Sunday, June 28, 2009

When the Rain Stops Falling

I was at the Almeida the other night, to see this remarkable Australian play by Andrew Bovell. I really enjoyed reading some earlier work of his: I got to know a piece called Holy Day back when we were working on Bullie's House, because Natasha had been in it. I've been skirting round the idea of doing a production of it ever since.... I suggested it to David Zoob as something we could do at Rose Bruford, and it nearly happened. Maybe now this play has done well at the Almeida, there's a chance to look at Holy Day again....

If that wasn't incentive enough to get across to Islington, the production features Leah Purcell, whose film, Black Chicks Talking, we included in Origins. Her trip to London to perform in this meant that she was able to come to quite a lot of the Festival, and her husband, Bain Stewart, was able to introduce the film - of which he was the Producer. I'm very interested in Leah's theatre work as something we might include in future Festivals: she is an astonishing performer, as this production bears out. She plays a woman slowly losing track of herself through Alzheimer's, and nursing a deep grief for the father of her child, who died in a car crash before the child was even born. Oh, and the child has lost touch, and her brother was murdered when he was 8, and both her parents committed suicide. I won't tell you who it turns out was the murderer, but that adds yet more to the misery. What's more, poor Leah is hobbling around the stage on a crutch, with her foot in plaster, having broken it in a backstage fall. Given all this misery, it's amazing that she manages to be very funny - but she does. In fact, it feels like a surprisingly light and witty evening, which is remarkable.

The play leaps between London and Australia, and is set variously in the 1960s, 1988, 2013 and 2039. The bits in the future are very funny, with references to the extinction of fish, the decline and fall of the American Empire, and a global catastrophe in climate. But the real subject of the play is family, and the way in which we are shaped by events in our family history of which we may have no knowledge at all. Sometimes it gets a bit "clever", as when characters from different eras speak exactly the same lines - but more often it achieves great power by simple means, for example the presence of characters on stage in an era not their own - ghosts whose presence alone makes sense of what is happening. And this is a theatrical poetry.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I saw the Stone Crabs double bill of Mishima plays at Oval House last night. It was a bit of a reunion, since I know Kwong Loke (one of the directors), Wai Yin Kwok (designer), Yuka Yamanaka (performer), and bumped into Valerie Lucas, an academic who was in the audience! Small world or what?

The plays are very strange, as you'd expect with Mishima, I suppose. Strangeness is what makes theatre interesting... The first piece, Hanjo, is a three-hander, interestingly played by an all-female cast in this production. It's about a young geisha, who has gone mad with longing for her lover, and is being held by an unmarried woman painter. The gay subtext is very clear, and the fact that when the lover appears, he is played by another woman compounds it. The second piece, about a painter making a screen to represent hell, is remarkable. Yuka plays the painter's daughter, and draws off her knowledge of traditional Japanese dance in a very beautiful and characteristically controlled performance. The rest of the cast (except for the other woman) are Caucasian actors, dressed in modern grey business suits, and the effect is very powerful. Kwong says that the Japanese is deliberately written in an archaic style. I would have loved to hear the translation in a heightened English, like Barker or Barnes. This could have taken it into really fascinating territory. The translation into modern English just seemed a bit too banal for the exotic events portrayed.

Translation is notoriously difficult, of course. I met up with Al Parkinson earlier in the day, to discuss possible technical staff for the Trilogy, and we reminisced about how he'd had to supertitle into a English a scene in Hindi which seemed to change every night. Hopefully, we'll finally tie down the text this time round!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Endless Evaluations

One of the drawbacks of having been funded by so many different agencies for Origins is that we now have to do a specific tailored Evaluation of the project for every single one of them. We finished our own internal Evaluation for the board meeting last week - but it's not enough just to send this to everybody. For one thing, most of them have their own form they want filling in, and the questions are not the same!

Evaluating cultural projects is always a minefield anyway. What constitutes a "success" or a "failure"? We clearly can't measure the success in purely commercial terms: if that were the sole criterion, then there would be no need for funding in the first place. On the other hand, if the cultural event only reaches a small audience, then there's a real element of failure about that - it feels like failure. One good thing about the Festival from this point of view was that there were lots of clear objectives which we were able to lay down before-hand, and which made it attractive to the funders. So yes - exposing London audiences to First Nations arts, but also providing a platform for these artists in London, networking opportunities, artist-to-artist interaction, the generation of the legacy in the Participation and Learning programme....

The latter is still in progress. Gabrielle from Polygon has just sent me the flyer for the play which is touring schools this autumn. This was generated in response to a series of workshops between Roma performers and the First Nations companies we brought over for the Festival. It's called O Patrin (which is Roma for The Way). The title refers to a system of Gypsy symbols imparting knowledge of conditions on the road or showing the way. It's touring London secondary schools 21 September - 16 October 2009, and the performance lasts 35 minutes, followed by workshop (up to 90 minutes). The package, for up to 60 students, can be delivered twice in one day. There's a Resource Pack with activities and curriculum links, and there is no charge for schools! Now, how about that for a good deal?

Teachers who would like to book should email or phone 020 8368 1592. The co-producer is the Romany Theatre Company.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Death and the King's Horseman

I'd known Wole Soyinka's masterpiece for a long time - written about it and workshopped scenes from it on various occasions. So I was genuinely excited finally to get the chance to see a full production at the National on Friday. The play's only been done once before in the UK, when Phyllida directed it in Manchester back in 1990 (!). In fact, I've only ever seen one other Soyinka play at all - which was The Lion and the Jewel at the Barbican a while ago. This is an altogether bigger piece, and it is brilliantly done at the National. Oddly, I'd not seen Rufus Norris's work before - but he has done this wonderfully. It's very funny and it's genuinely tragic.

One of the most interesting decisions is to have the white characters played by black actors, who are "whited up" on stage at the start of the performance. It's very similar to the effect in Almighty Voice and His Wife - where the ghosts are in white-face for the second half - you sense the conventions of a racist theatre being turned on their head by a post-colonial production. If the District Officer and his wife were played by white actors, then it's almost inevitable that, for all the absurdity of the characters, the predominantly white, middle-class audience at the National would end up identifying with them. Done like this, the whole play clearly emerges from the Yoruba viewpoint, so the two-dimensionality of the white characters becomes an advantage, and their absurd, sub-Coward language is the comic relief to the rich poetry of the Yoruba characters.

I keep remembering our own production of The Dilemma of a Ghost - which had a similar aesthetic, though a lower budget! The presence of Seun Shote in the cast makes the memory very tangible.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Politics in Brussels

On Monday, I had a day at the European Commission in Brussels, at a gathering of the Platform for Intercultural Europe. I'd been interested in this initiative since it began (for obvious reasons), and when the invitation turned up, complete with Eurostar ticket, I felt I really needed to get myself and Border Crossings involved, even if it meant getting up at 4am!

In Britain, artists get very little say in the shaping of policy. There's the occasional consultation by the Arts Council, which doesn't seem to achieve very much. In the EU, however, this Platform has an official role as a consultant to the Commission. It's not only made up of artists (and is none the worse for that), but it includes many arts practitioners from across the continent (and indeed beyond), and really does have a role in policy-making. This was powerfully brought home to me when I walked in to the meeting room, and discovered a UN-like set-up, with microphones, headphones and simultaneous translators in sound-proofed booths. Given that this was the very morning when the European election results had been announced, and the rise of the radical right was made evident, including two seats for the BNP in the European Parliament, I was very struck by the level of responsibility attached to this work. If Europe can't encourage intercultural dialogue, then we know where we could be heading.

Of the keynote speakers, the one who really impressed me was Chris Torch, from a Swedish-based organisation called Intercult. He had a wonderful image for the role of the arts in contemporary society: in early societies, people used to gather in a circle for a cultural event, and the circle was broken by professionalisation and proscenium - our role is to repair it. The second keynote speaker, on the other hand, was talking very much in terms of the arts conveying a pre-conceived "message". I found myself banging the drum for the arts as themselves a dialogic process, as a forum which can work towards meaning in democratic society, and not simply as a form of propaganda. This intervention proved very popular, I'm happy to say!

I had lunch with two Slovenians, and Tarafa Baghajati (a Muslim man, originally from Syria and now living in Vienna). The Slovenians were laughing about the way people in the former Yugoslavia are now nostalgic for Tito. Tarafa tells us that the same is true of Syria, where Tito was the only world leader to be a friend. When Tarafa was seven, he and his class had to go to the airport to welcome Tito to Damascus. They stood for five hours in the heat, until he finally arrived. Then, they all released doves of peace into the air.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Tiananmen Square - 20 years ago

If you've been following this blog for a while (and yes, some people actually do), then you may remember that I first visited China in 2005, beginning the preparations for Dis-Orientations, and so, by implication, for the Trilogy. Back then, I was very struck by the way in which the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square had been wiped out of popular consciousness. Click here for that memory.

Not much has changed since, it seems. On the 20th anniversary, while Hong Kong held a huge vigil, the square itself was surrounded by police, and nobody was able to enter. The firewalls went up very high - nobody was Twittering about this in China. And this ongoing silence, this refusal to acknowledge so drastic a moment in recent history, makes the ghosts more hungry than ever.

Dis-Orientations refers to the killings - albeit rather obliquely. My hope is that this will get it past the censors, on the grounds that if you don't know what the characters are talking about, then this won't tell you. We now know that we will be performing these plays in China next year, so I'm feeling very aware of the complexities and responsibilities of our position as cultural ambassadors, especially in the thick of all the current news coverage of the anniversary. So far, none of our Chinese colleagues has even mentioned this scene as potentially sensitive; though they have certainly talked about the Cultural Revolution (which everybody is concerned about) and homosexuality (which bothers lots of people but not the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre). It may be that this is part of the silence. We must simply wait and see.

And not forget.