Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dream Reviews

Some very nice reviews of the Tahoe Dream production. There were also some not very nice ones, which suggest that racism is far from dead in West Coast America. It's quite astonishing how dismissive they were of Native American culture - which apparently is no match for the great Shakespeare... It just shows how important it is to do this sort of work - the barriers are still very present indeed.

But, from the positive reviews:

" Director Michael Walling’s outdoor production of this evergreen comedy begins conventionally enough, with the humans in modern dress (and soon the young lovers strip to undergarments), while the nature-spirits wear American Indian feathers and hides. (Titania carries a papoose.) But what begins as a cute costume conceit deepens into an elegant reimagining of this oft-produced play. Puck becomes a coyote-like trickster from tribal legend. And Shakespearean lines like the “the wolf behowls the moon” take on fresh resonance when chanted under the starry Western sky, with moonlight on Lake Tahoe’s waters. The haunting music performed onstage by American Indian flutist K. Mockingbird is an inspired addition. Walling’s spiritual finale (part Shakespeare, part tribal rite) is serene and visionary—and also well-grounded in the text. You may have seen other productions before, but you haven’t seen a Dream quite like this one. "

(Sacremento News and Review *****)

"What makes this Dream stand out is the use of Native American themes in a gorgeous outdoor setting.... This production moves from comedy into a spiritual dimension, presenting Shakespeare's nature poetry in a new light... It's lovely, almost cosmic... A fresh, satisfying take on this familiar play."

(National Public Radio)

So - as ever - the same things which makes some people rave about a show are exactly the things that other people hate. And that's just the way it should be.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Black Watch / Dark Knight

I saw Black Watch at the Barbican on Thursday. After all the hype, it was either going to be brilliant or unbelievably disappointing: and I'm happy to say it was brilliant! Theatrically, it was very exciting, with a wonderful blend of movement work into stylised fights, song, flying, video.... but what was truly invigorating about the piece was the way in which all this theatricality was employed in the service of a deeply humane politics. I've seen plenty of "the Iraq war is a bad thing" plays, most of which seemed to me to be stating the obvious. What was terrific here was that this was already taken to be the obvious - the consensus "back home" that this was "the worst western foreign policy disaster ever" was simply taken as read - and that freed up the production to talk about the human truth of the war. And so the play is less about Iraq than Fife: it's about male identity, about community and bonding, about belonging and about loss. I was reminded of Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme - in both plays, it becomes very clear that for the soldiers at least war is less about your enemies than your friends.

By way of contrast, the movie of the moment was my cultural fare for Friday night. The Dark Knight has much going for it - it's exciting, it's visually amazing and it's got Heath Ledger in it - and Nancy Crane, who was in Dis-Orientations crops up as a Nurse, no doubt earning far more for a few lines than she did in her entire time with us! But, as usual with Hollywood, the politics are very disturbing. Christopher Nolan's Gotham is far more recognisably New York than was Tim Burton's - and it's a very contemporary New York at that, with much imagery of burnt-out sky-scrapers and crowds running for cover: this is America post 9/11. The Joker is several times described quite explicitly as "a terrorist" - so it's particularly disturbing that, for all of Ledger's whizz-kid performing, he is given no motive. Indeed, Michael Caine as the butler and the "voice of reason" deliberately tells Batman that this enemy has no motive, but simply wishes to destroy, that he is evil. This has been the constant attitude of the right to the perceived Islamist threat, and it is a deeply dangerous attitude because, like the Joker's make-up, it de-humanises the "enemy". Add to this the fact that Batman invades the mobile phones of everybody in the city - and that when Morgan Freeman puts the civil rights case the plot proves that such freedoms are only taken from us for our own good by our wonderful leaders... and the whole thing starts to look suspiciously like an apology for the Bush regime.

Monday, July 21, 2008

First Nations writing

On the plane coming home, I finish reading Carpentaria by the Aboriginal Australian writer Alexis Wright. It's an extraordinary book - incredibly dense in its prose, crazy in its plotting, laden in symbolism, and somehow incredibly compelling. What fascinates me about this book is the way it shifts between what a western writer would construct as different realities, without so much as nodding at any notion that they may be different. Periods of time, dream and waking, politics and prophecy, the mythic and the scientific blend into one another with total disarming ease.

While in America, I've been hunting for pieces to show at the Origins Festival. One new play, by a Cherokee writer called Diane Glancy, has a similar way of blurring what to a western mind would seem to be distinctions or layers of reality. It's called Salvage, and it's being developed with an LA-based organisation called Native Voices at the Autry. In much of my own work, including this recent Dream, and the Orientations plays, I've tried to use theatre as a way of shifting between the everyday world and something more spiritual, more dream-like, more poetic and resonant. But what this writing from First Nations people shows me is a facility in this which makes the very idea of the distinction absurd.

Back to work this morning. New copies of Toufann have been printed, and our new office intern, Ro Lane, reports for duty. We do a VAT return, and post a large cheque. Billy Hiscoke turns up with some DVDs, and Penny is on her way in to discuss the Trilogy. Back to reality, then....

Monday, July 14, 2008


At the cast party for the Dream, one of the actors (Lori Prince, who plays Hermia), says she thinks that I deliberately look for "the opposite" of the text. At the time, I say that I might be looking for the opposite of what most people think the text is - but having been mulling it over for the past day or so, I suspect there's a lot in what she says - though I'd never thought of it in quite that way before. After all, theatre is interesting because it's ambiguous, because of the suggestions it can make to the imaginations of the audience. So there's no point in just presenting one thing - a "straight" surface. We need to find the contradictions inherent in human behaviour.

After all, everything contains its opposite. Love contains hatred, and vice-versa. Laughter contains tears: which is why people often laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. "Action is suffering and suffering is action" (Eliot). Sexual attraction includes a powerful element of disgust. And comedy and tragedy are at their most exciting when they turn momentarily one into another. I guess that's really what I'm trying to achieve.

Thanks to Lori for pointing that one out!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

American Dream

My production of A Midsummer Night's Dream opened on Lake Tahoe last night. Although it's not a Border Crossings production, it (perhaps inevitably) reflects a lot of the concerns in our work, particularly in the way we engage with Native American culture and spirituality. Watching the ending, as the cast go out into the auditorium with their smudge sticks, Kelvin plays his flute and Art speaks his Washo prayer, as the moon shines above them and reflects in the lake, is extremely moving.

I spent the last day or so of rehearsals wondering about the strangeness of the audience in this open-air space. Never having directed outdoors, I wasn't really prepared for the way in which the daylight in which the first half of the play is performed makes the audience far less passive, far more likely to move around, to chat (admittedly about the play), to eat and drink. To begin with, I found it irritating, until we got to Act 5, the play within a play, and I realised that Shakespeare himself portrays an audience which does exactly that. The Dream was probably written for a wedding, so the party element at Tahoe is very much in keeping with the play. Realising that, I began to realise how the early part of the play, which is full of conflicts, actually serves to subvert the conventions within which it was placed. Realising this, we were able to rehearse a much more jolting, intense approach to the early scenes, which really energised the play, and set up an inspiring dynamic between the stage and the auditorium. Space educates again....

Sunday, July 06, 2008

4th of July

I've never been in America on Independence Day before. The fireworks over Lake Tahoe, complete with orchestral accompaniment from the Reno Philharmonic, were certainly spectacular! But our afternoon's rehearsal was more so.... I had at last managed to bring a member of the Washo nation, Art George, into the rehearsal room. Art is quite a prominent activist among his people, and we've had a number of conversations about how this production can help heal rifts between them and the other communities here. We showed him our closing scene, the smudging ceremony; and then he told us why it mattered so much to him. For 150 years, Art said, the Washo have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands. Now, they believe that the time has come for their return - not removing the other people who live there today, but as custodians and guardians who care for the beauty and eco-system of this environment. He spoke of spiritual signs that this time was coming. And he thanked us that our work was welcoming and open to the Washo. I looked around the room, and could see that the actors' eyes were filling up. It's not often that our work receives this sort of validation.

The Dream is going to end with another Epilogue, beyond that of Puck and Shakespeare. Art comes onto the stage, bringing his shell and his sage. As the cast move out into the auditorium, he lights the sage from the fire. And then, as Kelvin's flute resonates through the space, he says a prayer in the Washo language, blessing the place, the land, the lake, and the people. He tells me that this will be the first time that these words have been spoken on this sacred land for 150 years.