Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And a Happy New Year....

Just before Christmas, Penny, Seema and I drove up to Manchester for lunch with Chris Honer and his General Manager Adrian at the Library Theatre. It's a lovely, very comforting space, in the basement of the magnificent City Library. Chris has been very excited by the DVDs of the Trilogy so far, and wants to co-produce the whole thing in early 2010. This means that the trajectory of 2009 is mapped out in terms of preparing it: we workshop in Shanghai in February, followed by a period of dramaturgy with Brian; then we do the first version of Re-Orientations as a work-in-progress presentation at Goldsmiths in the summer, prior to getting the whole thing ready for 2010. I think that's a good way to time it - we can think a lot and not panic too much.

Christmas took me all over the place, including to Aberystwyth, where I managed to squeeze in a swift and fascinating meeting with Jeremy Turner, who runs Arad Goch there. With all my work on First Nations theatre and languages, it's as well to remember there are people doing indigenous theatre right here in Britain, and fighting the corner for minority languages. Jeremy will be in rehearsals when Origins happens in May - but is keen to come down for the middle weekend, and to talk on a panel about theatre and the survival of minority / indigenous languages and cultures.

The Guardian was nice enough to print my books of the year on Saturday, so I won't repeat them here! But it's been an exciting year for watching theatre and film too, especially at the wonderful Barbican, where I saw the amazingly contemporary German Hedda, the justly famous Black Watch, and Yael Farber's brilliant South African re-working of the Oresteia in the light of the truth and Reconciliation Commission, Molora. Elsewhere, I loved Yours Abundantly from Zimbabwe at the Oval House for its directness and its honesty, and That Night Follows Day at the Gothenborg Festival, for the same reasons. In film, I've had a great year watching First Nations films which we'll be screening in Origins in a few months: especially Tkaronto, The Waimate Conspiracy and Kanehsatake – 270 years of Resistance. Elsewhere, I loved Garin Nugruho's Under the Tree - which was also very valuable for the Trilogy!

See you in 2009.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hamlet without the Prince

Some time ago, Nisha booked for us to see the RSC Hamlet in the West End, knowing it starred David Tennant, who manages to be a very fine actor as well as being a star. In case anybody doesn't know, he's put his back out, and Edward Bennet, who was playing Laertes, has moved up to the title role. It does seem a bit odd to see a comparative unknown playing the title role in what is clearly a star vehicle - Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies..... but it's also rather nice to see an actor playing the part who is not at all showy and doesn't have a known persona to fill or undermine. In fact, he's very good.

During the first half, we were sitting miles away. The production seemed to be about the mirrored set, the sound system and Penny Downie's enormous dress. In the second half, because lots of Dr. Who fans hadn't bothered to turn up, we moved down to the stalls, from where it was a different play. The tourist theatre element vanished - and it became almost entirely about psychology, and was very beautifully acted. I'm not sure I like Gregory Doran's direction much: he's concentrated on the family play, and lost any sense of a radical edge in the process, so it feels very safe. Fortinbras is reduced to a token entrance - all his lines in the final scene are cut. And the "court" simply stand around and watch as the protagonists interact. But that's true of much RSC work these days - it's lost any social dimension.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speaking in the House

Thanks to the help of the Quebec government and a friendly MP called Philip Davies, we were able to give a lunch in the House of Commons on Thursday, to bring together the various cultural diplomats and others involved with Origins. It was pretty exciting to be able to talk about this in the corridors of power! I made a speech... I tend to talk without many notes, so what's below is a rough approximation rather than the real thing - but I wanted some idea of what was said to be available on the blog, so other people involved in Origins, and especially the artists, can have a look at what we talked about.

"At the end of Shane Belcourt’s extraordinary film Tkaronto, which will be receiving its UK première at the Origins Festival in May, the central character, a First Nations Canadian, refers to a prophecy made in 1885 by the Métis leader Louis Riel: “Riel said our people would be asleep for a hundred years. Well, guess what? Time’s up. I’m done being asleep.”

With the wit characteristic of First Nations people across the globe, these lines are symptomatic of a phenomenon I’ve encountered constantly during my research and programming of the Origins Festival over the last couple of years - an assertion of the present moment as a time when the voices of these profound, rich and ancient cultures need to be heard loudly and clearly in the global space. In part, of course, this is to do with a need to overcome the colonial past and to negotiate ways of jointly inhabiting the lands to which these nations are indigenous, and, more broadly, jointly inhabiting the global space. The 21st century has already seen some incredibly important steps along this path of Truth and Reconciliation - not least Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ground-breaking apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the crime of the Stolen Generation. These steps have been greeted with an extraordinary generosity of spirit: when Prime Minister Rudd made that historic apology earlier this year, the crowd of indigenous people who were watching on huge screens outside the Parliament building in Canberra broke into spontaneous cheering. On one level, the Origins Festival of First Nations Theatre and Culture is about that same desire to heal wounds from the past - and that’s why it’s important that it should happen in this city, which was the centre of colonization, and why it’s so inspiring that today’s event should be held in the Houses of Parliament, demonstrating support for this crucial work right at the heart of the British democracy - so many thanks to you Philip for hosting us today. As you would expect, when I told them we were doing this, the First Nations artists we are working with, and who will be coming to London in May, responded with the online equivalent of that spontaneous cheering.

As you will all be aware, there remains much healing work to be done around the legacy of the past. There remain problems of poverty and deprivation in social, economic and educational terms. There remain issues around drug dependency and alcohol abuse. But by showing respect for these cultures, by validating them as equals in our own space, we can join with them to work together towards their empowerment.

For the sense that the time is ripe to listen to the voices of First Nations people is not only to do with the past; it is also very much about the present and the future. Because First Nations cultures are not museum cultures or anthropological curiosities. They are living, vibrant cultures of the present moment: indeed, in some ways they are more aware of the present, its meaning, its potential, than Western cultures; because they have a deep awareness of standing in an historical continuum, of having occupied a particular space in a particular way with an unbroken heritage spanning some two thousand generations - fifty thousand years. How many of us can claim so powerful a sense of presence, of relationship to space, of identity? And from such a knowledge - which reaches far back, mythologically, spiritually and culturally - comes an ability to look far forward with a sense of the longer term, to imagine and envision the future, to offer new possibilities for this chaotic, globalised world.

If we are honest, which we so rarely are – then surely we must acknowledge that we have not got everything sorted out. The crisis in the world economy hardly suggests a global system that is functioning perfectly. The increasingly frequent environmental disasters, the unrest and crime in our cities, the disaffection of our youth, the disintegration of our families – all of this suggests that perhaps we should be listening to people who think differently about these things. The Hopi nation have a word for our way of living – “Koyanisquatsi” – it means “life out of balance”. They have a word for it, and we don’t. That’s because they have thought about it, and we haven’t.

And so we should have the modesty and the courtesy to listen to the alternatives. There is so much that we can learn from these cultures, if we will only listen to what is being offered. They can teach us about our Elders - because in First Nations societies, the Elders are respected and cherished as the guardians of knowledge, not dismissed as "past it" or removed from the community. In First Nations cultures, people look forward to growing old - in marked contrast to our rather feeble attempts to deny the one thing about our lives which is inevitable. In Ngapartji Ngapartji, elders from the Northern Territory, many of whom have rarely travelled even within Australia, will bring their authority, their wisdom and their dignity to the London stage.

First Nations can teach us about our youth - because in First Nations cultures the energy and strength of the young is channelled into the community through sport, art and cultural ritual, rather than being allowed to turn into disaffection and anger. Several of the films we will be screening, for example Alanis Obomsawin's beautifully photographed Sigwan, and the Oneida nation's animated folktale Raccoon and Crawfish, bring an audience of children into this circle, and so will Robert Greygrass, the Lakota performer appearing in Salvage, who will also be storytelling.

They can teach us about the environment - because these nations feel a deep affinity for land, and have a real understanding of its needs and rhythms. At a time when the mismanagement of the world's resources is leading us into an ecological catastrophe which we are only just beginning to understand, we have an urgent need to listen to people who can offer other approaches to living, which respect, rather than destroy, our fragile planet. Many of the performances, films and talks we are presenting in Origins deal with the environmental agenda: the Inuit viewpoint on the melting of the icecap, the indigenous Australian view of nuclear testing in the deserts, the Native American response to industrial pollution of land and water.

They can teach us about democracy. Because the longest-lasting democratic tradition in the world is not housed in this building, or even in Athens, but in the tribal councils of North America. And unlike our democracies, which can sometimes seem so subject to financial and lobbying interests that they are in danger of themselves being commodified, these councils allow everybody to speak, and rest upon the finding of a true consensus - a consensus in which animals and plants also symbolically participate, with people being called to speak for them.

It is this egalitarian democratic dream which, more than anything, makes this Origins Festival so exciting, so inspiring, so necessary. Because this Festival is a coming together of many people who are working creatively around these issues, assembling from the countries which are represented here today (and others too), allowing them the sense that they are part of something very big and very important, which is a global movement for change. Many of the artists we are working with operate in conditions of quite extreme isolation - Yirra Yaakin is based in Perth, which is one of most isolated cities in the world. But when they come together, and realise that they have so much in common with other people who dare to dream, then we see the strength of the project, then we see the breadth and depth of the vision, as we learn from each other's presence - not online, but physically, vocally and emotionally in the same room - and they can go back to the Perth, back to the Central desert, back to the Great Plains, back to the Manitoulin Island Reserve, back to New Zealand’s South Island, nurtured and strengthened to move forward.

And that is why at the heart of the Festival there is the Quebec theatre company Ondinnok's workshop on the Theatre of Healing: a space which will allow artists to interact on the most intimate level, re-contacting their mythic and cultural roots, and discovering what those may offer, what they may mean in relation to one another, in a global context, in the context of a changing world, in the context of our own generation's responsibility to the planet, to the future, to our children.

It is only in an artistic and a cultural context that we can do this - and that's why it's so empowering to see so many cultural diplomats here today. Because it is only in the cultural space that we can truly meet as equals and have a fair and true exchange. Politically, economically, socially - there is no equality. But in the sacred and democratic space of theatre where everybody has a voice, there it is possible for us to come together with no distinctions, with no inequalities, and to begin.

What Louis Riel actually said in 1885 was: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back”. And for me, that has to be the motto of the Origins Festival.

After two years of work, we are now very close to making this Festival a reality - and this lunch is, in the tradition of First Nations hospitality, an extension of thanks to you all for the energy, goodwill and resources you and the agencies you represent have invested in this project. As you know, we are waiting on a number of funding decisions, both here and overseas, and I should like to thank those bodies in anticipation!

Last but by no means least, I want to thank the only First Nations person who is in the room today - Rosanna Raymond. Rosanna is an artist of Polynesian origin from Aotearoa / New Zealand, and she is working with us and with the small but vociferous Maori community in London to offer a traditional First Nations welcome to the artists when they arrive here in the spring. Those of you who attended the launch of Origins at Australia House last year will remember that we were given a traditional Aboriginal Welcome to Country by David Milroy and Trevor Jamieson. Today, we are very definitely on British land, and it is Philip Davies who has given us the British form of traditional welcome. But I would like to ask Rosanna if she could respond to that welcome in the manner of her culture, and so bring the more formal part of this lunch to a close."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Practice as research

I've spent the last three weeks at Central, working with second year students on the PA course. These are not acting students (although some of them are rather good actors), but people who want to be writers, producers, directors, theatre-makers in new forms. Central, rather sensibly, doesn't offer courses in these specific disciplines, because it thinks students are too young to undertake these roles so specifically. Instead, this course is about opening them up to possibilities.

So, undertaking a residency with them is a great opportunity for Border Crossings and for me. They are flexibly creative, and excited about new ways of doing things. They also don't have anything to prove as performers, and as a result are less likely to be scared of looking stupid. I decided to work on some verbatim material, with a political edge to it. When I mentioned this to Nick Williams, our Arts Council officer, he said "That's a bit of a departure for you, isn't it?". In some ways, I suppose it is. But our work is always related to political realities, and is often fuelled by political energy. And very often the devised material starts from something documentary. If it feels like it's a million miles from what we've usually done, it's because I'd not previously found ways of theatricalising the documentary - I dislike the verbatim cliches of people pretending to be - say - Jack Straw. It makes it all seem too petty.

So I was delighted with this period of experiment, which allowed us to find ways of presenting documentary material without making it feel like a personal dig at anybody, and while endowing it with a vital and telling theatricality. We were able to work with movement and music, combining dance with documentary, as well as with video and agit-prop, with recorded and live voices, even with humour. I'm sure this will re-surface in future devised work. Great to be able to research like this and call it teaching. But the best teaching is learning really, I think.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quartet: A Journey North

I saw this Iranian production at the Barbican last night. It's the second of their Iranian season I've caught, and much more exciting than last week's rather under-powered Daedalus and Icarus. Quartet: A Journey North is the work of Amir Reza Koohestani and his company Mehr: I really liked his piece Amid the Clouds at the Royal Court a while back. This time, his love of narration and the need to avoid any physical contact between actors for cultural reasons is taken to a new extreme. In the Pit space, the audience is seated on four sides, with one actor at a desk facing each side, narrating very intimately. You can't even see the actor who faces the opposite side, and you get limited views of the two on adjacent sides. However, each actor is facing directly into a video camera, and they have screens above their heads, so you can see the face of the speaker, as well as footage which locates the play in the Iranian landscape. It sounds odd, but in fact it serves to draw you in to an incredibly intense level of performance. Even in Persian. The screens, of course, are the ideal solution to the surtitle problem.

This may depend a bit on where you're sitting. I was facing a performer called Mahin Sadri, who is also the co-author of the piece. It's based on a documentary film she made about an Iranian murderer - so oddly resonant for me at the moment, as I work with Central students on a verbatim piece about a killer. Mahin is an astonishing performer, and the intimacy of the presentation makes her feel very real, very immediate. It's a huge shock when, towards the end, she simply stands up and walks away, while her screen avatar remains talking. You realise that they've switched to pre-recorded footage - but the shift away from the live is so subtle that it reminds you how deeply we care about liveness, and how close our current society is to losing it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Ngati Ranana

I was invited to a Christmas concert in a Salvation Army hall on Saturday lunchtime. A bit different from my usual fare, you probably think... But this was a concert by an extraordinary community organisation called Ngati Ranana, which is a club for Maori people in London. Amazingly, there were well over 5o of them on stage, singing, dancing, chanting and war-dancing with total commitment and energy. It's very moving to see people from such a markedly minority group working so hard to celebrate their cultural identity from "back home". What's more, this group has been going for a full 50 years. One of their founders was there - an Elder of real dignity. And at the end she got up and danced with the grace of a sixteen year old.

I've often been struck by the way in which performing isn't an issue to people from First Nations cultures - it's so ingrained in the culture that people just do it. This Maori group had absolutely no hint of self-consciousness: even the men in their grass skirts. Fantastic.

Rosanna Raymond and I are plotting to involve this group in the opening ceremonial of Origins. They could welcome the artists to London in a way which makes sense to them as First Nations people, and show a clear link between the city and their homeland. Having seen and heard them, I'm pretty sure this will work like a dream.