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.