - watch-bag-DVD?" has increased many-fold; although the targeting of the foreign devil has still not quite reached Indian or Zimbabwean proportions. The pimping, on the other hand, is in a league of its own. "Want girl? Boy?" is the frequent mantra on the open street. Prostitution is supposed to be illegal in China. But the activity of the pimps, and the ads for "massage" in classy ex-pat magazines like Talk Shanghai suggest the city isn't far away from its 1930s position in this regard either. When Lan Ping (later Jiang Ching) came here in 1933, one person in 130 was a prostitute (compared with London's one in 960, and decadent Weimar Berlin's one in 580).

I spend much of the day trundling around the place, watching its extraordinary way of living, as I wait for more crucial meetings tomorrow. I find my way back to the Foreign Languages Bookshop on Fuzhou Road (long famed for the Yifu theatre, where I saw the Yueju performances two years ago, for books and art, and in the 1930s for the inevitable brothels, though those have now gone underground). It was here I found the hilarious World Talk CD, which we used for the language-learning scene in Dis-Orientations, and which sadly got lost along the way. I'm not able to replace it precisely, but I do find an English-language CD produced in Shanghai (called Real Talk), and a really promising couple of tapes called One Breath English Speeches, which promise such delights as "How to break up peacefully" and "How to live a colourful life". Since talking to Ruihong and Director You yesterday, I've been fired up creatively by the now very real possibility of bringing the show here, and I want to move it forward, both to make it inherently stronger and to make it more readily understood by a Chinese audience. More Chinese language, for a start, I suppose. Maybe I'd better start taking this language-learning business seriously myself!

I find a much needed oasis of calm in the Yuyuan Gardens - a Ming garden which somehow survived the Cultural Revolution. Spaces like this, the occasional sight of people doing Tai-chi in a city park, or the yueju itself, are little reminders of the still spiritual heart of Chinese culture, which is still there, buried under the surface of wild cupidity. It's this tension which fascinates me, and which I want to explore through the piece. The search for real value.

Then I get onto the Metro at rush hour. Big mistake. This is a city of 17 million people. Most of them were in the same carriage as I was.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sleepwalking in Shanghai

Two years ago, when I last wrote this blog in mainland China, I said that it wasn't possible to read it there. As if by magic, it suddenly was - suggesting that somebody was watching carefully. So -I'll try the same thing again. Mr Censor, if you're looking, I don't think there's anything here you should find too objectionable. Other sites that are barred make some sort of sense - I've not been able to look at much news from the UK, for example - but the Border Crossings blog? Really?

Anyway - I can still write it for folk back home.

I was wrong about the Astor House Hotel - as I discovered when I checked out this morning. It was actually remarkably good value for the vast room and the very good breakfast. I'd been freaked by the official room rate - what I'd got online was the discounted one. I was too chicken to bottle out once I'd been given the bill.... and in any case the hotel I moved to was the same one I used two years ago: very close to the Yue Opera Company's HQ, and even less costly for a perfectly decent place. It's called the Nan Ying, and it feels quite nostalgic, especially since it gets an honorary mention in Dis-Orientations.

Heavy with jet-lag, my body screaming that it's 2am in London, I go with a young man from the British Council, Du Wei, to meet Director You. He's as charming as ever, through the lengthy process of translation, and seems very excited about what we can do to develop the work further. Ruihong arrives and joins us: great to see her again. We joke that we meet once a year. Oddly, if what we're thinking about now pays off, then this will turn out to be true for next year as well.

Director You wants to bring Dis-Orientations back to China, ideally as a presentation in the Shanghai Festival, with a tour of other venues (perhaps especially universities). This is wonderful - exactly what Ke Yasha and I discussed just after the show finished in London. He's less keen on developing a third play and showing all three - not least because I suspect he doesn't want Ruihong to leave China for a long time again. Fair enough. I can re-think plans for the third piece, and work out for myself hat's the best way to round this off. But the opportunity to present something so innovative and daring to a Chinese audience during the Olympic year is just too good to pass up. There's many a slip of course - like just who's going to pay for all this.... but the goodwill is palpable, and I suspect, if we get a positive response from the Festival, that this will happen. I also think the Festival probably will be positive: I met the director in Hong Kong back in March, and he was asking then if the piece might be available for this year!

We go down to the rehearsal stage, and watch some of the younger performers working on a version of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Gender games are much on show again: the main character in the sequence is a dan actor(male to female impersonator), who is mistaken for a real woman by a clown character. Ironically, both roles are here played by women. The moment when "he" reveals his true identity is fabulous - the young woman puts on her sheng boots and so seems to grow, as well as shifting her vocal tone and performance demeanour. As so often in these forms, the acting undercuts any essentialism on the gender question.

I've often wondered if they know just how radical their work is. I guess that, if they are taking on our de-construction of it, then yes they do.

Ruihong, Du Wei and I have lunch in a nearby restaurant. Ruihong is clearly a "star" in this public space. This is good news too: there shouldn't be a problem getting a Chinese audience for a production with her in it. I tell her, via Du Wei. And she agrees!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Back to Shanghai

Kate and I spent most of last week doing the accounts for the production, tidying up, paying people and making sure we'd broken even. I had hoped to get reports in to the Arts Council and Passage of Music - but the sums are complicated, and we didn't quite make it by the weekend. So now it has to be on hold, while I do another scouting trip to China.

I landed in Shanghai at 9.25 this morning. My body thought it was 1am, and I'm still struggling to convince it otherwise. Everybody had said China in December would be freezing - but actually it's about the same as London, and slightly sunnier. The haze is here, though. This evening I see the hoards of cyclists battling through the rush hour, their mouths covered with masks to keep out the pollution, looking like a variation on the stocking-masks of Dis-Orientations. It's this show that I'm here to talk about, and (just like last time) the Yue opera company are keen to meet as soon as possible, so I have to contrive a way of waking up tomorrow morning. This is going to be made yet more tricky by the luxury nature of tonight's bedroom at the Astor Hotel. My guide book for some reason claims that this - Shanghai's oldest hotel, dating from 1846, a mere stone's throw from the Bund, and the place where Chaplin, Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant and Bertrand Russell passed their Shanghai days, is a budget option. Being fool enough to believe them, I booked it online, thinking, in my mid-Dilemma blur, that the price I signed up to was for all three nights. It's not: it's per night. Needless to say, I shall be moving tomorrow to somewhere which allows my Connections Through Culture grant to seem a little more appropriate.

I'd not exactly had much time to plan this trip while Dilemma was running, but I think it's going to be quite exciting, provided I can get my head back into the Trilogy quickly enough. Walking around the streets this afternoon, the "feel" of China came rushing back rather quickly. And the craziness of Shanghai, which is so central to this work. The trip into town from the airport takes no time at all on the incredible Maglev train: it works through magnets, so there is no contact between train and track, and the resulting lack of friction means the train goes at an astonishing 430km/h. And now I sit in a huge, oak-panelled room, wondering if Einstein had this bed.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Standing Ovation

The last performance was on Saturday. We went out with a serious bang. As often in the past, it's taken until the last week of running in London for the word to get out about the quality of what we're doing: this time largely down to the Metro review and word of mouth (that mysterious marketing tool which gets ticked more than any other on our feedback forms). As a result, the Africa Centre was packed for the last show. We worked hard to get everybody in: there were moments when we thought we wouldn't manage. A nice problem to have. It was a very diverse audience too. Probably about 50% black, with Asian a nd white people too, and quite a few children. A little microcosm of London's Afrophile community!

At the end, I saw something I've not seen for a very long time. The entire audience rose to their feet as one and cheered. Wow. What a way to go out. A real sense of achievement for everybody involved.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

More feedback

The audiences have been getting bigger and bigger, and more and more enthusiastic. Standing ovations again at the Africa Centre last night, I'm told. Lovely. And Saturday's show is virtually sold out already.

Just before the pick-up, a very interesting director from Scotland, Maggie Kinloch, came in to see the play. Talking to her afterwards, I found myself bemoaning the difficulty of getting broadsheet press to respond to the company's work, even with a National Drama Company as co-producer, and the resulting uphill struggle we always seem to have with marketing. Here's what she emailed to me the next day:

"It was great to meet you too; I enjoyed the show very much and have thought a lot today about the show and about your work in general. You are doing really vital and dynamic work and I know that it can be hard when you don't get the press interest and subsequently the audiences are not what they should be. But your work really matters you know. It really does."

There have been lots of "Wonderful" and "Brilliant" comments on our audience feedback sheets (plus, at last, one negative comment - "too long - our attention span is only 45 minutes"!!) - but I think of all the feedback we've had, Maggie's words are the most valuable to me. She'll help me move forward to the next piece and, as Beckett used to say, "fail better".

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Listening to the Audience

These few days at the Bernie Grant Centre have been terrific for us. For a start, the audiences have been big and welcoming. And they've been very diverse, with a high proportion of Ghanaian and other African people. It's rare and inspiring to find a venue where the audience development work has really reached into a community and found a new theatre audience. Of course, for this show, it's easier than it would be for many: Tottenham boasts the largest Ghanaian community outside Ghana. As you walk along the road outside the Centre, every other shop seems to be advertising money transfer to Ghana.

Having this audience moves the production on in some very interesting ways. There are magical moments when they join in with the songs, especially the funeral song near the end. It's an incredible experience to hear the auditorium humming with the same music as the stage. The laughter here is in different places; the Twi is clearly understood; and the cultural references are specific.

After Friday's show, some Fanti people had a long talk with some of the cast and Steve. Steve and Seun reported back to me yesterday. They were concerned that Ato was seen to kick Eulalie in the moment when his anger and frustration finally erupt. I'd deliberately pushed the violence beyond a slap, since I'd been concerned not to get the reaction I saw on the video Awo showed me of a production in Ghana - the audience applauding the slap. The audience members weren't concerned that the violence was strong, however - it was the specific action. Apparently Fanti people have a cultural resistance to kicking, even in a wild fury, because there's a taboo against the foot as dirty, in contact with the ground. I decide to change the fight in response to this, and tonight Ato slaps Eulalie, then punches her twice. It's actually more theatrically effective too, since there's no change to the physical impetus behind his fury.

Interestingly, Seun says that it also makes him feel more comfortable as a young black actor. He's very wary of the cliched image of young black men in this country, and doesn't want to pander to it. This role is anything but that cliche, especially the way he's playing it - but I'm pleased that the audience have moved us forward, not only in relation to Fanti culture, but also in relation to our own.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reviews, reviews

The show's now at the new Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham: an amazing building, by (appropriately enough) a Ghanaian architect. It's very well run: the staff, who are the most enthusiastic I've met in a long time, were brought into the auditorium yesterday afternoon while we were plotting the lights, to meet us and explain their roles in the place. Very friendly. Many's the venue we've played in the past where the management hasn't even been to see the performance.

We're here for three nights, then back at the Africa Centre for the last week. The spaces are very different from one another, as are the audiences. The Bernie Grant is quite big - more than 200 seats - and has a very large stage and a high grid. The Africa Centre is small, with the audience on three sides and our improvised lighting rig. Somewhat ironically, the Africa Centre is the one where we are getting the more mainstream audience, while the Bernie Grant has done its audience development work very well, and is bringing in an African crowd. It's always great to watch the play with Twi speakers in the audience, picking up on subtleties and making them resonate even for people who've never set foot in Africa.

We've had three reviews so far. They're all on the website. The Time Out one is the most important for us in terms of audience building, so it's slightly disappointing that they only gave us three stars, while the others gave us four, especially since the other three-star reviews in this week's edition had far more negative things to say about their subjects than this one did. The quibble is with aspects of the writing - it seems a bit of a shame when there's so much positive stuff to be said. But I guess critics make their name by being negative - and they all come from the literary background that encourages them to look at text before performance. Still, with such good online reviews, and the promise of Metro on Monday, I guess we've not got much to complain about. Watch out for Monday....

Monday, November 12, 2007

Post-show discussions

Yesterday the Observer published a letter from me - an edited version of a comment I posted on their Arts blog in response to an article by Bidisha about a dearth of plays by black women. It's a bit ironic that what is essentially a whinge by me about not getting mainstream media attention is the best bit of mainstream media attention we've received. The lack of interest astonishes me - the audience reaction to this show is SO overwhelmingly positive, and the writer and Ghanaian actors are not exactly lacking in prestige; and BC itself has a full 12 years of track record. I do wonder what else I have to do. Of course, if we were in the Young Vic or the Soho (as we nearly were) then every critic would be there. As it is, everything depends on the man who writes for Time Out, whose review is published tomorrow.

Meanwhile, as we await the verdict, we've been touring round the country again. Two nights at the Drum in Birmingham, one at the West Wing in Slough. Houses rather smaller than on the first leg of the tour, but very "into" the play, especially on the second night in Birmingham, where I had the strange experience of being the only white person in the audience.

We've had a few post-show discussions along the way. Alastair Niven came and did one at the Africa Centre, and tomorrow we've got Aidan McQuade coming from Anti-Slavery International. On we go....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Press Night

Last night we finally got to the official opening at the Africa Centre. A packed house - lots of guests from the Afrophile community, including a Ghanaian family complete with baby, who gurgled through the show. That's African theatre for you... oddly, it seemed to add something to the show - there are so many references to children, and it felt rather like the background sound of the village!

Word on the street is good. There was a very buzzy atmosphere in Aunty Ama's Spot afterwards, and lots of people were there who had contributed in some way to this project - James and Patience Gibbs, Tessa Watt, Nick from the Arts Council.... I made a bit of a speech to thank everybody (especially Dzifa for the Ghanaian collaboration and Kate for making it all happen), and then got Aunty Ama to launch the Theatre and Slavery book.
We're rather proud of this, the first of our more discursive publications. There are essays about the play (a very good one by Awo Asiedu), plus others about other work on the theme: Julia Swindells has written about theatre in the run-up to the 1807 Act, and John Thieme has written about Caribbean work on the subject. There's the script of Mohammed ben Abdallah's The Slaves, pictures and extracts from Moj of the Antarctic, and poetry by Ama and by Dev Virahsawmy. And, especially importantly, there's material about contemporary slavery too. A very touching piece by Shikha Ghildyal about TfD work with child labourers, a Foreword by Aidan McQuade of Anti-Slavery International, and a characteristically brilliant essay by Rustom Bharucha, who as usual shows it's all more complex than it seems.

It's all going on at the moment.....

Monday, November 05, 2007

Back in London

Back at the Africa Centre, for our London opening. It's been a very long week! We lit the show on Friday after driving back from Leicester, then did a tech run and two shows on Saturday, plus a Sunday matinee, as well as squeezing in a few radio interviews! The good news is that there have been decent-sized audiences, with a predominance of African people, and that their response has been little short of ecstatic. We've had loads of great feedback on the research questionnaires, but I thought for this blog I should just quote an email which arrived this morning.

"I could have paid a lot of money to sit silently and watch any performance from the stalls at any other theatre but I chose to watch Dilemma of a Ghost at The Africa Centre and was welcomed into a world. Within moments of the lights dimming the stars of an African night materialised above us and I was immediately transported back to a landscape that was familiar to me. A chorus of women huddled in one corner wearing blankets seemingly in a trance and the gentle, rhythmic beauty of a Seprewa being played by a traditional Ghanian musician Osei Korankye in another. I was transfixed and transported from the beginning!

This however, was a very gentle introduction into the most thought-provoking, potent, vibrant, mesmerising, cathartic and communal performance I've ever seen outside of Africa.

It was directed using the Ghanaian style of Theatre, total and interactive. The style is called Abibgromma and it is storytelling using the language of colour, folklore, music, dance, mime, movement and spirituality. It was very powerful but not in any sense overwhelming, in fact it drew you in to the core.

The venue lent itself to the proximity required to tell such a tale. The Africa Centre in Covent Garden was once a place that sold slaves and this in part was the story, the Ghost. It is a tiny room with slim iron pillars that surround the hall decorated in Victorian Broekie lace (think Long Street in Cape Town) and provide support for a gallery. At one point I found myself metaphorically standing in the gallery, leaning over the ornate railing, in some African town. I could feel the heat of the sun on my back as I observed a street scene below (the performance) and felt myself step back against the protection of the wall into the shadow and cool, still watching as a scene below became more heated.

Although the audience were sat in chairs below I felt as the story unfolded I wanted to be sitting on the wooden floorboards getting more and more drawn in to the Ghanaian chants, music and action of the performers. Funny that, as the story ended the dancing began and members of the audience were encouraged to join in.....they're probably still dancing now!

The Dilemmas that run through the play are complex and stem from not knowing which path to choose, the past the present. How to deal with the past from a Ghanaian National's point of view, from an African exile's point of view and from a Western point of view. How to relate to each other with regard to the past, slavery and cultural differences.

Also, it was a Dilemma I imagine for the author writing about slavery from a Ghanaian perspective in English in 1964, the same Dilemma today approaching this sensitive subject.

I don't pretend to understand everything about the production partly because I'm not Ghanaian and partly because I'm just your average theatre goer, but I do feel enriched and mighty glad I went to see it. Its taken 42 years to sail across from Ghana and I thoroughly recommend you are there to take her lines and welcome her ashore!

This (in my opinion) was theatre at its best, this was how the legacy of a generation, the identity of a Nation, its culture, history, growth and change should be presented and understood and perhaps learnt from. "

That's from a lady called Lorel McConnell - to whom many thanks!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Heading down the country

I'm typing this in Leicester, during a break in our get-in for tonight's show at the Phoenix. Last night we performed in Hull. The best show yet, I would say - with yet another full house. The pitch invasion happened again - we seem to be converting the north of England to African versions of actor-audience relationships.

One of the nice things about touring like this in the early stages is that it allows us to play the show in, before a wide range of audiences and in a wide range of spaces, before the London press night next week. The space in Hull was vast and epic: tonight's is smaller in playing area, but has a bigger auditorium. After all this the Africa Centre may feel a bit cramped: but we'll certainly be able to fill it in terms of vocal and emotional power!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Pitch Invasion

We performed at Leeds University last night. A really good gig for an African production: this is the department where Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Ngugi wa Thiongo studied. Jane Plastow, the Professor of African Theatre, is there, and so is her predecessor Martin Banham, looking like Father Christmas and smiling benignly over the proceedings. They are celebrating 40 years of the Workshop Theatre with this season of African drama, and Soyinka himself is coming next week to see their work on his Blackout and Beyond sketches. So we're definitely part of something!

Steve and the cast do a workshop with students, while Fiona and I sort out the lighting. The workshop involves teaching the Ghost song. At the end of the show, this has a spectacular effect, when huge numbers of students rush from their seats onto the stage to join the cast in song and dance. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this outside Africa. Prof positive that we've crossed real borders here!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Images and comments from the Plymouth audience

These photos are by Neill Libbert. This first one is Aunty Ama - Adeline Ama Buabeng - as Nana. I'll intersperse them with what the Plymouth audience had to say on their feedback forms.
"Fabulous - very different from anything else I've seen."
"Fantastic performance that provided real food for thought and professional talent."
"Absolutely excellent. Great mixture of drama, comedy and music."
"It was great. As an African married to a Black American, I can relate to it."

"WOW. One minute crying, the next tapping away and smiling."

"I liked the seriousness and maturity of the themes, and wicked music."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Opening in Plymouth

Michael Walling writes:
I'm back! Steve will still be reporting on the show from time to time, I'm sure, as we travel the country over the next few weeks. He's been madly busy for the last few days in Plymouth, facilitating community workshops with the actors for the Respect Festival, and dealing with the streams of notes which pour out of my mouth during technical and dress rehearsals. We did a day of workshops on Thursday, followed by rigging and lighting the show that night. Nick Moran is an old chum, having done Bullie's House as well as various ENO shows with me, so we're able to work quickly with a shared language. It's just as well - on Friday we do the tech in a record four hours, which just about gives us time for a swift lunch and a dress rehearsal before the opening performance.

I love the Barbican Theatre - a converted church in the old part of Plymouth. It has the sense of community focus and radical idealism which fringe theatres ought to have. At 6pm I get paraded in front of the local movers and shakers to talk about the importance of intercultural work, and the significance of this production having its premiere in this city, which is twinned with Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana, and where the first of Britain's slave traders, John Hawkins, had his home and became mayor..... As I finish, I spot Kate Sparshott at the back of the room. An instant flashback to meeting her in Ghana last year, at the Elmina cross-roads itself. A rather wonderful sense of the whole thing coming together floods over me.

And come together it does, in front of a wacky, diverse, and lively full house. There are Ghanaians in traditional clothes, whispering translations of Aunty Ama's Twi to their neighbours. There are apparently staid middle-aged people who end the evening dancing on the stage with the cast. There are older people and quite young children. It all feels great to me.

At the end of the night, I talk to Awusi Michell, the young Ghanaian who has been looking after the cast here. She's been gathering in the audience research questionnaires, and knows how excited the responses are. She tells me that, like many Ghanaians, she studied this play at school, and appeared in it as the ghost of Eulalie's mother. And yet, she says, it's only in this production that she feels she's truly come to understand the play. And she's quite clear that it's because we have used both Ghanaian and Western actors, allowing the play to express and give weight to both cultures. I couldn't ask for a better reaction.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Lights, Camera, Act on

Time for the second full run, the costumes are on and have to be negotiated round the set, we have lights - sort of, and the photographer's in to take press shots. Put this all together and you've got a fairly stressful morning. This run was also the one where the designers and Kate the producer got to watch it before we go to Plymouth.

The problem with having people watching it for the first time is that it never goes as well as it should. And so, fairly inevitably, it didn't. Which was a shame, but it was all the classic things of pace and energy and costume changes, and all the sort of gubbins that give you a tinge of worry.

In the afternoon I got to go through the workshops that we'll be delivering in Plymouth and we've managed to put together something fun - and informative, obviously. And Patrick from Eastenders came in and all the girls said that their mums fancy him, whilst actively fancying him themselves - what a celeb ridden process this is.

And so we're on our way, one morning of rehearsals left and then it's no sleep till Plymouth. Though I will obviously endeavour to keep you, who are by now hanging on my every glib word, informed of our progress.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Notes, notes everywhere...

The first run through is just about the scariest part of the rehearsal process. It's at this point that you get to sit back and see what the audience will see - and cross your fingers that it works. It's also the time when you see most clearly the mistakes and the moments that jar with the rest of the piece - and if you're into that kid of thing, it's pretty interesting.

Thankfully, we're looking pretty good. The first go through, two and a half weeks after the first read though and four days before opening night, and everything seems to be doing well. Michael went back over the opening and tinkered to make the communication of the text clearer, but generally spent the afternoon giving notes, and though that took the rest of the day, virtually all of them were just reminders.

Osei only needed prompting once - I'm so proud.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ama Ata Aidoo video

Here's a link to a video extract of the interview which Michael did with Ama when he was in Ghana last year.
Greetings from a sunny London. It's the end of another week and our last full week of rehearsals, as we travel to Plymouth next Wednesday in time for Friday's opening.

Now, any reasonable human being would be feeling a little nervy about this looming deadline - but in the latter part of the week things really have been going from strength to strength. Since the mid - week dip things have been eerily smooth, Osei's turned into a comic genius, the set and costumes are all looking excellent and I've won three straight games of Oware.

That's not to say that there's not plenty to worry about, 'cos there is. I've still got to write and deliver two workshops on Thursday for the good people of Plymouth, but I'm sure a couple of sleepless nights and I'll be there.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

One of Our Songs is Missing

As I've written before, this play is a musical, with the songs and musical accompaniment provided by the company and the increasingly watchable Osei.

The songs are used for all sorts of reasons: to underscore action and scene changes, as integral plot points, to change tone, to enhance tone - and much more importantly to create a piece of theatre which is genuinely in the Ghanaian tradition, though with a bit of an international edge.

Everyday we go through all the songs as part of the warm up to remind folks of where they are and what they're doing, and it's taken a good week for us to realise that rather than having two separate songs for parts of Act 1 and Act 4 that sound a bit the same, they were actually the same song! It also took 10 minutes of Fiona thinking she was going mad until the penny dropped.

As soon as it had though it took about 5 minutes before there was a perfectly polished song, ready to go - oh to be so talented.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Happy/ Sad

Hello hello, for all those hungry for the Wednesday edition of the blog, I'm afraid I held off on purpose so that I could write about Thursday at the same time. That's because Wednesday was quite unique in the process in as much as it ended rather badly.

As I wrote the other day this part of the rehearsal process can be both the most painful and the most joyful, and Wednesday was pretty painful. Having only been been physically through the play once everybody started to suffer from collective blocking amnesia, not only that but in many cases all the good work that had been done previously was completely forgotten as we got into act 4. As a result it was all rather frustrating and we finished early and non too happy.

Come Thursday, however it was almost back to normal, and though it did take a while to warm peoples memory's up, after a while we were flying through again.

In fact we did so well that we got to the end of the play in the middle of the afternoon. What that did enable us to do was go back through tricky parts of the play. One of these tricky parts is Osei. His confidence is such a major factor that when he's feeling self conscious he is completely unrecognisable as a performer to when he is in full flow. He's also become something of a project of mine as I try to find a way to get him relaxed and confident. And with a week to opening night - It'll be fine...


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Our Poor Broken Building

The Africa Centre is remarkable. It's a 19th century auction house buried away in Covent Garden,where, apparently, slaves were sold. Which has fascinating resonances for what we're doing.

The problem is that a major refurbishment has just begun, which will no doubt make it look beautiful, but just now is quite a headache - literally. Now I know the roof needs to be fixed, no - one likes a leaking roof, but because of the shape of the auction house, we spent the morning feeling like we were rehearsing in a chiming bell.

In all fairness the builders are jolly nice and genial, it's just the hammers that make a lot of noise. Still, as this is the worst part of the rehearsal process we must be doing OK. The detailed work continues and is throwing up all sorts of interesting challenges and choices, don't want to say to much obviously, but it's looking pretty good.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday Monday ta ta ti ti

Hello to a new week.

We started this morning with a rip roarer of a warm up remembered from the snatches of bits from my work with Jamestown kids - so lots of early morning silliness ensued, and then we were off.

This is both the most difficult and potentially most joyful part of a rehearsal process; everything's been gone through once, it's up on it's feet and now it's time to start again. This is the point when we can see most clearly what the piece is going to be, whilst still having time to make major changes or just tinker. The work is detailed and enthralling.

Aunty A gave a bit of a star turn today when Michael told her that she could speak directly to the audience, and she suddenly transformed a stilted speech into a moment of flowing comedy brilliance. I was also rather fond of the moment when the chorus sang a passage as an exercise and found the rhythm and inflection of the piece.

Also I won two towns back from Aunty Ama, though I'm pretty sure she let me, I then lost one again but tomorrow's another day.


The Continuing Genius of Agnes

This lil blog is entirely dedicated to the genuine genius of Agnes Dapaah. If you are one of the several trillion greedily following every moment of this rehearsal process then you will know that Agnes can dance and that her dancing is a great digestion aid.

However, it turns out that she is much more than African rhythms' version of Gaviscon. Oh yes.
She is also an incredible performer. She's quite understated and generally funny and amenable and dry, but when she gets on stage she is magnetic. Not in a sycophantic - I'm working on the production and so have got to say that - kind of way, but genuinely. She's got a channel to her emotional core that bi-passes the need for psychology, or seemingly, even effort. She is also possessed of such incredible stage craft that she simply sets the bar for her profession higher.
She's ace.

On a slightly different note, I'm now involved in a game of Ultimate Oware with Aunty Ama, and she's thrashing me, but I haven't completely lost yet.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Sweet Soul Music

This play, it turns out, though it is a serious and seminal piece of Ghanaian literary theatre, is at heart a musical. Who'd have thought.

The folk tradition in Ghana is still so strong that songs, their harmonies, relevance and downright loveliness are producible on a rehearsal room whim. It obviously helps having some of the finest musical talent of the country knocking about too. It's my hope soon to be able to get some of the music recorded and put up on this blog and really go multimedia. There are now half a dozen beautiful songs in the piece and they've all come about through Michael asking for a song about food or marriage - gorgeous.

In other news we're absolutely storming along, having nearly got to the end of walking through the play - though as this is such a short rehearsal process, the more goes through the performers can get before opening night in Plymouth the more relaxed we will all be. Also Osei has again come on leaps and bounds again, after a bit of home tuition from the Ghanaian ladies and I'll not be surprised if Hollywood soon comes a calling.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ode to Oware

Oware is almost definitely the greatest single game ever invented. For the uninitiated it goes a bit like this: on a board of twelve holes you have six and your opponent has six, these are your territories. Each hole starts with four pebbles in it and the aim of the game is to get four pebbles back in the holes, in order to gain your opponents territory - pretty straight forward. I, sadly, have been on the wrong end of so many Ghanaian thrashings that I could have become embittered. However, I saw the beauty of the game, haggled a seller down from two pounds to seventy pence and invested in my own set, and am now pitting my wits against hardened Ghanaian players. And though I'm not winning, I am at least taking longer to lose.

This may seem a rather erroneous blog, however we discovered a new and beautiful use for this great game today, and that was to enable Osai to perform like he's never performed before. Osei, as he keeps reminding us, has never acted before. He's an incredible musician, but is rather nervous of making his stage debut. Today though during an intimate scene between him and his stage nephew, the Oware came out and it was like he'd been training for years. The naturalness he found as soon as he was engaged in a familiar activity was astounding, not least because his timing was all of a sudden fantastic, bringing weight and humour to the scene which hadn't been there before.

And it's all thanks to Oware, all in all 70p well spent.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

To Act or Not to Act

Sorry, bit of a pretentious title but I had to draw you in somehow.

When chomping down on fufu a couple of months ago Dzifa told me about the Abibigromma tradition, in which she and the National Theatre of Ghana Players, also known as Abibigromma, are trained. It all goes back to the times of village performances, when in the evenings people would gather round to tell and hear a story. At these events folks, having eaten a large evening meal, would start to doze off, so in order to keep them awake, the storytellers would introduce a song, which everyone would know and everyone would sing. Then dancing and musical accompaniment, until simple story telling being performance, with skilled versatile performers. I'm not sure she'd completely agree that the whole of the Ghanaian theatre tradition came about in order to stop well sated people from nodding off, but it's a good story.

Anyway, the point is that performers are trained in Ghana to be versatile and to perform. The difference between performing and acting is subtle but huge, and the effect on the audience can be the difference between being spoken to and overhearing someone else's conversation. In the UK actors are trained to act, to go through the six steps, and the Method and naval gaze their way through character development and performance - don't get me wrong I enjoy a good naval gaze as much as the next person, but there's a time and a place.

Great Children's theatre actors and Ghanaians perform and West End performers act - and I know which I prefer. So there.


Up and About

Today's the day it got on it's feet, and how lovely it was.

After the previous days of intricate text work, going through deciphering meaning and voice, this morning the performers seemed to shake off the memory of sitting still and found a fresh, vibrant energy in the space.

That is of course after we'd all turned up late - apart from Fiona the stage manager who is punctuation personified. A little bit of rain and it seems that London doesn't quite know what to do with itself. In Accra when it rains everybody becomes the sole of generosity, offering you shelter and lifts, in London everyone gets in their car and makes sure that they don't share their dryness with anyone - a cultural insight if ever there was one.

Anyway, once we were all there and the performers were up and about the action seemed to speed along. A really good thing is that we are able to rehearse in the space that we will be performing in for the majority of our time in London, so the performers are really able to get used to the space and respond to the atmosphere of the place. And the physical layout of course. Being an old auction house it's quite spacious and lends itself to being played with the audience on three sides and a large performance space in the middle. This will be slightly different when we tour, but here it creates a real intimacy with the audience and interestingly allows the performers more freedom because they do not have to be so conscious of being seen all the time, because as long as they don't stand with their noses up against the back wall, someone will always see their face.

I think my favourite part of the day was when we started looking at the action that will proceed the prologue, and seeing how hilarious the performers were without any words, particularly Auntie Ama - naturally.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Chasing the Monday Blues Away

Hello again dear reader, and we begin a new week as we ended the last - with a song.

I think a Sunday in grey London town might have got to the Ghanaians, who are obviously used to friendlier weather, and who led us all in a Northern Region dance in order to shake off all thoughts of the chill autumn days ahead.

We picked up the text from the start of Act 4 and worked our way through. It's such a full text it's incredible, and rather annoying, that Ama Ata Aidoo penned it as a 22 year old university student. There's a real emotional truth behind the text and the greater political intentions of the piece, it's no wonder it was an instant hit in Ghana. The only really surprising thing is that this is its first showing in the UK. Still, after forty two years it's incredibly fresh, and we are finding resonances everyday that makes the showing of it in 21st century Britain make perfect sense, from the clash of cultures, to miscommunication to the breakdown and forming of relationships.

Also, any days work that ends with banging drums and singing songs is alright by me.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Kids are Alright

Day three and we're on a roll. We begin by holding rehearsals in a corridor - a surprisingly excellent way to start a productive day. After the builders turn up with the keys to the rehearsal room we find ourselves back in the chill of the space proper, requisite tea in hand and the read through in full flow.

We are still working our way through the text and after the lesson in exsquisite Ghanaian performance yesterday it was the turn of our younger cast to step up. The themes of the play are becoming more pertenent day by day as the difference of style and background between the Ghanaian performers and the UK trained cast members becomes evident. The real achievement of the casting is that this mix compliments the play so well - the real difference between Eulalie and Ato and his Ghanaian family and their values is acknowledged by the real cultural divide in the cast, but the playing of the piece is enhanced by the way the younger performers are holding their own, diving in and taking risks.

The songs are also starting to really work as Michael is able to ask for a lament, or somthing up beat and two minutes later a perfectly honed and harmonised piece of music fills the room.

So, rehearsals are going well - so well in fact that when Agnes and Aunty Ama were given the afternoon off they were back in the room an hour later, singing along with everyone else - apparently all that London has to offer pales in comparison to a bit of a Ghanaian boogie.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Back to School

Day two and my head is full. This project is an education and a half.

After yesterdays initial read through we began this morning by starting again. Slower. By the end of the day we'd got to the end of Act I, but it was incredible.

The text is full, naturally, of references to Ghanaian customs and culture and it really showed why Michael had worked so hard to get Ghanaian performers in the cast to play the older characters. The depth of understanding that they bring into the room, from discussions of matrilinear societies and the implications of a man marrying outside the tribe, to why the extended family invest so heavily in bright children, to the songs and jokes and spirit that they bring to the process, has added an astonishing amount of depth to the text already - and that's just Act I.

The best moment of the day prize is a close contest between the guy that got the heaters working and Aunty Ama, who delivered her big speech with such vigour and style and experience that it garnered a day 2 round of applause. I think Ama may have just pipped it!


The actors have their visas, the rehearsal room coffee is fairtrade and the roof leaks - it's pretty much ideal.

By way of a tiny intro to this blog, it will be my pleasure and, well, job to take you, the indifaticable reader, through the highs, the lows, the smiles and the miles of Dilemma of a Ghost.

Considering the effort and energy that's gone into to making it to this point, what with airmiles, embassies and several kilo of fufu consumed, it's rather incredible that eleven people found themselves sat in a circle at ten in the morning observing that greatest of first day traditions - having a nice cup of tea.

And by lunch the Ghanaian's were dancing. It gives me great pleasure to be able to officially state that there is nothing better for the digestion than watching Agnes Dapaah dancing as High Life music pours from the magical fingers of Osei Korankye.

We even had a read through! And already the incredible talent in the room is obvious, it's very humbling to see people performing in a second language, particulaly when they do it better than most people do in their first. Aunty Ama is particulaly enigmatic - but then she did begin performing in Concert Parties in 1965 - so she's had plenty of practice.

One of the great things about this process is the challenges that have been taken on. From language barriers, to cultural differences to the sheer logistcal odyssey that has gotten us to the first day - and I hope that there are many more like it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rehearsal hand-over

We started rehearsals this morning. Already a fascinating and extraordinary day. And nothing like I expected!
We've always said that this blog was not personal but a blog of the company and its work, but we've not really put that into practice before. Now we will - for the rehearsals, the blog will be written by my assistant, Steve Collins. Enjoy what he has to say about the process!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

They got the Visas

24 hours of hell. I phoned Moses at the British Council in Ghana. Moses went up the mountain and brought down the tablets. Elsie phoned the British High Commissioner. HE took a personal interest. I also phoned our MP, who is an immigration Minister, and was told that nothing could be done......

So - at 3.30 Dzifa finally called from Ghana to say Visas were in passports. Phew. They fly at 11.40 tonight. At last.

But the point remains.... that in the 21st century we are still dependent on people like Elsie and myself being able to phone personal contacts, and that is sadly evidence of an unjust system. Part of the point of this project is meant to be that in the year when we celebrate 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade and 50 years of Ghana's independence, we can now relate to West Africa in a different way. But this visa incident suggests that there is still a major problem of status for African people.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Nightmare in Accra

I am not paranoid. There IS a conspiracy. Or so I conclude when Dzifa phones this lunchtime to say the Visa requests have not been granted, and the High Commission is asking for further information about accommodation, finance etc. Further information?? When they fly TOMORROW?? And the applications were put in on the 13th of last month?? WITH VALID WORK PERMITS FOR WHICH WE'D ALREADY SHOWN ALL THE FINANCIAL AND ACCOMMODATION INFO???/

I try not to die, and phone the British Council in Ghana. They will phone the High Comm. I will fax through everything I have. Hopefully we can save this..... I can't believe this is happening the day before the flights are booked.

All other problems, including one or two about contracts which would normally make me lose sleep, become as minor irritants in the face of this colossal bureaucratic obstacle.

I try to think back to Saturday night, when I was at the QEH, with Peter Sellars and Tony Guilfoyle, watching Lemi Ponifasio's extraordinary Requiem. So many things drew me to this show - Peter having commissioned it, the fact that it's First Nations work from New Zealand, the LIFT involvement, the idea.... but nothing had prepared me for its truly staggering beauty. It is less a piece of theatre than a liturgy. An act of remembrance and contemplation, and a meditation on our futures. It's everything I talked about at the ORIGINS launch - theatre which brings the deep values of First Nations peoples emphatically and powerfully into the present century.

A very powerful contrast with the chaos of contemporary bureaucratic hell.

Monday, September 24, 2007

High tech, low tech

I went to see the new Complicite piece at the Barbican: A Disappearing Number. Simon McBurney is one of the three or four directors in the world whose work I am always fascinated and excited by - and I had a wonderful night.

Discussed the play over the weekend with my old friend from India, Prakash Belawadi, who is in the UK for a British Council conference on multi-culturalism ("reducing the problems of the world to bullet points", he says). Prakash was Caliban when I directed The Tempest in Bangalore all those years ago, so we have our own history of intercultural dialogue. And it's really interesting to talk to an Indian person about a play which deals with India, and which avoids the exotic trap. We're both excited by the genuine engagement in the piece. Where Prakash has his doubts about the piece is in the distancing of time, rather than of culture. The history of the two mathematicians isn't explored in the depth he would like - in fact, he knows another play which he feels works through the same subject in far more depth. I see what he means - and find myself adding the question as to whether the mathematics itself, which the play works very hard to relate to the characters, actually comes together with the human story in any meaningful way. Is death really the same as infinity? Isn't it more like "finity"? Would it not need a deeper exploration of Indian ideas to move death towards the infinite?

A Disappearing Number is a very high-tech show. It's designed by Michael Levine, who I know from our work with Atom Egoyan, and it bears many of the marks of his history with Robert Lepage. And nothing wrong with that! The emerging style of contemporary theatre, technology-driven and fragmented, is a pretty direct reflection of much contemporary experience. It's a form I like very much, and which resembles lots of our own work, most noticeably Orientations and Dis-Orientations. So it's very helpful for me (as I begin to think about the final Trilogy) to watch somebody else whom I admire having a go at something similar. In this show, as in ours, the emotional climaxes feel a bit "out of nowhere". Miscarriages and collapses, like break-ups and suicides, only really affect an audience if they proceed from characters and relationships we care about. It's a temptation to throw them in, pursuing the easy emotional tug. Must be careful of that.

I wonder whether some of these things don't happen because the style, the technology, takes up so much time and energy that some of the more basic stuff just gets squeezed out. No danger of that with Dilemma, anyway. This will be our most low-tech show ever. I didn't plan it like this - but the combination of touring with the Africa Centre (which is deeply deprived on the technology front - indeed on the electricity front) has led us towards a production which could be done in an open space in an African village (and hopefully will be). Probably this will do me a lot of good, especially in the current theatrical climate. It's important to go back to the beginning from time to time.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Price of a Visa

Visas usually cost about £30, right? Not if you are an African person coming to work in the UK. We'd thought, having paid for Work Permits and couriered them to Ghana, that there would be no problem when our performers went to the High Commission to get their passports stamped. How wrong we were. It costs more than £200 for each individual to get a working visa. Compare this with the minimal costs to people from European countries and the like. So - there's another way in which we institutionalise racism in this country. And people wonder why there are still cases of human trafficking, why the Morecombe cockle pickers happened......

Kate and I dash around town trying to sort out a way of getting the funds to Ghana fast. In the end, I have to take cash from my personal account and send it as a MoneyGram. This never feels very safe, so I'm mightily relieved when Dzifa sends a text to say she's collected it. Meanwhile, we confirm Colman Getty as our PR agents for the show (another of Elsie's brilliant contacts), have a meeting with Graeme at the Africa Centre to finalise arrangements about keys and so on, and hire a wonderful stage manager called Fiona Shepherd, having advertised the position in Arts Jobs.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Passage of Music

I was invited to lunch at the House of Commons yesterday. After Australia House on Friday, it seems to be the season to be swanning through the corridors of power. Strange to pass through the security checks on September 11th, but once inside you can't help feeling rather proud of the place.

The lunch is a launch event for the Passage of Music season, which Dilemma is part of because of the involvement of Osei Korankye, the wonderful seprewa player we're bringing from Ghana. Passage of Music is a season of events around the slvery anniversary, which use music to evoke the past, to arouse an emotional response, and to promote reconciliation. Exactly the word used by the Australian Deputy High Commissioner about ORIGINS on Friday night - nice to see such a powerful theme emerging in our work. Meurig, our contact at Serious, who are producing the season, asks me whether Osie might be able to play at the unveiling of a statue of Ignacio Sancho at the Foreign Office. I've yet to ask him, but it sounds pretty exciting to me!

It's a beautiful day, and we have drinks on the terrace of the House of Commons. This being lunchtime, most people have orange juice or water. With a majority of black people (for once) and several of us in African dress, we probably confuse the passing tourists on boats, who are looking for lunching MPs. A woman from the Arts Council makes a very good speech about the role of art in public life. When she said she was going to Parliament to celebrate the Slavery anniversary, a friend had said "Yes, but why are you going?", as if the arts couldn't have anything to do with politics. She should read Julia Swindells' chapter in the Theatre and Slavery book when it comes out soon: it's really clear how theatre helped campaign against the slave trade two hundred years ago.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Origins 2007

An amazing and exhausting week. I seem to have spent about 90% of it running between Sidcup and heathrow airport: we've had David Milroy and Trevor Jamieson from Australia, Gordon Bronitsky and David Velarde from the USA, Harriet Nordlund from Sámiland (Norway and Sweden), plus some First Nations people living in the UK, like Roseanna Raymond (who is Samoan and was our New Zealand rep), and Benny Wenda from West Papua.

With a selection of people like that around, bringing together ideas for the ORIGINS Festival has been easy - the meeting itself is a fertile ground for ideas. Add to that the fact that we did several workshops for the Laboratory, plus a symposium at Australia House, and you'll see that we didn't just meet as a planning committee (though that happened), but also, and crucially, as artists learning from one another's practice.

What struck me most through the week was the way in which First Nations theatre is such a strong reflection of landscape - what Aboriginal people call "country". We begin to think about how we might reflect this in the festival. David Milroy says that he feels the "really epic story" is not so much the theatre itself, for all its value, as the way in which the festival can contextualise that theatre. His own workshop is a case in point: David showed us an amazing selection of slides, tracing the history of his family and country through the last 150 years, and relating this very specifically to why he writes as he does. Images like the old rusty bed in Windmill Baby are suddenly made real and vibrant. We talk about him doing a talk like this as a sort of performance within the Festival, and about the programme including lots of landscape photos from the areas represented.

Film is also going to be important. Even during this launch week, we've been able to show a number of really important films, including a couple of UK premieres. While these don't do what theatre does in terms of immediate, visceral communication, they certainly place the work in a physical context which makes sense of it. If I can make the dialogue between forms right, then that will give an artistic cohesion to the Festival. One of the films we showed this week was Sunset to Sunrise: Allan Collins' film about the Arrernte elder Max Stuart, which I first saw at the Dreaming. It's so beautifully simple: Max just talks, but talks in his own landscape, and the beauty of the cinematography gives weight to the words. The other UK premiere was a film called The Secret War, about the current situation in West Papua. A deeply shocking film, which both distressed and fired the audience. I'd known a bit about West Papua since reading Jay's book and meeting Benny; but this 15-minute film hits home.

On Friday, at Australia House, we are able to show some indigenous films from New Zealand, thanks to Ian Conrich, and to have some panel discussions around the themes of theatre, First Nations peoples and the contemporary world. It all leads up to a rather posh party, with the Deputy High Commissioner welcoming us, and David and Trevor putting on an Aboriginal Welcome to Country. Nice to be able to respond to that, especially on Australian territory, since it means I can acknowledge the Aboriginal people as the custodians of the land. A first little performance for ORIGINS, and a first little shift of meaning and relationship as a result.